It Starts With Matt (cont.)
Vick's arrest in July 2007 was the start of a long losing streak for the Falcons. They staggered through a dismal 4-12 season marked, on Dec. 11, by the departure of first-year coach Bobby Petrino, who walked out on the team with two games left to become coach at Arkansas. In January, Bill Parcells, a candidate to run football operations and a potential franchise savior, jilted Blank for a similar role with the Dolphins. Over the next three months disgruntled Pro Bowl cornerback DeAngelo Hall was traded to the Raiders, and core veterans Alge Crumpler, Warrick Dunn and Rod Coleman were cut to clear the way for younger players. At the same time Atlanta's season-ticket base has been hemorrhaging; Blank confirmed that renewals are down.
And Vick's football heroics still resonate among Falcons fans. "This city's history is built on racial divide," says Gil Tyree, sports anchor for WGCL-TV in Atlanta. "Michael Vick had a hold over this city that no athlete will ever have again. Everybody wonders, 'Is Mike coming back?' Or 'When's Mike coming back?' These people won't forget him. He's a messiah here."
After Ryan was picked, Tyree led his sportscast by saying, "It's now officially the end of the Michael Vick era." Afterward, when he was asked how area fans would receive their new quarterback, Tyree said, "No matter what Matt Ryan will do, he'll never be accepted."
Blank has yet to state publicly that Vick won't play for the Falcons again, but he came close on draft weekend. "We have an obligation to move forward," Blank said. "That chapter needs to be closed."
On March 26 a contingent of Falcons decision-makers that included Dimitroff, coach Mike Smith, offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey and quarterbacks coach Bill Musgrave boarded Blank's private jet and began an eight-day, six-city trip to evaluate the six quarterbacks they rated highest in the draft: from Josh Johnson at San Diego, to John David Booty at USC, to Henne at Michigan, to Flacco at Delaware, to Ryan at Boston College, to Brian Brohm at Louisville. The Falcons evaluators liked Henne's grit, leadership and ability, but he was ranked second to Ryan, the passer nicknamed "Matty Ice" in high school for the ice water that seemingly ran through his veins in tight situations. In college, the name stuck.
Before the trip Dimitroff thought Dorsey, the LSU pass rusher, was the best player in the draft. But Ryan's workout in Chestnut Hill, Mass., and a three-hour dinner-interrogation started to change that thinking. At the restaurant Dimitroff tested the quarterback's loyalty to his teammates when he noted that Ryan's receivers had dropped some 50 passes last season. He asked if Ryan thought he'd have been a better passer with more talented wideouts. Ryan told the Falcons' group he'd take those guys any day of the week. "Perfect," Mularkey said later. "He could have killed them, but he was a great teammate."
Then in a 50-minute session using the whiteboard in the BC football meeting room, the coaches briefed Ryan on the offense Atlanta will run next season, explaining tendencies and playcalls. Musgrave drew a formation with motion, then gave the marker to Ryan. Mularkey would call out a play, and Ryan would have to show the route tree for his receivers and the progression of his reads. Ryan did so well -- better by far than the other five quarterbacks, Mularkey said later -- that the coordinator began throwing out more plays. For the final one, Mularkey described an option route with four receivers and quarterback movement, a play that sounded to Ryan like one BC ran called 335 Naked. Ryan rattled off the assignments of the four receivers and his progression -- how he'd look to the tight end first, slot receiver second and wideouts third and fourth.
"It wasn't just that he got it right," said Mularkey. "It's that he got it right fast, which is so important in this game. You've got to process information. We limit the terminology in our offense. We want it to be quick and up-tempo, and for the quarterback, intelligence is vital."
When the Falcons left Chestnut Hill for the airport, Mularkey turned to Dimitroff.
"I'd take him at three," Mularkey said.
They took him at three, over Dorsey, one of the best defensive tackles to come out of college in years. Dimitroff said the decision came down to a strong belief in Ryan, the dire need for a quarterback -- roster marginalia Chris Redman, Joey Harrington and D.J. Shockley are the other options -- and uncertainty over when Atlanta might be in position to pick another QB. Dimitroff will have some selling to do not only to fans but also to some of his own players.
"Not taking Glenn Dorsey surprised me," said fourth-year linebacker Michael Boley, sounding disappointed as he left the Atlanta Hawks' NBA playoff game with the Boston Celtics on Saturday night. "He'd have been a great player for our defense."
Dimitroff, who spent six years with the Patriots, the last five as director of college scouting, remembers the grumbling in New England in 2000, when Bill Belichick inherited a salary-bloated team and brought in Pioli to run the personnel side. A year later the Patriots won the Super Bowl. Fans stopped grumbling. "Put a winning team on the field, and fans will come," Dimitroff said, recounting the lesson he said was driven into him by Belichick and Pioli. "I understand this is entertainment, and I want our fans to be happy. I've been in this business 18 years, and making sound decisions is how you win." Trust your instincts, in other words.
Ryan will have to convince a locker room and a city that he's the right man to succeed Vick. He's certainly a different kind of talent. A pure dropback passer, Ryan rushed for 58 yards over 45 college games -- a total Vick sometimes amassed in a quarter. Ryan made his mark with his composure, his strong, accurate arm and his propensity to lead late comebacks. After he was drafted, Ryan spoke eagerly to the Falcons' brass. When the phone finally got around to Blank, he asked, "Should I call you Matty Ice?"
That'll be fine. Ryan will need ice water in his veins to make it in Atlanta.