AtlantaIsMySavior Posted September 2, 2008 Share Posted September 2, 2008 By Tom Pedulla, USA TODAYFLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. — The Atlanta Falcons danced the night away.It was the end of training camp, and first-year head coach Mike Smith decided it was time that he and his staff rewarded players for weeks of hard work with entertainment — or at least plenty of laughter.One stiff coach after another took to the dance floor, trusting that every awkward move they made contributed toward reuniting a franchise so recently torn apart."It's all fun and games," running back Michael Turner says of the Falcons' version of Dancing with the Stars while declining to evaluate each funky performance. "I don't want to name names, but they know who they are — who were the good ones and who were the bad ones."Turner's laughter and bright smile suggest better times might be ahead for an organization recovering from the fall of franchise quarterback Michael Vick. After leaving the San Diego Chargers and signing a six-year, $34.5 million contract to be part of Atlanta's rebuilding program, Turner knows little about Vick's involvement with dogfighting or about the 4-12 misery of last season.And that is fine with Turner."Everybody has put that behind them," he says of 2007, "and moved forward."Linebacker Keith Brooking, a native of Senoia, Ga., is beginning his second decade with the Falcons. He is all too familiar with the travails of a club that, incredibly, has never strung together consecutive winning seasons since its inception in 1966.He knows more than he would ever want to know about Vick's off-field activities. He can speak in detail about the foibles of a couple of recent head coaches. He still feels the pain of the defeats that piled up in recent years. But Brooking sees an exhilarating change in the quality of coaches and players under Thomas Dimitroff. The new general manager hired Smith and overhauled more than half the roster since he left as the New England Patriots' director of college scouting to join the Falcons in January."Everybody I've seen that they've brought in as free agents and in the draft have been great character guys," Brooking says. "Football means a lot to them, and you have to have that in the NFL. You have to have everyone on the same page, and you can't have distractions come up every other day."The distractions we dealt with the last few years have been pretty bad, and a lot of it had to do with the type of players we had on the football team."Dan Reeves, Wade Phillips, Jim Mora, Bobby Petrino, Emmitt Thomas and Smith have served as head coaches since Home Depot co-founder Arthur Blank purchased the franchise and oversaw his first team in 2002.Although Phillips and Thomas were hired on an interim basis, Blank calls it "distressing to me" that the franchise has been plagued by instability since he took over. "You have to be patient," he says. "On the other hand, patience is not a virtue of the owner."As Brooking sees it, recent coaching woes have much to do with the lack of a winning season since Vick's electrifying running ability helped Atlanta reach the NFC Championship Game in 2004, the first year under Mora.According to Brooking, the same coach had lost control of the team by the end of 2006. He describes an atmosphere in which a significant number of players were lax on the practice field, in their conditioning and in meetings."Things kind of got haywire at the end, and it was kind of a circus," he says.Blank thinks Mora, who is scheduled to take over the Seattle Seahawks after Mike Holmgren's retirement at the end of this season, will learn from his mistakes and do well. But he says of his decision to dismiss Mora after a 2-7 finish led to a 7-9 record in 2006, "He kind of self-imploded, unfortunately."The owner takes responsibility for making a mistake in hiring Petrino away from the University of Louisville before the start of last season. "Clearly, that was not a good choice," Blank says.Petrino abruptly returned to the college ranks with three games left last season, bolting to the University of Arkansas, much to the relief of Brooking. The linebacker depicts Petrino as having no feel for working with professional athletes and says, "I think he handled it the wrong way, period, from the very beginning."Blank hopes he finally has it right with the combination of Dimitroff and Smith.Blank turned to Dimitroff after he failed to land proven rebuilder Bill Parcells, who later opted for the same role with the Miami Dolphins. Dimitroff was allowed to hire his own coach, but it should be noted that Smith was already prominent on a list of candidates that Blank believed were worth being interviewed.The affable Smith has been in football for 26 years and did well as defensive coordinator for the Jacksonville Jaguars from 2003-07. He was a surprise selection, though, in that he had not made most news media short lists of head coaches in waiting."The biggest thing is not being on lists. The biggest thing is getting an opportunity to sit down in front of an owner and letting him know what your thoughts are, what type of person you are," Jaguars head coach Jack Del Rio says.Del Rio says of Smith: "He loves the game of football, and he's a good person. I'm sure he'll do a good job as long as they do a good job of acquiring talent. We all have to have talent to have a chance."Smith has a very modest amount of talent at this stage. Turner has a chance to combine with Jerious Norwood to provide a potent one-two punch … if their blocking holds up. But the offensive line is as suspect as the defensive front. The secondary could also be a problem. Much hinges on the development of quarterback Matt Ryan, who was taken third overall in the draft. Ryan's progress is critical to the business side as well. There remain a significant number of fans who yearn for Vick to spearhead Atlanta's offense again once he has paid the price for his crimes.But if the drafting of Ryan is not enough of an indication, Blank's expressed feeling of betrayal makes it clear the franchise is moving on."Michael would tell us he was going home to his family to be with his children on his farm. He would do some fishing and play some golf," Blank says. "He never talked about dogs."It's a sad situation, and I wish Michael the best."Dimitroff is doing everything he can to follow the model of excellence he learned in New England. He says he enjoys strong relationships with Blank and Smith and says of working with the highly visible owner, "Mr. Blank has always been there to offer advice and counsel when appropriate, and I stress 'when appropriate.' "Smith, meanwhile, preaches accountability."We talk about knowing that the guy next to you is going to do his job and do the right thing," he says. "It's not only on the field, it's off the field."Brooking is confident that fans who have endured so much will ultimately be rewarded."It may not be flashy. It may not be with a quarterback running for a thousand yards in a season," Brooking says. "But we are going to do things the right way."However long it takes, I know it's going to take place with this staff. I truly believe that. The fans will see it. It's going to be a great time and something this city deserves." Quote Link to comment Share on other sites More sharing options...
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