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Falcons soar with trio of newcomers
Atlanta Falcons head coach Mike Smith, right, talks with quarterback Matt Ryan during second quarter of a game earlier this season in Atlanta. - photo by Dave Martin

FLOWERY BRANCH — There’s the youthful-looking general manager, who could pass for a ballboy with his spiked hair and faint attempts at growing a mustache.

There’s the silver-haired coach, finally getting the chance to run a team of his own after paying his dues for a quarter-century.

And there’s the rookie quarterback, handed the ball right away because there just wasn’t any time to ease into this job.

Together, the trio of Thomas Dimitroff, Mike Smith and Matt Ryan took on a mighty imposing task: making Atlanta forget Michael Vick.

Michael who?

The team that tied its very identity to a one-of-a-kind player, then saw it all come crashing down when his off-the-field pursuits were discovered, needed only six games to carve out a very different direction. The team that was supposed to require years to rebuild after being dealt one of the most devastating seasons any franchise could possibly endure already has won at Lambeau Field and pulled out another improbable victory with a field goal on the final play.

Playoffs, anyone?

“Did I think we would win four of our first six games?” mused Arthur Blank, the eternally optimistic owner of the Atlanta Falcons. “Probably not.”

But that’s where they stood heading into the bye week, locked in a three-way tie for first place in the highly competitive NFC South. Quite a change from a year ago, when the Falcons were a 1-5 train wreck — their season already lost, their future looking downright bleak.

Vick, the quarterback who was so deft and nimble on the football field, couldn’t get away from federal dogfighting charges, turning in a guilty plea that would send him to prison for nearly two years. Before the season was done, coach Bobby Petrino abandoned ship, a captain racing for the first lifeboat while those left behind showered him with terms such as “quitter” and “coward.”

“It was a very difficult year for the organization, a very difficult year for me personally,” Blank recalled. “It seemed like a lot of years to me.”

Knowing drastic changes were needed, the hands-on owner got to work.

First, he bumped Rich McKay upstairs to president, handing the GM position to Dimitroff, a 42-year-old who could easily pass for a decade or two younger in both appearance and attitude. When he’s not scouting players and evaluating the roster, he enjoys biking and snowboarding and reminiscing about Grateful Dead concerts.

“It’s funny. I’m walking out the tunnel at Green Bay and I could hear a couple of fans talking,” Dimitroff said. “I heard someone say, ‘That’s the general manager in the blue suit.’ And the other guy says, ‘That’s the general manager? He’s too young to be a general manager.’ I kind of got a kick out of that.”

Any misgivings aside, Dimitroff already has shown himself to be an astute judge of talent and people, which shouldn’t be too surprising in light of his background. He spent the last six years in the scouting department of the New England Patriots, learning at the knee of Bill Belichick while apparently managing to cast off some of the less appealing aspects of the organization: the secretiveness, the suspicion, the win-at-all-costs mind-set.

“We can work our butts off, but we also need to enjoy it,” Dimitroff said. “I really believe you can be efficient with your focus and time, accomplish what you need to accomplish on any given day and get home to kiss your wife goodnight, which is also important.”

His first major decision was hiring a field boss.

The Falcons already had done an initial interview with Smith, the little-known defensive coordinator of the Jacksonville Jaguars, a guy who had never been a head coach at any level in his 25-year career. When Dimitroff sat down with Smith, he immediately took a liking to this 49-year-old football lifer with the head full of silver hair. Intuitively, the new GM knew they could work together, learn together, make decisions together.

“He has a sense of humility that’s very respected by the team and the whole organization,” Dimitroff said. “When you look at someone’s track record and they’ve dabbled in so many different areas, done so many different roles within the sport of football, that’s admirable.”

Smith’s first priority was making sure no one — not even those who lived through it — gave any more thought to 2007. He told them every job was up for grabs and no one would be judged on the horrors of the previous season.

“We have never spoken in terms of what happened in the past,” he said. “We’re starting with a clean slate. Of course, we’re aware as a staff and aware as an organization what happened, but not at any time have we talked to the team about it.”

With the GM and coach on board, the Falcons had another major hole to fill: quarterback.

After Vick’s shocking downfall, Atlanta recycled through Joey Harrington, Byron Leftwich and Chris Redman on the way to a 4-12 record. When it came time to call out a name with the No. 3 pick, the Falcons grabbed Ryan, the Boston College star.

If there was any doubt about the end of the Vick era in Atlanta, it was quickly erased when Ryan received the richest rookie contract in NFL history: six years at $72 million, including nearly $35 million in guaranteed money. Just like that, he became the fourth-highest paid player in the league.

While Vick is still technically a member of the Falcons, it’s clear he’ll never suit up with them again.

“I hope Michael completes his sentence, pays his debt to society, moves on with his life and eventually plays in the National Football League,” Blank told the Associated Press in a telephone interview. “But as an organization, we have to move on. We did that when we drafted Matt Ryan. Not only have we turned the page, we’ve turned the chapter and closed the book.”

Ryan has certainly exceeded expectations in his first half-dozen games, quickly gaining the respect of teammates with his toughness, passion, arm strength and mental acumen. He threw for a long touchdown on his very first NFL pass, then knocked over center Todd McClure racing downfield to celebrate. He looked like a rookie in losses at Tampa Bay and Carolina, but rarely makes the same mistake twice.

A 27-17 upset of the Packers in Green Bay bolstered Ryan’s cred immensely. But it was the game last week, when the Falcons pulled off an improbable comeback after Chicago scored with 11 seconds left, that really seemed to win over the folks in Atlanta — many of whom still wear Vick memorabilia to games.

After the kickoff, Ryan had 6 seconds to work with. Instead of just throwing it up for grabs, he rifled a 26-yard pass to Michael Jenkins, who stepped out of bounds with a second to spare. Jason Elam trotted on to boot a 48-year field goal that gave the Falcons a 22-20 triumph and huge amount of goodwill going into the off week.

In the club level of the Georgia Dome, two guys wearing No. 7 jerseys — Vick’s number — hugged and danced after the kick sailed through.

“We were driving to eat,” McClure said a few days later, sitting at his locker after practice, “and I told my wife, ‘I still don’t believe we won that game.’ It hasn’t set in yet.”

Of course, the Falcons’ turnaround goes beyond three people. Michael Turner signed as a free agent after spending four years backing up LaDainian Tomlinson in San Diego. Taking advantage of his chance, Turner already has rushed for 597 yards and six touchdowns.

The rookie class is more than Ryan. The next two draftees, offensive tackle Sam Baker and linebacker Curtis Lofton, earned starting jobs as well. Later picks such as nickel back Chevis Jackson and receiver Harry Douglas have played key roles.

“Obviously we’re a very young football team,” said 11th-year linebacker Keith Brooking, who’s been with the Falcons longer than anyone. “On down the line, I knew we were going to have a lot of success. But our rookies and young players have performed well under pressure.”

Just as important, Smith took steps to change the off-field culture, which was severely poisoned by Petrino’s brief but divisive reign. The Falcons went from a longtime college coach who felt all decisions rested with him, and that the team should do as it was told, to a guy who invites the 30-and-older players up to the office a couple of times a month to take the pulse of the locker room.

Nose tackle Grady Jackson was one of those who felt Petrino’s wrath. Even though he was one of the team’s top defensive players, he was shockingly cut by the former coach in the middle of last season, essentially a death blow to any chance of winning over the veterans.

After Smith was hired, Jackson re-signed with Atlanta.

“Look around,” Jackson said, standing in the middle of the room. “Everybody is more relaxed, more laid back. You can just see it. They enjoy coming to work. That wasn’t the case last year. ... Smitty is bringing good energy.”

The Falcons know they haven’t approached the end of the journey. Ryan is still a rookie, still prone to mistakes that older QBs won’t make. Atlanta may be tied for first in the NFC South, but last place could be only a couple of losses away. It’s certainly too early to start selling playoff tickets.

“It’s realistic, but we’ve also got to understand the road from here on out is going to be tougher,” Turner said. “We’re not going to be sneaking up on anybody. People are going to take us seriously now.”

Considering where this franchise was a year ago, the Falcons couldn’t ask for a higher compliment.

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