New Coach, New Attitude Has Falcons Flying

Alex MarvezCorrespondent IOctober 12, 2008

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. - The quarterbacks carpool to work.

The offensive line is known as the "Breakfast Club" for gathering collectively each morning to watch game film.

The defensive line is planning a birthday dinner for one of its own (Jonathan Babineaux).

And the new head coach holds "Over 30" meetings to solicit feedback from his veteran players.

These are the Atlanta Falcons?

It's not just a 3-2 record entering Sunday's home game against Chicago that distinguishes this group from the horrific Falcons squad of 2007. This is an actual team, one quickly distancing itself from the Michael Vick/Bobby Petrino era that gave a whole new meaning to the term "Dirty Bird."

"I thought it was going to take considerably longer for this team to gel because they were getting to know each other," Falcons first-year general manager Thomas Dimitroff said Friday. "I feel like that's really been expedited. In my mind, it has a lot to do with the group bonding."

Re-establishing trust was needed after Vick and Petrino left Atlanta burned in General Sherman-like fashion. A ship that was too loose under 2006 coach Jim Mora had become rudderless last season with Petrino, who retreated to the college ranks after just 13 games.

But even that embarrassment paled in comparison to the damage caused by Vick, who was arrested and sentenced to prison for dog fighting after initially lying about his involvement. Atlanta's descent to a 4-12 record was so depressing that defensive end John Abraham said friends and family stopped calling to ask for game tickets.

Not that he was complaining.

"I really didn't want anyone to come anyway, to be honest," Abraham said. "When you don't feel your team is playing up to par, you really don't want to be seen."

Abraham's telephone is ringing once again—and there are plenty of reasons why.

Let's start with the healing process. Shortly after being hired in January for his first head coaching job, Mike Smith began arranging face-to-face meetings with Falcons players who lived in the Atlanta area. Smith's honesty and straight-forward approach struck a chord with Falcons who felt betrayed by Petrino and a coaching staff that Abraham said left players "scared to voice their opinion." Smith also hired assistants who have a combined 188 years of NFL coaching experience.

"From the very beginning, we've talked about being communicative with one another," said the 49-year-old Smith, who had spent the past five seasons as Jacksonville's defensive coordinator. "When you have open lines, it fosters that [positive] atmosphere."

A roster overhaul soon followed that reflected the knowledge Dimitroff gained while working in New England's front office the previous six seasons. Falcons mainstays like running back Warrick Dunn, cornerback DeAngelo Hall, and tight end Alge Crumpler were released or traded. Dimitroff used that salary cap space to add the best running back (Michael Turner) and most reliable kicker (Jason Elam) available in free agency.

The draft was even more fruitful. Quarterback Matt Ryan was the bell-cow selection, but Atlanta's next four picks—left tackle Sam Baker, middle linebacker Curtis Lofton, cornerback Chevis Jackson, and wide receiver Harry Douglas—are either starting or heavily contributing as backups.

The next step was getting the pieces to mesh together. Ryan started coming out of his shell after being named one of 10 new starters during the preseason.

"When he first got here, he was a little timid in the huddle," Turner said. "He wasn't calling plays. He was whispering. Now, he's taken command of the offense. He's telling guys where they need to be and giving little reminders like, 'You've got to get a little closer on your split.'

"He's not a rookie to me."

Turner has helped accelerate Ryan's development, carrying the rushing load with an NFL-high 543 yards. LaDainian Tomlinson's former understudy made an immediate impact in his Falcons debut, pounding the Detroit Lions for 220 yards and two touchdowns.

That 34-21 victory in the season-opener went a long way toward exorcising the Vick/Petrino ghosts.

"We wanted to change the look of this team right away," Turner said. "You only get one chance to make a first impression. We left a pretty good one."

The Falcons are a modest 2-2 since that win, but these birds of a feather continue to flock together. When players have Tuesdays off during the regular season, only the starting quarterback is expected at team headquarters to get a head start studying the game plan and upcoming opponent. In Atlanta, Ryan and backups Chris Redman and D.J. Shockley drive in together for an extra day of work.

"Everybody is pulling for one another," said Ryan, who already has as many victories as Indianapolis quarterback Peyton Manning posted during his 1998 rookie season. "We've got a bunch of unselfish people in that locker room as well, guys who are willing to do whatever it takes to win and get better. It's fun to be part of those types of teams."

Smith tries to keep his finger on the locker room's pulse by meeting semi-regularly with the 11 Falcons players who are age 30 and older. When the veterans asked for a slight change in the way practices were being run, Smith acquiesced.

"It lets them know how important they are in disseminating information to the whole team," Smith said. "You've got to have your lieutenants out there. That's what veteran players are."

Smith has set modest goals for a roster on which 25 of the 53 players have three years of NFL experience or less. One objective was accomplished last Sunday when Atlanta won its first road game at Green Bay. The next can be reached Sunday if the Falcons string together consecutive victories for the first time by defeating Chicago (3-2).

These are reasonable expectations for a team that may fade from playoff contention as the season unfolds. Although wide receiver Roddy White is playing at a Pro Bowl level, Ryan is probably too inexperienced to carry the offense if Turner can't get on track. Turner failed to reach 60 rushing yards in both of Atlanta's losses.

Besides Abraham—who has an NFL-high seven sacks—the defensive line needs offseason upgrading. The same goes for a secondary that is surrendering too many big pass plays.

"In my mind, we're still at a different place than most teams simply because of the process of re-tooling the roster and going through this," Smith said. "But I think we're laying a foundation that is very solid."

Just like the bonds that are being built between the Falcons themselves.


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