When the Atlanta Falcons franchise "went under," in 2007, it had seemingly done just that and more. In the minds of fans there was no way the organization would recover from losing their star quarterback, Michael Vick.
Vick was arguably the most prized draftee in Atlanta Falcons history since Tommy Nobis was selected as the first Atlanta Falcon in 1966.
Vick came to a town begging for a professional sports team to root for. Atlanta had always had the Braves through the 1990s, but any local could tell you football was the gold within the sports realm.
College football reigns supreme in the Atlanta area, especially considering the metro area served as the epicenter for all college football fan bases.
But, football fans always wondered, "What would it be like to have a premier NFL team?"
What would that feeling be like?
Vick was the apparent answer, and definitely answered every prayer. From 2002 to 2006, Vick brought an electricity to the interest of professional football in Atlanta that the South had never seen.
The Georgia Dome was selling out. Vick was causing "oohs" and "ahs" with every snap he took from under center. Atlanta Falcons football suddenly was the talk of the town.
With the success of Vick came the credibility of owner Arthur Blank. With the credibility of Blank, as an NFL owner, came the investment put into Atlanta Falcons football.
In the 2003 offseason, right after Vick had taken over the sports world, the Falcons redesigned their brand and introduced field turf, new uniforms and other renovations to the Georgia Dome.
One man, wearing the No. 7, put the Atlanta Falcons on the map.
And, within a few seasons, that franchise had seemingly sputtered back into the comedic existence of the sports world.
Michael Vick's dog fighting trial, and eventual suspension from the league, caused a catastrophic downturn of events. The fanbase suddenly disappeared and turned on one another. Head coach Bobby Petrino ran for the hills. Fans stopped showing up, and were more concerned with the prison sentence of Vick than they were with the performance of their team on the field.
Suddenly Atlanta was not only irrelevant, but it was a water cooler joke when it came to talk about the NFL. Nobody wanted to be associated with the Atlanta Falcons organization.
Without Vick, the Falcons could not exist. That, strangely enough, seemed to be a completely logical thesis for every Atlanta sports fan in existence.
But, we can now look back and see that Vick's downfall turned into a valuable lesson.
Michael Vick was one man. He was one very famous man who brought stardom, lights and maybe even arrogance to a sports town that had no right to boast as much as they did.
The 2007 campaign was a humbling year, but when it was over Atlanta took on a blue-collar attitude. That blue-collar attitude would not only turn out to be the antithesis to the Vick controversy, but it also served as an apparent long-term blueprint for creating the optimal sports franchise, and the No. 1 factor underlying every single draft day.
The Falcons have begun drafting for the ultimate team players.
Atlanta needed to make a lot of changes within the organization to clear up the situation at hand, as Vick began spending his prison sentence.
They hired Thomas Dimitroff as the GM. Dimitroff was previously at New England, which made itself an NFL powerhouse despite being one of the quietest professional sports franchises in existence.
The Falcons hired Mike Smith, who was just as much of a nobody as his name implied.
And, Atlanta drafted a good ol' boy out of Boston College—quarterback Matt Ryan, who was constantly critiqued for having a weak arm and a lackluster physique.
Within those three moves came the basis for an organization that would turn up to be one of the highest class franchises in professional sports.
In 2008 Atlanta drafted the likes of Matt Ryan, Curtis Lofton, Thomas DeCoud and Kroy Biermann. The only reason you know Matt Ryan's name is because he made it on SportsCenter a lot during his college days.
You likely may not, even in the year 2011, be familiar with Lofton, DeCoud and Biermann.
But, the 2008 draft class has turned up to be the nucleus of the Atlanta Falcons' now stand-up franchise.
No, Atlanta did not win a Super Bowl last year. And, yes, losing to the Packers 48-21 was a devastating way to end an awesome regular season.
But, for the first time in years Atlanta Falcons fans are holding their heads up high. Even after getting shellacked as the No. 1 seed in the playoffs, the Atlanta Falcons now exist as one of the classiest franchises in the NFL.
As much as people want to forgive Michael Vick, there is no doubt his disconnect with postgame interviews, as well as his rude actions, were detrimental to the team's image.
In 2004, when Atlanta went to the NFC Championship, people really didn't know what to think of Atlanta. In 2005 and 2006, when the team failed to meet expectations, NFL fans quickly saw the unrest within Falcons players and classified the team as a group full of "me" players.
But, in 2010, when Atlanta failed to make the NFC Championship, fans still left with a higher sense of self-esteem. Fans are now finally proud to wear that Falcons emblem on their hat.
What Thomas Dimitroff and Mike Smith have done since 2008 has been remarkable. Atlanta has had a winning team in three straight years, and is 33-15 during the regular season over that span.
Guess what, NFL fans. Atlanta now is definitely a "winning" team. People didn't even want to claim that from 2004 to 2006 because they had so much doubt in the continuity involved within a locker room full of mysterious players like Vick, DeAngelo Hall and others.
The Falcons are no longer relying on one superstar to lead the way. Instead, the management has prioritized building a foundation of smart, blue-collar athletes who want to win and place success before the spotlight.
Even if Atlanta was clobbered in this year's playoffs, we can still draw a huge sense of pride from the fact this team is obviously built for the future.
They have taught us that being a fan isn't about whether that team wins or loses. Being a fan means being proud of an organization and what it represents.
And, since 2008, there may not be a better team to proud of—in professional sports—than the Atlanta Falcons.
And I can guarantee you they will continue to draft players you will be proud to be a fan of. That's how this team is working now, and that's how they want to build. It's not about having a star player, it's about bringing together a team you can root for.
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