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'Hungry' Falcons looking to move forward
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Vick agrees to pay Falcons $6.5 million

FLOWERY BRANCH — Michael Vick was back in the news Tuesday as the Falcons continued offseason conditioning workouts in Flowery Branch. But unlike last year when the suspended quarterback’s absence seemed to hang like a dark cloud over the team, the Vick era now seems almost forgotten by Falcons players.

Vick has agreed to pay the team $6.5 million, settling the remaining legal issues between the franchise and its former highest-paid player.

Front office members weren’t available to talk Tuesday, but the rest of the team made it clear they’re moving on.

That was the mantra last year, too, but these days moving on means something different than it did then.

After a historically disastrous 2007 that began with Vick’s dogfighting arrest and ended with coach Bobby Petrino’s late-season departure, the Falcons were one of the NFL’s most celebrated and surprising turnaround stories of 2008. Though they fell in the first round of the playoffs, 11 regular season wins and the play of rookie quarterback Matt Ryan has expectations high for 2009.

This year, moving on means managing those expectations and continuing what coach Mike Smith so often referred to last season as "the process."

Monday morning, Smith gathered the team for the first meeting of the 2009 offseason.

"The message was pretty simple," said Ryan, who was named The Associated Press Offensive Rookie of the Year in 2008. "Humble and hungry. That was kind of his motto. We’ve got to understand that we can get better. We can do a lot of things better individually and as a team, and we’ve gotta be hungry.

"I think it was perfect for where we are right now, because I feel like that’s the way guys are. They’re in here wanting to improve, doing all the things you need to do to improve. We’re hungry, and hopefully that translates into a good season next year."

For the second straight year, turnout has been solid at the team’s voluntary workouts. Under a painted slogan high on a wall that reads "Separate ourselves from the pack," Falcons players toiled the team weight room, working to do just that, running back Michael Turner said.

"Turnout’s been great so far for these offseason workouts," said Turner, who rushed for 1,699 yards in his first year with the Falcons. "We had a lot of participation last year, so I think guys saw that it worked and it helped with the camaraderie of the team. And these guys, we just love being around each other."

The 2009 team won’t be fully formed until the draft later this month, and Smith said further free agent moves are possible afterward, like last year when the team picked up free agent contributors Coy Wire and Domonique Foxworth prior to the start of camp.

It’s already clear this year’s team will have a different look. Longtime linebacker Keith Brooking, the last holdover from the 1998 Super Bowl team, signed with Dallas after failing to strike a deal with the Falcons. The team also let starting safety Lawyer Milloy and defensive tackle Grady Jackson leave.

It leaves the Falcons a younger bunch, but that’s the way of the league, Smith said.

"That’s the thing about the NFL — it’s ever-changing," said Smith, who singled out safety Erick Coleman and second-year linebacker Curtis Lofton as players who will be asked to step into leadership roles.

After an unwinding period when the season ended, Smith said he and his coaching staff have been busy evaluating film from 2008 and more recently preparing for the draft. All of which, he said, is designed to close the door on the past while learning from it as well.

"Just like when we started last year, when we basically turned the page on the 2007 season and everything that happened before we first arrived — really that’s our approach," said Smith, who was named the AP’s Coach of the Year last season. "We have a little bit of history now and what we’ve got to do as a unit of coaches and as a football team is evaluate everything that we did (last season).

"I can assure you over the last month and a half that’s what we’ve been doing. We’ve been evaluating every aspect of our football operations and we’re going to try to improve it and get better."

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