FLOWERY BRANCH — Michael Vick was busted. Bobby Petrino was a bust.
The Atlanta Falcons needed a new start, and so they’ve cleaned house.
Vick’s involvement in a dogfighting operation and a four-win 2007 season combined to force a makeover that began with the hiring of general manager Thomas Dimitroff and coach Mike Smith.
Some of the team’s biggest names will be missing when the team opens training camp next Saturday. The long list of players traded or released includes Warrick Dunn, DeAngelo Hall, Alge Crumpler, Rod Coleman, Jimmy Williams and Wayne Gandy.
Dimitroff, the former director of college scouting for the New England Patriots, made an early splash in Atlanta by selecting Matt Ryan, rated the top college quarterback in the draft, and signing Michael Turner, regarded as the top free agent running back.
Ryan faces unique expectations as he is asked to replace Vick as the face of the franchise even as some fans remain loyal to Vick. He’s also being asked to help shift the focus to the future.
"I think if you win, people will be happy," Ryan said.
"I do understand from an outsider’s perspective it was a tough year. I’m focused on the future now, and excited to be a part of that."
An early sign of acceptance for the new quarterback came when Falcons fans were seen wearing Ryan’s No. 2 jersey in minicamp this spring. Vick’s No. 7 jersey, still a common sight at the Georgia Dome last season, is the biggest seller in team history.
Many teams try to give rookie quarterbacks a year to watch and learn. For the Falcons, there may be no reason for patience. The sooner the transition to the Ryan era can begin, the better for the team to move past the Vick era.
Ryan doesn’t seem concerned about talk he could play or even start in the opening game.
"I think that’s certainly the goal, to prepare to play, to do everything you can to be on the field and play," he said. "That’s what I’m going to do. I think I did well picking things up in minicamp. I know there’s still a lot to learn. I think I’ve done pretty well so far."
The Falcons tried Joey Harrington, Byron Leftwich and Chris Redman as starters last year. Ryan could surpass Redman as the starter with a strong showing in training camp. Harrington also returns.
The best protection for Ryan could be a strong running game, and that’s the Falcons’ plan.
Smith, the former defensive coordinator in Jacksonville, brought in Mike Mularkey, the former Buffalo head coach, to design game plans and call plays on offense.
Mularkey and Smith plan to take advantage of Turner and Jerious Norwood as big-play threats at running back.
"Mike and I have very similar philosophies in terms of offensive football," Smith said. "We want to be able to run the football. That’s the cornerstone of what we want to do. We have the players that will allow us to run the football."
The Falcons also signed safety Erik Coleman, cornerback Von Hutchins and tight end Ben Hartsock as free agents.
The Falcons, making use of Vick’s running skills, led the NFL in rushing in 2004-06. Smith says the Turner-Norwood combination, running behind fullback Ovie Mughelli, could compare with Jacksonville’s tandem of Fred Taylor and Maurice Jones-Drew.
"When you have that kind of combination, I think it creates problems for the defense that’s used to trying to tackle a certain style of runner," Smith said. "Then the next play, or the next series, you’ve got to go tackle a different kind of guy."
This is the second new coaching staff in two years, but Smith at least has the advantage of not being surprised by Vick’s dogfighting case.
Vick is serving a 23-month prison sentence after he confessed to bankrolling a dogfighting ring. Police raided Vick’s Virginia property on April 25, 2007 and found neglected pit bulls and evidence of dogfighting.
Vick’s confession to bankrolling the dogfighting scheme came on the day of the Falcons’ first home preseason game last year, and the team never escaped the shadow of the scandal.
Petrino, who came to Atlanta from Louisville with plans for a high-powered offense led by Vick, quit after 13 games to coach at Arkansas.
The Falcons lost their last four games under Petrino by an average of 18.5 points. Petrino quit the day after a 34-14 Monday night loss to the New Orleans Saints.
The 4-12 finish gave the Falcons their 32nd non-winning season in their 42-year history. They have never had consecutive winning records.
It’s no wonder Smith and Dimitroff came to town talking about changing players and culture.
"The first thing is, you want to make sure that guys who come into the building understand what you’re trying to accomplish," Smith said. "Changing the culture is important and that’s what we’re trying to do.
"I want our guys to understand that they’re accountable for their actions and when they’re accountable for their teammates and the organization, then there’s going to be discipline. Disciplined football teams are going to be the teams that are successful."
Dimitroff said he learned in New England the importance of bringing in high-character players.
"Character is a big thing for us," Dimitroff said. "It always has been. It’s something that was sort of drilled in my head at New England and I feel strongly about.
"Going forward, we’re very particular about the type of player we have in here. I understand not every player is going to have a clean slate, but understanding we want to make sure everyone has that common goal in mind to be a team player, to be a winner, to be a team guy is very important to us."