Atlanta Falcons Franchise Turnaround Must Continue Against 49ers

Ryan ComstockCorrespondent IOctober 1, 2010

ATLANTA - SEPTEMBER 19:  Fans of the Atlanta Falcons wave flags during the game against the Arizona Cardinals at Georgia Dome on September 19, 2010 in Atlanta, Georgia.  (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

The Atlanta Falcons are in the midst of a culture change.

It began in 2008 when three newcomers, rookie quarterback Matt Ryan, newly-signed running back Michael Turner, and first-year head coach Mike Smith, led the team to an improbable 11-5 season and a playoff berth.

It continued in 2009 when, although the team did not make the postseason, the franchise had consecutive winning seasons for the first time in its 40-plus years of existence. While a 9-7 season is certainly not very memorable, it did mark a crucial turning point for the organization, potentially providing the consistency that has been lacking since their inaugural 1966 season.

One of the more encouraging aspects of these two-and-almost-a-quarter seasons under Mike Smith has been the never give up attitude of the team.

It's difficult to turn around the fortunes of a franchise with a history of losing. The "Here We Go Again" attitude that prevails when bounces start going the other team's way is particularly tough to overcome.

Atlanta first began to put that feeling to rest in a 2008 Week 6 contest against the Chicago Bears.

After kicker Jason Elam missed a 33-yard field goal that would have essentially iced the game, the Bears marched down the field and scored a go-ahead touchdown. Atlanta got the ball back with six seconds left and the game appeared to be over.

Ryan promptly completed a 26-yard, perfectly placed pass to Michael Jenkins on the sideline, setting up the game-winning 48-yard field goal.

To many, this was the moment they realized Matt Ryan could be something special. It could also go down as a crucial moment in the franchise's transformation into a yearly contender.

In 2009, a season wrecked by injuries, with the team having no shot at making the playoffs, the players could have packed it in during the last few weeks of the season.  Instead, the team continued to fight and won their three remaining games, including a road win over the AFC runner-up New York Jets to gain a shimmer of success by ending the previously mentioned consecutive winning seasons jinx.

Last week against the New Orleans Saints, the Falcons had every chance to fall into the "Here We Go Again" trap.

They opened the game with a three-and-out, New Orleans had a huge punt return and easily scored a touchdown. Here We Go Again.

After evening up the score, the Saints hit them for an 80-yard touchdown strike. Here We Go Again.

With a chance to put the game away, a freak play on a New Orleans punt gave the ball back to the Saints, who quickly scored a touchdown and took the lead. Here We Go Again.

To begin overtime, Ryan missed Harry Douglas on what would have been a game-winning touchdown pass and the Falcons were unable to get even one first-down. Here We get the point.

Atlanta was given every chance to fall apart against the Saints and they didn't. They weren't intimidated by the crowd. They didn't care that these were the defending champions who just find ways to win. In fact, they manhandled a defense that is known for beating up on opponents and forcing mistakes.

Indeed, these were not the Falcons long-time fans have grown accustomed to seeing.  These guys have mental-toughness and fortitude.

What all of this leads to is Sunday's game against San Francisco, an 0-3 team whose season is absolutely on the brink and who appear to be busting apart at the seams.

In some ways this game is more important than last week's showdown with the rival Saints.

This is a game the team should win. 

The 49ers have looked awful in two road game this year. A defense that was supposed to be one of the best in the league is getting mauled, particularly in the running game, Atlanta's biggest strength. Last year the Falcons destroyed them in a 45-10 beat down, in San Francisco. 

A loss in this situation would make fans question whether they can ever fully trust this team.

Several times in the franchise's history, teams have appeared destined for the playoffs only to fall to teams they had no business losing to. Under Smith's watch this tendency appears to be falling to the wayside.

The expectation that the team will find a way to lose is rapidly being replaced by the notion that this group of players and coaches will pull out wins in even the most unlikely scenarios, and just as importantly, will not be outplayed by teams they are better than.

If that trend continues this week and beyond, "Here We Go Again" could have a different meaning for Falcon's fans altogether.

It could refer to constant winning.