Atlanta and Dallas both took their first positive steps of 2008, after forgettable 2007 seasons for totally different reasons.
Atlanta brought in Bobby Petrino to help Michael Vick take the next step in his development. Vick didn't stick around long enough to benefit, as he was indicted on federal dogfighting charges. If he's lucky, he'll be released sometime next year.
Bobby Petrino was left with a radically different project: Mold Joey Harrington to lead a marginally talented team. It was a complete bomb. Any Falcons fan last year was more interested in seeing the opponent at home games than seeing the actual Falcons. Injuries, inconsistency and lack of a direction, plus the looming Vick distractions turned 2007 into a lost year.
Arthur Blank did the best he could to steer his team forward, but not much could be done. It didn't help that Petrino bolted to Arkansas before the season ended. And so an off-season of opportunity arrived for the Falcons.
The hired Mike Smith, a well respected defensive coach to bring in attitude. They cut ties with many players from the former regime, gaining cap space and draft picks. They brought in new staff from New England to help in the front office They signed Michael Turner to bring presence to the running game. They drafted Matt Ryan and Sam Baker in the first round to be their new franchise QB and LT, respectively.
Today, the Falcons came out and put on a show for the fans, Falcons management, and the league. This team could be very dangerous in a year or two. They have a running back in Turner who gashed the Lions for 202 yards and 2 TDs. They have a pair of established young receivers in Roddy White and Michael Jenkins. Their line seems to be coming along.
And of course, there's Matt Ryan. His first NFL pass was right on the numbers to Jenkins for a long TD. He made no major mistakes and was accurate on the one deep pass he made (his TD was on a quick slant). He shows poise and patience. The defense brought pressure and can continue to improve. Atlanta fans can be happy about the direction of their team.
Dallas has been the victim of high expectations. 13 Pro Bowlers, division title, prolific offensive production, aggressive defensive, only to fall apart at home facing New York.
At no time was a first year coach under more scrutiny, but Wade Phillips has not had postseason success in the past. Although rumors were that Jason Garrett would soon be the head coach, he remained as OC for a record salary. Meanwhile, Tony Romo has been dogged with criticism for sub-par postseason play the last 2 years. They brought in Zach Thomas to add to a stacked LB corps, and drafted Felix Jones to be lightning to Marion Barber's thunder. They also traded for Adam Jones for his returning skills and CB depth.
They were also criticized heavily for their unwillingness/inability to upgrade the WR position. With incumbent starter Terrell Owens getting older, and Patrick Crayton being a solid starter, experts thought they could use a youth infusion. That decision has been amplified with injuries to Miles Austin and Sam Hurd. It would seem that they are slim at receiver.
It really didn't matter because they were on fire today. Romo looked great, passing for 320 and a TD, which was caught by T.O. who also had 87 yards. Witten had 6 catches for 96 yards. Barber and Jones combined for 147 yards and 3 TDs while the defense bothered Derek Anderson all day. It was impressive and convincing. If this is their year, they'll need to continue to have performances like this.
These two games were among the most entertaining of the day...although Reggie Bush put on a show, and Jake Delhomme had return for the ages. But these two games showed the progress of two franchises coming off extremely negative endings to the season.
Dallas will work to destroy memories of their home playoff loss last season, while Atlanta moves past a disastrous 2007. Both franchises took huge leaps this week with double digit victories and should continue to have successful 2008 seasons.