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Thursday, September 15, 2011
Falcons have found balance since Vick

By Pat Yasinskas

Michael Vick
Michael Vick, who played with the Falcons for six seasons, is returning to Atlanta on Sunday.

This is a story about the present and the future. So let’s get rid of the past right at the start.

“No, that’s not my house,’’ Michael Vick said on a conference call with the Atlanta media Wednesday. “That’s Matt Ryan’s house. I’m just a visitor.’’

When Vick and the Philadelphia Eagles come to face Ryan and the Atlanta Falcons on Sunday night, the game will be about two teams mentioned as Super Bowl contenders playing a crucial early-season game. Yeah, there may be a few memories -- pleasant and unpleasant -- in the Georgia Dome, but they'll be off in the distance.

The past is gone now. We all know about Vick’s downfall in Atlanta. But in NFL years, that time now is ancient history. Vick went to prison for running a dog-fighting ring and came out and redeemed himself quite nicely in Philadelphia. That’s the glamorous story line, but there’s another one at play here as well.

The Falcons also moved forward quite nicely and quite quickly. With three consecutive winning seasons, they’re in better shape than the franchise ever has been. Forget an ugly season-opening loss in Chicago for just a second and it looks like there should be lots more good times in Atlanta for the foreseeable future.

When Vick was going through his legal troubles and coach Bobby Petrino was walking out on the team in 2007, many predicted it would take years for the Falcons to recover. It didn’t.

That’s largely because an entire organization learned from its mistakes and went out and added multiple pieces that brought quick stability that should last for a long time. If you spend any time around the Falcons, you quickly get the sense they’re a grounded, well-balanced franchise with everyone in the building working toward a common goal.

Atlanta coach Mike Smith
Mike Smith is the only coach in Falcons history to have four straight winning seasons.
It wasn’t that way in the Vick and Petrino days and it certainly wasn’t there when Vick was playing for Jim Mora, a coach whose up-and-down emotions had the franchise on a perpetual roller-coaster. It wasn’t even there in Vick’s early years when Dan Reeves was the coach and Vick was struggling with an extremely complicated offense and Reeves wasn't exactly sure how to use his uniquely-talented quarterback.

Throughout Vick’s tenure, there were moments of brilliance. But the Falcons were up and down that entire time. They never put together back-to-back winning seasons with Vick. In franchise history, they never put together back-to-back winning seasons until coach Mike Smith’s first two years.

That’s no coincidence because Smith epitomizes what the current Falcons are all about. In his first team meeting, Smith told his players, "We’re moving forward. We need to forget the past."

But it goes even deeper than Smith. In the aftermath of Petrino and Vick, team owner Arthur Blank did a lot of soul searching. One thing he realized was the Falcons put all their eggs in one basket with Vick. It was his face you saw on billboards all over town and his face you saw on television commercials. When the guy you made the sole face of your franchise crashes and burns, you’ve got no one else to pick up the pieces -- on or off the field.

That’s when Blank realized his franchise needed more of a team concept. He started by hiring general manager Thomas Dimitroff, who came from New England, the capitol of the team concept.

When Dimitroff began interviewing head coaches, he quickly became enamored with Smith, a low-profile assistant in Jacksonville. Smith kept talking about the importance of a team and having the right kind of chemistry. He also talked a lot about having a long-term plan for sustained success. It also didn’t hurt that Smith, who can get a little excited on the sidelines on game days, has as calm and balanced a demeanor as you’re going to find the rest of the time.

He quickly was hired.

The next thing Smith and Dimitroff did was go out and draft Ryan to play Vick’s old quarterback spot. Again, they were looking for balance in addition to physical skills.

On the day before the draft, the top prospects were doing a media session in New York. Dimitroff, already pretty sure he was going to take the quarterback from Boston College, called a team employee who was at the event and asked for a scouting report on Ryan. He didn't want to talk football. Instead, he asked what Ryan’s demeanor was like with the media.

“Now, I see why they call him “Matty Ice’’,’’ the team employee said.

With that, Dimitroff signed off because he knew he had the kind of calm quarterback he wanted. Ryan came in and won right away and displayed an uncommon work ethic. He has the team fax him the game plan each Tuesday because he wants to be ahead of the game when practices start on Wednesdays. Since he's been in Philadelphia, Vick has said multiple times that he regrets not working harder at the game in his Atlanta years.

But Ryan’s just a part of the reason the Falcons have assembled a team that looks like it should be good for the next decade or so. Dimitroff’s a former scout and he can assess physical skills with the best of them. But he’s built the Falcons around more than physical skills.

Dimitroff looks for certain personality traits when he’s drafting because he wants the right chemistry on his team. He looks for guys who put the team and winning above all else. That’s why draft picks like linebackers Curtis Lofton and Sean Weatherspoon, free-agent pickup Michael Turner and Tony Gonzalez, who came in a trade, have fit in so nicely.

The Falcons saw the same thing in receiver Julio Jones, who they traded up 21 spots to get in this year’s draft and they saw it in linebacker Akeem Dent a third-round pick and they'll continue to look for it in the future. They’ll sprinkle in a free agent who fits that same profile here and there, but this team is made up mostly of guys drafted by Smith and Dimitroff and that’s a reason why the Falcons should stay good for a long time.

Sustained success is what Dimitroff and Smith want. It’s also what Blank wants. The Falcons lived on highs and lows during the Vick years and even in the franchise’s long history before that. That’s all in the past now.

The Falcons have changed for the better. They’re operating on a nice, even keel, which might be precisely the reason they’re winning and expect it to continue.