Atlanta Falcons: Team Has Come a Long Way In Not Much Time
During the season, it appeared there might be some hope, as coach Bobby Petrino's offense was making career backup quarterback Chris Redman look good and receiver Roddy White finally lived up to his first-round draft pick status.
Then, after unnecessarily cutting veterans like defensive tackle Grady Jackson, Petrino bailed on the team, sneaking out the back door to the University of Arkansas before the season had even concluded.
Now the franchise was officially in shambles.
No one had much faith in Redman as a long-term solution, and the team had several other holes. The situation was one that could set a team back for a decade.
Owner Arthur Blank decided he had to reshape the organization. He took Rich McKay out of his role as general manager and instead made him team president.
Dimitroff had his work cut out for him, and his first move was to hire Mike Smith, a little-known defensive coordinator from Jacksonville, as head coach.
Atlanta was heavily criticized for the move, as many felt Smith was not capable of leading a team.
Next up was the signing of running back Michael Turner and the drafting of quarterback Matt Ryan.
Turner was viewed as a good pickup, although some questioned whether he would be able to hold up to the demands of being a starting running back in the NFL after he backed up LaDainian Tomlinson in San Diego.
People were not as enthused about Ryan, thinking he had physical shortcomings that would prevent him from becoming a franchise quarterback.
My, how wrong they were.
Aided by other excellent draft selections in 2008 such as linebacker Curtis Lofton and left tackle Sam Baker, the Falcons made a surprise turnaround, going 11-5 and making the playoffs.
Ryan was named Rookie of the Year, Smith received the Coach of the Year award and Turner should have received much more consideration for league MVP.
Due to a multitude of injuries, the 2009-10 season was a bit of a disappointment. At 9-7, the Falcons missed the playoffs, but still had the first consecutive winning seasons in franchise history.
The NFC South rival New Orleans Saints won the Super Bowl last year, and they were largely favored as the likely division winner this year.
The Falcons were predicted by many to go 9-7 again, maybe even 8-8, and miss the playoffs.
Look where we are now.
After beating the Carolina Panthers, 31-10, in Week 17, the Falcons clinched their division and locked up the No. 1 seed in the NFC. They have home-field advantage throughout the playoffs, where they are 7-1 this year and 20-2 with Ryan as the starter.
The events of the past three seasons have been nothing short of remarkable.
It was not at all far-fetched to believe the Falcons were looking at, at the very least, five years before they would be competitive again after losing their franchise QB.
It normally takes a while to groom a young signal caller, and the Falcons were not a particularly loaded team on either side of the ball. At least that's not how it appeared at the time.
Ryan has now tied Dan Marino for the most wins by a quarterback in his first three seasons.
He looks to be destined for greatness and his late-game heroics are reminiscent of some of the best to ever play.
White is possibly the best receiver in the game, Smith and Dimitroff are seen as some of the top guys around in their roles as coach and general manager and many defenses will say that Turner is the toughest running back in the league to go against.
The defense has also begun to play much better—forcing turnovers and getting good pressure on opposing quarterbacks. They will finish in the top five in points allowed.
It's hard to think of a turnaround like this in recent times.
If the Falcons can go out and win it all, it could easily be argued to be the best we've seen in all of professional sports.
It's been a fun ride, and one that everyone in Atlanta hopes will continue for years to come.
From what we've seen, there's no reason to think it won't.
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