I'm not saying Atlanta will be significantly better than last year's 4-12 record. It may not be, and I'd pick the Falcons for last place in the NFC South if I had to choose today. But every indicator I get tells me Dimitroff and Smith have put a solid plan in place, and they're building a program rather than just preparing for another season.
The Falcons had descended into a chaotic mess the past two years, and it'll take time to undo all the damage done. But I get the early hunch Dimitroff and Smith know what they're doing, and so do the veteran Falcons players I talked to.
Linebacker Keith Brooking is one of the survivors of the 2007 season. He knows how poisonous the atmosphere was last year under Petrino, whose heart never really seemed into the job before he quit on the team after 13 games of his rookie season as an NFL head coach.
"For the guys who were here last year and are here this year, the working environment is at the opposite end of the spectrum,'' Brooking told me. "I have a tremendous respect for my teammates, for the guys who endured last year. I almost even relish those tough times that will come this year, because after what we went through last year, we'll be ready for anything.
"The distractions we were dealing with last year were unbelievable. I tried my best to be a positive team leader and tried to see what the coaches wanted us to do. But if you don't have guys buying into your coach's program, you don't have a chance to win in this league. This year we've got guys all pulling on the same end of the rope.''
Brooking, a Georgia native who was selected out of Georgia Tech in the first round of the 1998 draft, is Mr. Falcon. As he enters his 11th season in Atlanta, he's the last remaining member of the franchise's lone Super Bowl qualifier, the '98 Falcons. Brooking turns 33 in October, and he's probably a year-to-year roster consideration for Atlanta at this point in his career. But while a rebuilding program can't be music to his veteran ears, he said he and his teammates are willing to follow wherever Dimitroff and Smith lead.
"I see guys buying into the system this year,'' he said. "We have confidence in coach Smith and we're willing to bend over backward to get things done the way he wants them done. He has worked extremely hard to open lines of communication with the players. There aren't a lot of rules and regulations, but he has his expectations set out for us.
"We have great chemistry and great commitment this year. Rebuilding isn't the most ideal situation for me, but I'm not of the mindset that we're rebuilding this year. The way I feel about it is, if we all buy in, we could win some games this year and compete for the NFL playoffs.''
Here's something smart Smith and Dimitroff did that spoke volumes to the Falcons players who lived through the nightmare of 2007: Late last month they brought back veteran defensive tackle Grady Jackson, who was both popular among his teammates and an effective run-stuffer before being unceremoniously run out of town by Petrino last October. Jackson got in Petrino's doghouse early on for being one of several Falcons veterans who refused to quietly abide the dictatorial ways and aloofness of the rookie head coach.
By restoring Jackson to a locker room where he was once greatly appreciated, the new Falcons brass was telling the players it knows where blame for last year's mistakes lie. The brass also did a favor for Falcons linebackers, because Jackson can still keep two blockers at a time off linebackers.
Smith told me he has an open-door policy with his players, and they're free to come upstairs and speak to him about any issue at any time. I'm guessing, however, the Falcons had to tape arrows on the carpet pointing to Smith's office, because it's obvious no Atlanta player made that trip from the locker room to the head coach's desk last year.
So much of what the Falcons hope to accomplish this season would seem to rest on whether rookie first-round offensive tackle Sam Baker can handle the key left tackle assignment. Baker had a pretty strong showing in his NFL debut against the Jaguars, seeing about 40 snaps of action and fending off three Jacksonville defensive ends, including veteran Paul Spicer and rookie Quentin Groves, without giving up a sack.
While Atlanta was criticized for trading back into the first round to use the 21st pick on Baker, who held more of a consensus second-round grade, none of that will be remembered if he solidifies a Falcons offensive line that gave up 47 sacks (almost three per game) and mustered just 3.9 rushing yards on average last season. Atlanta started four left tackles in 2007, and a repeat of that scenario would be disastrous with a rookie quarterback starting.
Receiver Joe Horn is still hanging around, but probably for not much longer. Horn has been nursing a hamstring injury this preseason, and the Falcons are hoping once he heals he'll serve as trade bait for some team with injury problems of their own at receiver. Horn, who has a $2.5 million guaranteed base salary this year, won't bring much in return. But he is open to restructuring his deal to facilitate a trade, and something would be better than nothing for a guy Atlanta would likely wind up either releasing or reaching an injury settlement with.
Horn, 36, is way down the Falcons receiving depth chart after blowing off the team's OTAs this offseason. He asked to be traded a few months ago, but the Falcons are at least grateful that the 13-year veteran hasn't been the squeaky wheel that he could have been. Horn still can't seem to get over the fact that he came to Atlanta to catch passes from Vick, but fate intervened.
Though Curtis Lofton is running second-team behind second-year man Tony Taylor at the moment, the Falcons expect the second-round pick to emerge as the team's starting middle linebacker. That plan allowed Atlanta to shift Brooking back outside to the weakside slot, where his playmaking skills led him to make multiple Pro Bowl trips earlier this decade.
If there's a surprise in Falcons camp at linebacker, however, it's on the strongside, where ex-Bill Coy Wire has been impressive as Michael Boley's backup. Wire, who played at both safety and linebacker in Buffalo for six seasons, signed with the Falcons just before camp opened. The Bills released him after he underwent surgery last winter to repair nerve damage in his neck. It was causing numbness in his fingers and right arm weakness, that in the wake of Kevin Everett's career-ending spine injury in Buffalo last season.