Blank and team president Rich McKay were flying back to the U.S. from a Kenyan
safari in July 2007 when the pilot came out of the cockpit to notify them of an
emergency. The plane was fine; it was their team that had hit major turbulence.
The pilot gave Blank an in-flight fax of Michael Vick's federal indictment on
dog-fighting charges. "I still have it," says McKay. "I might frame
it just to put into perspective the calamity of last season and how we move on
guilty and was sentenced to 23 months in jail. Then, 13 games into the season,
coach Bobby Petrino abandoned the team to take the same job at Arkansas. After
Atlanta finished 4--12, Blank, the cofounder of Home Depot, set about cleaning
out and rebuilding: Thomas Dimitroff, director of college scouting for the
Patriots, was hired as G.M.; affable Jaguars defensive coordinator Mike Smith
became the new coach; veterans DeAngelo Hall and Alge Crumpler, who had been
critical of team management, were cut loose; and a new face of the franchise,
Boston College quarterback Matt Ryan, was drafted with the No. 3 pick.
Blank had Ryan
fostering goodwill at community events and hawking tickets in commercials
practically from the moment he touched down at Hartsfield on April 26. In fact,
the owner and his front office are making a conscious effort to present this
young squad in a wholesome light. (More than half of the roster still in camp
last weekend had two years' experience or less.) For a scrimmage staged at Mill
Creek High, north of Atlanta, the team had three parachutists trailing
Falcons-red smoke and an American flag float to midfield during the national
anthem, dozens of dogs doing flips and catching Frisbees (the message: These
Falcons love pooches), and a fireworks show. After the scrimmage the 6,000 fans
got a chance to meet the players.
Fresh faces and
crowd-pleasing gimmicks may help the team's image, but will they do anything to
improve that abysmal record? Veteran Chris Redman might have been a safe choice
at quarterback, at least early in the season. Redman was out of the league and
selling insurance two years ago but started the last four games in 2007,
throwing for 898 yards and eight touchdowns in that span. "I was just
getting into the flow of things," says Redman, 31. "I know how the NFL
works and get that Matt is going to be a big part of this program. I just want
to help him along and give him a little competition."
He did, but Ryan
showed an impressive command of the playbook and performed well enough in
preseason to be named the starter. He could get mauled early with an untested
offensive line that includes rookie left tackle Sam Baker protecting the blind
Ryan will have a
reliable target in speedy fourth-year wideout Roddy White, who last year became
the first Falcon to surpass 1,000 receiving yards since Terance Mathis in 1999.
Another optimistic note for the young QB is that new offensive coordinator Mike
Mularkey favors the run and has two reliable backs in free-agent Michael Turner
and third-year man Jerious Norwood.
for the squad will come from 11th-year linebacker Keith Brooking, the only
player left from the 1998 Super Bowl team. Last season Brooking, 32, led
Atlanta in tackles for the seventh straight year, and he'll return to his
favored weakside spot as rookie Curtis Lofton takes over in the middle.
"Smitty and his coaches are pure football guys who have not made it
complicated for us in terms of schemes, terminology and the installation of the
system," says Brooking. "They've given us the nuts and bolts of
football, and I believe they'll put a winning team out there on
Keeping it simple
is a good theme for a team that needs to separate itself from the recent past.
Merely establishing a new identity with its fans will count as progress.
STARTING LINEUP WITH 2007 STATISTICS COACH MIKE SMITH (0--0 in NFL), first
season with Falcons