Atlanta Falcons Organization Doing Just About Everything Right
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Yesterday was the messenger of some disappointing news for fans, as the Atlanta Falcons announced they plan to part ways with tenured offensive tackle Tyson Clabo, who started every game for the team since 2007.
Clabo's release was a surprise, as was John Abraham's earlier this offseason. Abraham, who led the team with 10 sacks last year and is the franchise's all-time sack leader, was let go on March 1, along with tailback Michael Turner and cornerback Dunta Robinson.
While Turner's lack of production and Abraham's apparent lack of versatility seemed like the most plausible reasons they were let go, there's reason to believe those mishaps with the law contributed to outing the two veterans from a no-nonsense regime, despite the fact both displayed great character during their time in Atlanta.
General manager Thomas Dimitroff's standard for player conduct and character has been no secret. Dimitroff, also known as "Comrade" by avid Falcons followers, is known for factoring in much more than just 40-yard dash times and other measurables when deciding on players.
Other than the news on Clabo, Abraham and Brent Grimes' departure, the Falcons offseason has gone rather swimmingly. In fact, it's been possibly the most noteworthy few months in team history.
Who's this Comrade guy?
You don't have to look past the drafting of Matt Ryan in 2008 (Dimitroff's first season as GM) to realize that standard. Ryan was nicknamed "noodle arm" by many, yet his intangibles helped him quickly become one of the elite quarterbacks in the league.
Dimitroff's soft side for character was put on display most recently when the Falcons announced on Wednesday that they signed linebacker Brian Banks, who was exonerated on rape chargers after five years in jail. Those five years kept Banks away from Southern California, where he had previously committed to play college football as one of the nation's top prospects.
Banks' signing adds just one more feel-good story to what has been the most buzz-worthy offseason in Falcons history.
Afterall, veterans Tony Gonzalez (37), Steven Jackson (29) and Osi Umenyiora (31) didn't come to Atlanta for the cash.
Each of those three players plan to suit up in a Falcons uniform because they want a late-career run at a Super Bowl title, and all three of them believe Atlanta is just the place to do it.
This surely sounds like a dream team, though Philadelphia Eagles fans won't knock on wood for Atlanta fans there, so digression is advised.
All three veterans easily, as well, fit the "Comrade Filter." Dimitroff has helped build a core of experienced, highly regarded veteran players and young, blue-collar nobodies with a superstar sprinkled in a few spots (see: Julio Jones...nickname for him still pending).
Sure, Dimitroff has not been perfect. In fact, the signings of Ray Edwards and Robinson turned out to be major busts.
All in all, though, Dimitroff has become a more prominent name with fans than team owner Arthur Blank and head coach Mike Smith.
The days of dealing with a star quarterback being indicted for dog fighting or hassling with the tragedy of an ultra-talented player being a locker-room cancer (that would be eluding to DeAngelo Hall), are over.
This franchise is unique to Atlanta's history of pro sports teams
The core of players on this team aren't just talented enough to make an NFL team good enough to go 13-3, as well as having a winning record year in and year out (something the franchise had never accomplished from 1966 to 2007 was a team capable of back-to-back winning seasons).
The core of the team is also a reflection of what the Atlanta Falcons stood for as an organization when the regime changed in 2008: integrity.
From top to bottom, there may not be an NFL franchise with more going for it. Yes, Super Bowl titles are the pinnacle, and Blank stated when he bought the team in 2002 that he would not rest until he brought a championship to Atlanta.
Compared to the disconnected group ownership of the Braves (Liberty Media) and the Hawks (Atlanta Spirit, LLC), Blank's enriched involvement with the team speaks volumes to the fans of the city.
Football fans outside of Atlanta probably see the Falcons as a "same old Atlanta team," which has been the easiest mantra to barf out for years and was made easier when the Falcons blew a 17-0 lead at home to lose the NFC Championship in January.
But, these are not just the same old Falcons. No, this isn't just another underwhelming Atlanta pro-sports team.
For the first time since the franchise's existence began, the Falcons have a strong foundation underneath them, and things are looking up.
Dimitroff's management and creation of a culture has been the cover of the book since 2008, but there's many branches of this team that are just as purely polished.
When Blank took over the Falcons in February 2002, he probably really liked the prospect of having Michael Vick as the headpiece of his franchise. Unfortunately, that relationship broke down in 2007, and eventually, everyone in the city found out how bad things really were when Vick admitted he never even studied the playbook in Atlanta.
You can see why the next step in resurrecting the phoenix was to bring in a no-nonsense standard for players, and so far, it has worked out tremendously.
Blank and Dimitroff's partnership, so far, has been one of the best things to ever happen to Atlanta sports.
While it took Blank from 2002 to 2008 to finally have the frame for a quality product (even though the Falcons did make it to the 2004-05 NFC Championship), he redirected the image of the lonesome franchise in many other ways.
One change instituted under the finger of Blank that is rarely brought up was a re-brand. The image of the team was pretty terrible—literally.
When he first took over the Falcons, the Georgia Dome featured astroturf, the walls inside the stadium were bland, grey stone, the seats were forest green, the rafters hung generic, rainbow-colored flags, the exterior walls of the dome were pink and teal and the uniforms were black and grey with that horrid, stencil logo on the lid.
That all condensed down to a true red and black identity, a refurbished dome, a team campus in Flowery Branch and a modern, streamlined logo and set of uniforms. You think it would have taken more than 40 years to get all that squared away.
Looking back, it really is amazing how unmarketable the Falcons were before Blank arrived. Now, the identity of the Atlanta Falcons isn't just strong, but it's becoming a symbol in the community. Mind you, this is a community in the heart of football country.
The next step in this building of a new-look Falcons organization will be when the team opens its new, retractable roof stadium in 2017. That deal will include money coming from Blank's pocket, $15 million to be exact, to improve the neighborhood areas around the stadium site, which will be on Northside Drive just like the Georgia Dome is now.
The news, which came this offseason, that Atlanta will get a new stadium has, to this point, been Blank's brightest moment.
Smitty, the player's coach, is seeing returns
Mike Smith was a nobody before he was hired to be the Atlanta Falcons head coach, yet he's quickly established himself as one of the best coaches in the league.
He's essentially the personality of a player without a uniform, and his loose, pat-on-the-back attitude has sometimes turned off hardcore fans who preach for personalities that liken to Bill Belichick.
The joke is on the critic, however, because the Falcons were the least penalized team in NFL history last season with 58.
No, you did not read that statistic wrong.
It doesn't matter if Ryan is "elite" or not. He's simply got "it."
One of the greatest—yet tired and annoying—arguments that accompanies NFL rhetoric is that of who is or isn't an elite quarterback.
The title changes for each guy on a regular basis. This season, Joe Flacco of the Baltimore Ravens seemingly earned a unanimous title of being "elite" after he got hot and won four postseason games to lead his team to a Super Bowl title.
Flacco was drafted in the same year as Ryan, who is just 1-4 in postseason games. Correlating a team's successes to the greatness of its quarterback can be a touchy practice, especially considering how the new-age mantra is that elite quarterbacks win titles, rather than great defenses.
Ryan's track record in the playoffs has made him somewhat of a punchline for the casual water-cooler goer, but there's no doubting he's got tools that most NFL quarterbacks in league history didn't have.
Ryan has 16 career fourth-quarter comebacks and 23 game-winning drives (per Pro-Football-Refence.com). To this point, he has a 90.9 career passing efficiency ranking and is 57-25 as a starter.
This past season, he was 10 yards away from sending the Falcons to their second Super Bowl appearance in team history. While his decision to throw the ball on 4th-and-5 to Roddy White was forced, White was interfered with. Also, had Harry Douglas not slipped on a wide-open wheel route just plays earlier, Atlanta would have already owned a late 31-28 lead.
No, there are no excuses here. The fact simply is that it's absurd to label a quarterback as a choke artist when his career as a winner was accompanied with a near-championship victory.
Any NFL owner will tell you he's the definition of a franchise quarterback. He doesn't have to be elite to the rest of the world; he simply needs to be the right guy for the franchise.
He's just that. To argue he's already the best player in franchise history is not a stretch.
From the stadium news, to the major veteran signings, to the feel-good story of Brian Banks and the inevitable new contract for Ryan, there's plenty of angles and stories surrounding the Falcons offseason, and so far, all of them have been positive.
The reason this phenomenon of ground break in Atlanta is so significant is because the way the franchise leveraged a new stadium deal in the community, as well as the way veterans raise eyebrows at what has become a destination organization has served as a proof, or output, to the brand that the Falcons have been building since 2008.
The amount of substance, foundation and potential for future success is something the Atlanta Falcons of old never had the benefit of enjoying.
Arthur Blank's vision was to transform a generic, boring, laughingstock franchise into a flagship organization.
Atlanta showed great promise in 2008, as well as 2010, but to come out and ensure faith in the continued development and growth of the Falcons was something most fans, who are undoubtedly skeptics thanks to the existing sports culture, were hesitant to do.
Five years is a better sample size. This offseason has been quite the ride, so far, as well.
Congratulations Falcons fans. This football city finally has a model pro-sports franchise. Ring, or no ring (though hopes of one coming soon are very bright), be proud to be a Falcon.
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