Falcons put an emphatic close to the Vick era

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. --- There's the youthful-looking general manager, who could pass for a ballboy with his spiked hair.

 

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 a devastating season has surprised everyone.

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. 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 was sentenced to nearly two years in prison for federal dogfighting charges. 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.

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 past six years in the scouting department of the New England Patriots, learning at the knee of Bill Belichick.

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.

"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," Dimitroff said.

Smith's first priority was making sure no one -- not even those who lived through it -- gave any more thought to 2007.

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

After Vick's shocking downfall, Atlanta cycled 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.

"As an organization, we have to move on. We did that when we drafted Matt Ryan," Blank told the AP in a telephone interview. "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.

Michael Turner, meanwhile, signed as a free agent after spending four years backing up LaDainian Tomlinson in San Diego and has solidified the Atlanta rushing attack. Turner already has rushed for 597 yards and six touchdowns.

Atlanta is near the top of the NFC South, but it's 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 they were a year ago, the Falcons couldn't ask for a higher compliment.

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