Ice, Ice Baby: How Matt Ryan Turned The Atlanta Falcons From Joke To Contender

Vincent JacksonCorrespondent IDecember 22, 2008

I'm sure this topic has been brought up a few times in articles on this site but I'm going to give my perspective on the subject. I lived in Atlanta from 1987 until 1996 and within that time frame, the Falcons never made the playoffs or had a winning season.   The only time I even watched a game in the Georgia Dome was with my father and brother to see Morehouse College play.

As many of you know, Atlanta's not really the biggest hub for sports activity in America. Atlanta was basically owned by the Braves, winning a World Series in 1995 which is still the city's only pro sports title.

Up until 2001, outside of a Super Bowl appearance in 1999, the Falcons had no buzz, no sizzle, no spark. When they drafted Michael Vick first overall, the city finally had a sports icon and kids had someone they could look up to. Though Vick's passing skills were often in question, there was no doubt about his marketability and the excitement he brought to the Dome every Sunday. 

Vick led the Falcons to an upset win in Green Bay in the 2002 playoffs but after breaking his leg in the 2003 preseason it was too little, too late for the Falcons even when he returned.

After losing the NFC Championship Game in 2004, expectations were high but that's where the decline began.  Even during losing seasons in 2005 and 2006, fans still flocked to see the Falcons play but patience with Vick was wearing thin even among his biggest fans.  The breaking point came after a loss in 2006 when Vick flipped off a few fans and was caught carrying a water bottle containing a "mysterious substance."

Of course, the powder keg blew when he was found guilty on multiple dogfighting charges and was sentenced to 23 months in prison before the 2007 season.  New head coach Bobby Petrino could not handle the pressure of the NFL and after 13 games, was hired as the new head man at Arkansas.  Petrino was called a quitter by many (including his own players) and proud owner Arthur Blank was publicly embarrassed.  The Falcons finished 3-13.

Before the 2008 season, Blank went out on a mission to change the culture of his franchise.  He hired Thomas DeMitroff to be his general manager and coming from a winning organization in New England, Blank knew he had found a man to make good football decisions.  Next, he hired former Jaguars defensive coordinator Mike Smith to be his head coach.  Smith, who had never been a head coach, promised a new toughness and attitude to his football team.  Then, he struck gold in free agency acquiring free agent running back Michael Turner from the San Diego Chargers and signed him to a six-year contract. 

Finally, Blank knew he needed a fresh new face to lead his franchise into a new direction and selected Boston College quarterback Matt Ryan with the third overall pick in the April draft. Though Ryan was slated to start on opening day, he, along with other players acquired in the draft were supposed to be the core pieces to a long rebuilding process.  Obviously, they didn't get the memo. 

In a stunning twist, Ryan has become the runaway Rookie of the Year candidate and Turner is the second leading rusher in the NFL.  Smith is also one of the leading candidates for Coach of the Year and even more shocking, the Falcons could somehow gain the two-seed in the NFC should they win on Sunday and the Panthers lose to the Saints.  What would that mean? It would mean not only a guaranteed home playoff game but if the Giants were to lose their home divisional round game the Falcons would remarkably host the NFC Championship Game for the first time in franchise history. 

In year one, Matt Ryan has done what Troy Aikman, Peyton Manning and Tim Couch could not do in their rookie seasons: lead their teams to not only the playoffs but possibly a berth in the Super Bowl.  Yes, folks, there is Super Bowl chatter in Atlanta. Ryan is being called a once in a lifetime type of player and the incredible product that Arthur Blank has built in Atlanta is going to be around for a long time.  The Falcons are no longer a doormat; in fact, they just may be your next NFC champion.