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 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. 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 a second and it looks like there should be many 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 added multiple pieces that quickly brought stability that should last for a long time. If you spend any time around the Falcons, you immediately get the sense this is a grounded, well-balanced franchise with everyone in the building working toward a common goal.
It wasn’t that way during 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, 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 the 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 current 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 the Petrino and Vick disasters, team owner Arthur Blank did a lot of soul searching. He realized the Falcons put all their eggs in one basket with Vick. It was his face you saw on billboards all over town and in 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 capital city of the team concept.
When Dimitroff began interviewing coaching candidates, he quickly became enamored with Smith, a low-profile assistant in Jacksonville. Smith kept talking about the importance of a team and having good 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 sideline 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 draft Ryan to replace Vick. 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 won right away and displayed an uncommon work ethic. He has the coaches fax him the game plan each Tuesday because he wants to be ahead of the game when practices start on Wednesday. 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 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 talent.
Dimitroff looks for certain personality traits when assembling the roster. 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, for whom they traded up 21 spots in this year’s draft, and they saw it in third-round linebacker Akeem Dent, 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 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.