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Falcons have clean slate, bright future


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FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. - The best thing to say about the Atlanta Falcons is that they have rejoined the NFL in a big way. A year ago, Bobby Petrino was king here and talking about drafting his former Louisville quarterback Brian Brohm for this season while attempting to make do with Joey Harrington. He finally bailed on his players, who generally detested him (remember the DeAngelo Hall tirade?), leaving for more big money to coach Arkansas. He never apologized to Falcons owner Arthur Blank and team president Rich McKay. He made them look like fools for risking so much on a vagabond college coach.

Well, the Falcons aren't fools anymore. And there's really no reason to be laughing at them now.

OK, Blank may have aimed high by courting Bill Cowher, Bill Parcells and Pete Carroll, but rejection left him with two relatively unknown but energetic and positive young football men in Smitty (head coach Mike Smith) and general manager Tom Dimitroff, who last year was the No. 3 personnel man in New England behind Bill Belichick and Scott Pioli, football's perceived best tandem.

Smith, a first time head coach at 49, was Baltimore's defensive line coach when it won a Super Bowl and then he jumped with Jack Del Rio to become Jacksonville's defensive coordinator. If you like Jack, you'll love Smitty.

Dimitroff is one of the NFL's youngest GMs at 42 and before landing the big office with its fancy exercise bike and a big bowl of fruit and health-nut bars, he was the Patriots' road warrior scout. A mountain biker who keeps an eye on the Tour de France, Dimitroff reminds me a lot of a young Bobby Beathard, whose passion and eye for talent built the Redskins when they were winning Super Bowls and also turned around the then-hapless San Diego Chargers 15 years ago.

Beathard believed you could win with quarterbacks like Stan Humphries, Mark Rypien and Doug Williams, but his evaluation reputation was tarnished with the 1998 selection of Ryan Leaf, the guy with a better arm than Peyton Manning and not much else. These days it takes big brass ones to draft a quarterback high in the NFL because of all the millions involved, plus it's a franchise-dictating move.

With that New England background and with Tom Brady a sixth-round sensation, Dimitroff figured to take someone safe with his first pick like LSU's Glenn Dorsey. But he knew a lot about Matt Ryan from Boston College and he definitely believes in strong, tall quarterbacks who will stand in the pocket and deliver. It was a signature decision, one made against the backdrop of Michael Vick, the former franchise star, now sitting in federal prison on dog-fighting charges.

Being a typical defensive coach, you would have thought Smith would have preferred a defensive tackle, but like his buddies in Jacksonville and San Francisco and Cincinnati, those former defensive coordinators all took quarterbacks with their first choices. It didn't work out for Del Rio, but then he quickly bailed on Byron Leftwich to elevate David Garrard. Alex Smith may cost Mike Nolan his job whereas Carson Palmer probably will be a lifer with the Bengals regardless of Marvin Lewis's fate.

Hands-on Falcons owner Arthur Blank is breathing easier at camp than he did last summer. (Jim McIsaac / Getty Images)

A lot of people I trust believe Smitty and Dimitroff made the right decision with Matt Ryan of Boston College. "He's off the charts when it comes to the intangibles," said Panthers GM Marty Hurney. "He may not look like he has the strongest arm, but he can make all the throws. When things go badly, too, he will be resilient enough to fight his way through it."

On a typical training-camp day, backup Chris Redman, who a year ago was selling insurance, performed better than Ryan when you consider he connected on two excellent deep throws. After a bad back forced him out of football and his chance in Baltimore, Redman played well for the Falcons at the end of last season and he gives the team a cushion should they not want to start Ryan in the regular-season opener against Detroit.

Veteran receivers like Michael Jenkins and Brian Finneran, who is finally healthy once again, believe in both quarterbacks right now, although most of the eyes are on No. 2, Ryan's jersey number. "He's pretty poised for a rookie," Jenkins said of Ryan. "He throws a good ball, a real catchable ball. And he always takes control of the huddle; he knows what he's doing."

Unlike the Raiders' debacle with JaMarcus Russell, the Falcons concentrated on finalizing a generous contract early with Ryan and the rookie has been around for all the mini-camps and OTAs, learning offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey's system and getting comfortable with his receiving corps.

Smith declined to divulge his plans for Ryan, but we can assume that he will play between six to eight quarters in the four preseason games and performance -- his and Redman's -- will dictate whether he starts immediately. Unless he goes in the tank or has a mental shutdown, Ryan is the guy. Dimitroff doesn't even seem too worried that another rookie, USC's Sam Baker, will be protecting Ryan's blindside as the starting left tackle.

Jenkins, who has communicated with Vick, believes the Falcons are definitely going in the right direction. Yes, Hall was traded to the Raiders and tight end Alge Crumpler and good guy Warrick Dunn are gone, but Jenkins feels that character counts again in Atlanta based on how Smith has approached the team and the players that Dimitroff has drafted and brought to the team.

There is no questioning that Dimitroff dealt Hall to allow Smith and his staff a clean slate; that there would be no hangover from the cornerback's antics from a year ago. Now, it may not make sense to lose a quality player like Hall, but when you are attempting to build a new atmosphere and work ethic, basically starting anew, the football logic is more than acceptable. No more distractions.

There is no question; either, that Ryan has fit right into the locker room.

"Not only did he sing his college fight song on rookie night," Jenkins said, "but he did an encore with a few Bruce Springsteen songs from the '80s. He did a pretty good job and had some fun with it."

With his new millions, Ryan said his first big expense was to buy a house closer to the city than this over-the-top complex, which is a good 45 miles from downtown. He didn't purchase a fancy car nor is he "going crazy" with any investments right now. The young man definitely sounds and acts like he's totally grounded and secure with who he is.

"There is a finite time to your NFL career," Ryan said. "Knowing that, I want to play right away, but I also will understand if I don't. All I really want is for the team to be successful. I don't think there is any right way or wrong way in dealing with that decision and how they prepare me for it, either. Plus, it's their decision, not mine. I will just work hard to make it an easy decision for them."

Ryan went on to praise the other three quarterbacks (Harrington is battling to be the No. 3) and he seemed to mean it. Who knows if Atlanta is ready to win this season with Ryan and new runner, Michael "The Burner" Turner from San Diego, but the Falcons are definitely going in the right direction. Smith has put together a quality coaching staff and if Ryan is the real deal, owner Arthur Blank will feel good after being betrayed by both Vick and Petrino.

"We're not going to be as bad as a lot of people think," Jenkins said.

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"With his new millions, Ryan said his first big expense was to buy a house closer to the city than this over-the-top complex, which is a good 45 miles from downtown. He didn't purchase a fancy car nor is he "going crazy" with any investments right now. The young man definitely sounds and acts like he's totally grounded and secure with who he is."

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