THE TEXT MESSAGEarrived on Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff's cellphone around noonlast Saturday, three hours before the start of the 2008 NFL draft: TRUST YOURINSTINCTS. YOU HAVE BEEN TRAINING FOR THIS ALL YOUR LIFE. It came from Patriotsvice president Scott Pioli, Dimitroff's close friend, former boss and mentor,and he took the encouraging words to heart. This was the first draft thatDimitroff, 42, would run, and the job ahead of him was monumental. Atlanta heldsix of the first 98 picks and had 10 holes in its starting lineup to fill,including quarterback. "This draft will be a milestone in the history ofthe Falcons," team owner Arthur Blank had said on Friday. "We're notstarting a new chapter here. We're starting a new book."
Thirty minutesbefore the draft began, the Rams, holding the No. 2 pick, one spot ahead ofAtlanta, called Dimitroff to tell him they'd received strong interest in theirpick from the Ravens, who were sitting at No. 8 and also needed a passer. WouldDimitroff like to trump that offer by giving St. Louis a second-round pick inreturn for swapping positions with the Rams, thus assuring the Falcons thatthey'd get the QB they wanted, Matt Ryan of Boston College? The Atlanta braintrust huddled, but in the end it was Dimitroff's decision. "I don't want tosay we were calling their bluff," Dimitroff said later, "but I justdidn't think Baltimore would trade a lot of their draft for this oneplayer." He was right. The Falcons stayed at No. 3 and got Ryan.
Dimitroff'ssecond draft priority was left tackle, and when the fifth tackle flew off theboard with the 19th pick of the first round, he intensified discussions withthe Redskins to trade back into the first round, at No. 21. The deal got donein time—Dimitroff gave up two second-round picks (Nos. 34 and 48) plus afourth- and a fifth-rounder for Washington's first-round choice plus a thirdand a fifth—and grabbed Sam Baker, a four-year starter at USC. It was a reach;even Baker was stunned to be taken so high. "In an ideal world,"Dimitroff said, "you'd get Baker at 34 or 37. But if we had waited, he'dhave been gone, and we would be shut out of the guys we liked. Quarterback,left tackle, defensive end, cornerback ... it's worth being aggressivethere."
THE 73RD NFLdraft showcased several such instinctive decisions that will have far-reachingimplications. The Jaguars, to shore up an aging pass rush, traded a total ofsix draft picks to move up twice and select defensive ends, Florida's DerrickHarvey and Auburn's Quentin Groves. The Ravens got their first-roundquarterback, but was it the right one? Baltimore bypassed Chad Henne ofMichigan for Joe Flacco of Division I-AA Delaware. The Panthers paid atremendous price—second- and fourth-round picks this year and theirfirst-rounder in 2009—to get the Eagles' pick at No. 19, which they used onPitt tackle Jeff Otah. "In this business," said Carolina coach JohnFox, "what you really want is never cheap."
Also, the lessonlearned from the Giants' victory over the Patriots in Super Bowl XLII had astrong influence on this draft: To win a championship, a team better have apass rush ... and, on offense, it better have players who can stop a pass rush.Seven of the top 10 picks were defensive linemen or linebackers chosen fortheir ability to pressure the quarterback; seven of the top 26 (including theDolphins' selection at No. 1, Michigan's Jake Long) were offensive tackles.That's quite a lot of early picks spent on players who don't throw or catch theball—but play a major role in determining the success of those who do. (For thefirst time since 1990, no wide receivers were chosen in the first round.)
Among the teamsthat appeared to have gotten a lot better last weekend were Miami, which mighthave stolen a starting quarterback in Henne, at No. 57; Kansas City, whichnabbed three of its top 25--rated players, including LSU defensive tackle GlennDorsey at No. 5 (box, page 60); and Philadelphia, which swung a total of threetrades, piled up 10 picks over the two days and still landed a premiumreceiver-return at No. 49, Cal's DeSean Jackson, whom the Eagles had consideredtaking in the first round.
The Falcons? Noother team over the last 12 months lived the nightmare this franchise did, sono other team was as dependent on the 2008 draft. They used three third-roundpicks to get a cover corner, LSU's Chevis Jackson, a speedy wideout inLouisville's Harry Douglas and a special teams standout in Cal safety ThomasDeCoud. While the rest of the league was tinkering with their rosters lastweekend, Atlanta, with 11 picks overall, was operating like an expansionteam.
ANY STORY aboutthe Falcons these days must make a stop 842 miles from Atlanta, at the federalpenitentiary in Leavenworth, Kans. You wonder: Was Michael Vick watching thedraft on TV there, when the selection of Ryan all but guaranteed he won't beinvited back to lead Atlanta's offense?
Since Vick beganserving his 23-month sentence last November following his conviction ondogfighting charges, Blank has received three handwritten letters from him. Theowner said last week that Vick has been apologetic and sincere in the messages."He was washing pots and pans for 12 cents an hour, and now he's ajanitor," Blank said quietly last Friday. He paused for a full fiveseconds, then added, "I would think that would have a way of cleansingone's soul."
Vick's arrest inJuly 2007 was the start of a long losing streak for the Falcons. They staggeredthrough a dismal 4--12 season marked, on Dec. 11, by the departure offirst-year coach Bobby Petrino, who walked out on the team with two games leftto become coach at Arkansas. In January, Bill Parcells, a candidate to runfootball operations and a potential franchise savior, jilted Blank for asimilar role with the Dolphins. Over the next three months disgruntled Pro Bowlcornerback DeAngelo Hall was traded to the Raiders, and core veterans AlgeCrumpler, Warrick Dunn and Rod Coleman were cut to clear the way for youngerplayers. At the same time Atlanta's season-ticket base has been hemorrhaging;Blank confirmed that renewals are down.
And Vick'sfootball heroics still resonate among Falcons fans. "This city's history isbuilt on racial divide," says Gil Tyree, sports anchor for WGCL-TV inAtlanta. "Michael Vick had a hold over this city that no athlete will everhave again. Everybody wonders, 'Is Mike coming back?' Or 'When's Mike comingback?' These people won't forget him. He's a messiah here."
After Ryan waspicked, Tyree led his sportscast by saying, "It's now officially the end ofthe Michael Vick era." Afterward, when he was asked how area fans wouldreceive their new quarterback, Tyree said, "No matter what Matt Ryan willdo, he'll never be accepted."
Blank has yet tostate publicly that Vick won't play for the Falcons again, but he came close ondraft weekend. "We have an obligation to move forward," Blank said."That chapter needs to be closed."
ON MARCH 26 acontingent of Falcons decision-makers that included Dimitroff, coach MikeSmith, offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey and quarterbacks coach Bill Musgraveboarded Blank's private jet and began an eight-day, six-city trip to evaluatethe six quarterbacks they rated highest in the draft: from Josh Johnson at SanDiego, 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 evaluatorsliked 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 thatseemingly ran through his veins in tight situations. In college, the namestuck.
Before the tripDimitroff thought Dorsey, the LSU pass rusher, was the best player in thedraft. But Ryan's workout in Chestnut Hill, Mass., and a three-hourdinner-interrogation started to change that thinking. At the restaurantDimitroff tested the quarterback's loyalty to his teammates when he noted thatRyan's receivers had dropped some 50 passes last season. He asked if Ryanthought he'd have been a better passer with more talented wideouts. Ryan toldthe 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 greatteammate."
Then in a50-minute session using the whiteboard in the BC football meeting room, thecoaches briefed Ryan on the offense Atlanta will run next season, explainingtendencies and playcalls. Musgrave drew a formation with motion, then gave themarker to Ryan. Mularkey would call out a play, and Ryan would have to show theroute tree for his receivers and the progression of his reads. Ryan did sowell—better by far than the other five quarterbacks, Mularkey said later—thatthe coordinator began throwing out more plays. For the final one, Mularkeydescribed an option route with four receivers and quarterback movement, a playthat sounded to Ryan like one BC ran called 335 Naked. Ryan rattled off theassignments of the four receivers and his progression—how he'd look to thetight end first, slot receiver second and wideouts third and fourth.
"It wasn'tjust that he got it right," said Mularkey. "It's that he got it rightfast, which is so important in this game. You've got to process information. Welimit the terminology in our offense. We want it to be quick and up-tempo, andfor the quarterback, intelligence is vital."
When the Falconsleft Chestnut Hill for the airport, Mularkey turned to Dimitroff.
"I'd take himat three," Mularkey said.
THEY TOOK him atthree, over Dorsey, one of the best defensive tackles to come out of college inyears. Dimitroff said the decision came down to a strong belief in Ryan, thedire need for a quarterback—roster marginalia Chris Redman, Joey Harrington andD.J. Shockley are the other options—and uncertainty over when Atlanta might bein position to pick another QB. Dimitroff will have some selling to do not onlyto fans but also to some of his own players.
"Not takingGlenn Dorsey surprised me," said fourth-year linebacker Michael Boley,sounding disappointed as he left the Atlanta Hawks' NBA playoff game with theBoston Celtics on Saturday night. "He'd have been a great player for ourdefense."
Dimitroff, whospent six years with the Patriots, the last five as director of collegescouting, remembers the grumbling in New England in 2000, when Bill Belichickinherited 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. "Puta 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'vebeen in this business 18 years, and making sound decisions is how you win."Trust your instincts, in other words.
Ryan will have toconvince a locker room and a city that he's the right man to succeed Vick. He'scertainly a different kind of talent. A pure dropback passer, Ryan rushed for58 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 hispropensity to lead late comebacks. After he was drafted, Ryan spoke eagerly tothe 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.
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RYAN'S HOPE The cool-under-pressure passer impressed Falcons brass, but winning over Atlanta's fans may prove to be the tougher challenge.
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