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Interesting Article Concerning the Rebuilding of the Falcons

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Falcons rebuild with Ryan, Turner

CHARLES ODUM The Associated Press | Monday, September 1, 2008 at 12:30 am


Michael Turner has waited five years for his chance to start. Matt Ryan may not have to wait even one game. Turner, regarded as the top free-agent running back of 2008, and Ryan, the top quarterback in the 2008 draft, are the new figureheads of the Atlanta Falcons.

There's a new general manager, Thomas Dimitroff, and a new coach, Mike Smith, but the sales pitch to the fans is old for long-suffering Falcons fans. The Falcons, who have never had back-to-back winning seasons, again are asking for patience as Dimitroff and Smith orchestrate a dramatic roster makeover.

The Falcons are making plans for a new era with Ryan at quarterback, and the architect of the makeover doesn't try to hide the fact the 2008 transition could be rocky.

"I get excited when I see some of the talent here and I think some of the pieces are falling into place, but as we know with any rebuild, there are going to be some hard knocks and some tough shots along the way," Dimitroff said.

"We feel we have the character makeup to deal with those shots and the rebuild."

There has been a lot of talk from Dimitroff about character since he was hired to sweep away the debris left behind by Michael Vick's fall from franchise quarterback to federal prison on dogfighting charges last year.

With Vick beginning a prison sentence of almost two years, the Falcons tried three starting quarterbacks in a miserable 4-12 2007 season.

Chris Redman and Joey Harrington return, along with D.J. Shockley, but the preseason quarterback competition was only a formality. Ultimately, the job belongs to Ryan, the former Boston College star and the No. 3 overall draft pick.

The Falcons wasted no time proving they did not draft Ryan to hold a clipboard and model the latest team visor on the sideline.

Ryan's debut came after only two series in the team's preseason opener, and he quickly led a long touchdown drive against Jacksonville's starting defense.

Dimitroff says he's confident Ryan has the confidence to withstand the punishment - physical and otherwise - that comes with being a rookie quarterback on a rebuilding team.

"The combination of his intelligence, his natural leadership skills, his poise and savvy and confident swagger, but not arrogant swagger, have definitely caught our attention," said Dimitroff, the former director of college scouting for the New England Patriot.

The first real test of Ryan's poise came when his first interception was returned for a touchdown in the second preseason game, a loss to Indianapolis.

"The biggest thing is you have to stay composed," Ryan said. "When things break down, guys move faster in the NFL than they do in college, so you have to make smart decisions toward the end of the play.

"Really, I think the biggest thing is to stay relaxed and go out there and be composed."

Smith plans for a strong running game to help Ryan remain relaxed. Turner, the former longtime backup to LaDainian Tomlinson, and speedster Jerious Norwood give the Falcons dual threats for big plays at running back.

The 5-foot-10, 244-pound Turner is a power back with breakaway speed. He owns three of the six longest runs - 83, 74 and 73 yards - in Chargers history.

Turner's introduction to Atlanta fans included runs of 52 and 63 yards against the Colts. In what could be an ominous sign of offensive futility to come, the Falcons settled for field goals after each of the long runs.

Turner had 228 carries for 1,257 yards in four years with the Chargers. He'd like to top those totals in his first season in Atlanta.

"I've been looking forward to this chance for years," Turner said. "I'm just ready to grow as a player.

"I've been out there in San Diego just doing whatever I could to help the team win, playing special teams and things like that. But every guy in this league wants to be a starter. By the nature of this business, you know you're probably not going to get this right way, but once you get it you want to take advantage of it."

Norwood, who ran a 4.33 40 in the 2006 NFL combine, has averaged 6.2 yards per carry as a part-time player. Playing behind Warrick Dunn, Norwood rushed for 633 yards as a rookie in 2006, but the exit of Vick and the entrance of coach Bobby Petrino combined to slow the Falcons' running game last year.

On the run

Petrino, who quit with a 3-10 record and three games left to play last season to take the Arkansas job, had a pass-oriented attack. Smith and offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey are emphasizing the run with Turner, Norwood, fullback Ovie Mughelli and Ryan.

"It takes some of the pressure off a new quarterback situation, whoever that may be starting on day one," Dimitroff said. "That really helps.

"You can be the best quarterback in the league, and without an adept running attack, the defense really focuses on your passing game and limits your potential to thrive in a game."

The Falcons' makeover began with some of the most accomplished players being cut or traded: Dunn, DeAngelo Hall, Alge Crumpler, Rod Coleman, Jimmy Williams and Wayne Gandy.

"It wasn't a matter of us coming in to wield a big stick and slash everyone just to make our mark," Dimitroff said. "It was about getting players who were system-specific players for us. Players who would fit into that mold, we would keep. Players we felt would not, we would part ways with."

Linebackers Keith Brooking and Michael Boley, safety Lawyer Milloy and defensive end John Abraham are the remaining leaders on defense. Roddy White, who had 83 catches for 1,202 yards and six touchdowns last year, is the top returning receiver.

Major concerns include an offensive line that is expected to include rookie left tackle Sam Baker as a starter and a secondary which includes young cornerbacks Chevis Jackson, Brent Grimes and Chris Houston.

The Vick scandal hurt ticket sales, but Dimitroff isn't trying to lure fans to the Georgia Dome with false optimism for a winning season.

"No, I think from the very beginning Mike Smith and I have talked about this team in terms of tenacity, fire on the field and passion and resiliency," he said.

"Our aim is not necessarily to focus on the amount of W's in the win column. It's more about knowing when the opponent steps off the field, they know that they've played a competitive, fiery football club. That is our goal this year, to really drive it home that we want to be a passionate, competitive, sort of a reckless playing football team."

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