Falcons Camp Opens To Heightened Expectations

James SheaContributor IAugust 3, 2009

FLOWERY BRANCH, GA - AUGUST 01:  Quarterback Matt Ryan #2 of the Atlanta Falcons runs the offense during opening day of training camp on August 1, 2009 at the Falcons Training Complex in Flowery Branch, Georgia.  (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

Things have been tough for the Atlanta Falcons.

No one can say they haven't faced their share of adversity. So when they finished a surprising 11-5 last season and made a playoff appearance, you can hardly blame the people of Georgia for being a little jovial.

First, things went bad for the Falcons in the summer of 2007 when they lost the "face" of their franchise, Michael Vick to charges stemming from operating a dogfighting ring.

Negative publicity ensued, and when all was said and done Vick was suspended indefinitely by the NFL and also had to serve two years in prison. A freak of an athlete, Falcons owner Arthur Blank undoubtedly did not anticipate this some six years after drafting him first overall in the NFL draft. A three-time Pro Bowl selection, league rules and the criminal code ensured Vick would not be throwing passes for the Falcons anytime soon.

Yet, the Falcons would have to move on.

And so they did. After all, there was a season to prepare for a few short weeks later. Since the team's reliable backup Matt Schaub had departed earlier that spring, the Falcons did not have many options. Basically, it was anyone's job for the taking. Trouble was, no one really played like they wanted it. In the end, Joey Harrington and Chris Redman saw most of the playing time, with Byron Leftwich seeing some action towards the end of the season. The Falcon's struggled to a dismal 4-12 record in 2007, and what was once a promising team on the rise was suddenly no more.

Big deal, right? Every team has a bad year once in a while. If only that the was only problem that season.

The Jim Mora Jr. experiment in Atlanta never truly worked out. While the coach did lead the team to the NFC championship game in 2004, the Falcons only made the playoffs once under the three years of his guidance.

In comes Bobby Petrino, a hotshot coach on the college circuit who previously coached the Louisville Cardinals. Petrino was considered by many to be one of the most innovative minds in all of college football. So when in early 2007 the Falcons signed him to a five-year deal, things were looking up.

In fact, one of the main reasons the Falcons hired Petrino was to work closely with Vick, as they thought his vision of the offensive side of the game would clearly benefit a player of Vick's immense talent. We all know that never came to fruition because of certain criminal chargers. Alas, the season went on with Petrino manning the helm, until a Week 14 loss to the New Orleans Saints.

Then it all changed, as the very next day Petrino abruptly tendered his resignation from the team, despite being in a five-year contract and currently being in a season. The fact he notified his players, the same ones who had just put their lives on the line for him the night before, via a written explanation in the locker room probably didn't improve his already sagging public image.

Enter quarterback Matt Ryan.

He became the Falcon's first selection of the 2008 NFL Draft, and third overall. The Falcons had "officially" moved on without Michael Vick, and if his college stats were any indication, Ryan seemed like a good fit. Coupled with Ryan's arrival, an off-season trade to acquire running back Michael Turner—Ladainian Tomlinson's very capable backup in San Diego, the emergence of wide receiver Roddy White and new coach Mike Smith, Falcon fans finally had something to look forward to.

But hadn't fans heard that one before? 

A sign that things might finally be OK in Atlanta? Ryan's first career NFL pass was a 62-yard touchdown to Michael Jenkins.

In a positive season for the Falcons that featured Ryan passing for almost 3,500 yards, Roddy White being named to the Pro Bowl, Michael Turner rushing for nearly 1,700 yards, and the Falcons competing on every play with the eventual NFC champion Arizona Cardinals in their playoff game; the offseason may have been even better.

Ryan was named NFL Rookie Of The Year, while coach Mike Smith was named NFL Coach Of The Year.

The South is gonna rise again.