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Van Note: 'Everyone deserves credit' for Falcons' success
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Falcons’ fans everywhere are excited about and shocked by the remarkable turnaround that the team has experienced this season. After dragging through a 4-12 season last year, on in which Atlanta’s franchise quarterback was imprisoned on federal dogfighting charges and its coach left for the University of Arkansas with three games to go on the schedule, Atlanta was poised to spend the next few years mired in mediocrity. But the franchise bounced back and finished the 2--8 regular season 11-5 and received a wild card spot in the NFC playoffs where it will take on the Arizona Cardinals at 4:35 p.m. Saturday in Phoenix.

While the fans are excited about the season, former Falcons’ players also appreciate what the team has accomplished this year. On Wednesday, Times sports writer Jonathan Zopf talked with Jeff Van Note, who played center for the Falcons from 1968-86 and is a member of the Falcons’ Ring of Honor. Van Note discussed the turnaround, his feelings on last year’s season and how far the Falcons can go in the playoffs.

Question: You’ve been with the Falcons for a long time, how does this season stack up compared to some of the ones from year’s past?

Answer: The successful seasons are so few they all stick out. But the expectation level for this team was so low and for them to rise above it is remarkable.

Q: Ten years ago, another surprise Falcons team came from no where to reach the playoffs and make a run to the Super Bowl. You were a color analyst at the time and spent a lot of time with the team, how does this team compare to that one?

A: They are both very similar. Both teams had expectation levels that weren’t there and they got momentum and hot and they were able to surprise a lot of people. They stepped their game up and when that happens it kind of snowballs. They believed that they were going to win and this year’s team, like that team, has got the momentum.

Q: Both teams are also similar in talent level as well, with Michael Turner playing the role of Jamal Anderson, Matt Ryan playing the role of Chris Chandler and Roddy White and Michael Jenkins playing the roles of Tony Martin and Terrance Mathis. Do you think that has anything to do with the team’s success?

A: Like in 1998, the offense is playing at a high level, and what’s lost is the defense that is opportunistic. But having the ability to score certainly makes a difference.

Q: With such a loyalty to the Falcons, how embarrassed were you last year to say that you were affiliated with this franchise?

A: There are two teams that I want to win, the University of Kentucky and the Falcons. That’s where my loyalties lie. Last year was so disappointing from all the external things to the coaching staff. He (Petrino) set such a distant style from his players and everyone else involved. To see a team come back from that, where nothing is hung over and to cut a new slate is remarkable. Every one bought in to what they’re trying to do here.

Q: Who do you think is the most responsible for the turnaround?

A: It’s a combination of (Falcons’ owner Arthur) Blank choosing (GM Thomas) Dimitroff, then Dimitroff choosing to hire (head coach Mike) Smith, and then Smith and Dimitroff selecting how this team was going to be built from the coaching staff, to free agency, to the draft and the selection of Matt Ryan with the No. 3 pick. Everybody wanted us to take (Arkansas RB and current Oakland Raider Darren) McFadden, or (LSU defensive end and current Kansas City Chief, Glenn) Dorsey. But they decided that they were going to select Ryan and never wavered from that decision. It’s hard to have as much turnover as this team did and bring in all these diverse personalities. Everyone deserves credit.

Q: Even though all those people were in place before the season, did you think this year would be a rebuilding year or a successful year?

A: Rebuilding all the way. I thought, ‘Man it would be great to win seven or eight games.’ You kind of had to be realistic.

Q: They clearly won more than eight games, how much do you think coach Smith has to do with that?

A: I really like coach Smith’s approach. There’s an old formula to go 6-2 at home and 4-4 on the road and you’ll get in the playoffs. He had some goals for his team and he set them right away. He had short term goals that he was able to accomplish.

Q: With all that being said, how do you think the Falcons will do in the playoffs?

A: It’s anybody’s game. It’s the best team that day and who’s going to perform that day.

Q: Do you think the three-game winning streak will help the team succeed in the playoffs?

A: Well it lets them enter with some momentum and that’s better than coming in on a loss. We’re the hottest team in the NFC right now and the only one that’s coming in on a three-game win streak.

Q: But what about the fact that the Falcons have to play the entirety of the playoffs on the road?

A: It’s been done before, most recently with the New York Giants last year. You have to know that you can win on the road and not be daunted by it.

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