OWNER ArthurBlank and team president Rich McKay were flying back to the U.S. from a Kenyansafari in July 2007 when the pilot came out of the cockpit to notify them of anemergency. 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 ondog-fighting charges. "I still have it," says McKay. "I might frameit just to put into perspective the calamity of last season and how we move onfrom it."
Vick pleadedguilty 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. AfterAtlanta finished 4--12, Blank, the cofounder of Home Depot, set about cleaningout and rebuilding: Thomas Dimitroff, director of college scouting for thePatriots, was hired as G.M.; affable Jaguars defensive coordinator Mike Smithbecame the new coach; veterans DeAngelo Hall and Alge Crumpler, who had beencritical 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 Ryanfostering goodwill at community events and hawking tickets in commercialspractically 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 thisyoung squad in a wholesome light. (More than half of the roster still in camplast weekend had two years' experience or less.) For a scrimmage staged at MillCreek High, north of Atlanta, the team had three parachutists trailingFalcons-red smoke and an American flag float to midfield during the nationalanthem, dozens of dogs doing flips and catching Frisbees (the message: TheseFalcons love pooches), and a fireworks show. After the scrimmage the 6,000 fansgot a chance to meet the players.
Fresh faces andcrowd-pleasing gimmicks may help the team's image, but will they do anything toimprove that abysmal record? Veteran Chris Redman might have been a safe choiceat quarterback, at least early in the season. Redman was out of the league andselling insurance two years ago but started the last four games in 2007,throwing for 898 yards and eight touchdowns in that span. "I was justgetting into the flow of things," says Redman, 31. "I know how the NFLworks and get that Matt is going to be a big part of this program. I just wantto help him along and give him a little competition."
He did, but Ryanshowed an impressive command of the playbook and performed well enough inpreseason to be named the starter. He could get mauled early with an untestedoffensive line that includes rookie left tackle Sam Baker protecting the blindside.
Ryan will have areliable target in speedy fourth-year wideout Roddy White, who last year becamethe 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 MikeMularkey favors the run and has two reliable backs in free-agent Michael Turnerand third-year man Jerious Norwood.
Veteran guidancefor the squad will come from 11th-year linebacker Keith Brooking, the onlyplayer left from the 1998 Super Bowl team. Last season Brooking, 32, ledAtlanta in tackles for the seventh straight year, and he'll return to hisfavored weakside spot as rookie Curtis Lofton takes over in the middle."Smitty and his coaches are pure football guys who have not made itcomplicated for us in terms of schemes, terminology and the installation of thesystem," says Brooking. "They've given us the nuts and bolts offootball, and I believe they'll put a winning team out there onSundays."
Keeping it simpleis 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.
PROJECTEDSTARTING LINEUP WITH 2007 STATISTICS COACH MIKE SMITH (0--0 in NFL), firstseason with Falcons
Michael TURNER[New ACQUISITION]
Matt RYAN (R)
Sam BAKER (R)
Jason ELAM [NewACQUISITION]
Ben HARTSOCK [NewACQUISITION]
Erik COLEMAN [NewACQUISITION]
(R) Rookie(college statistics)
2007 RECORD 4--12NFL RANK (Rush/Pass/Total): OFFENSE 26/18/23 DEFENSE 26/23/29
14 at Tampa Bay
21 KANSAS CITY
28 at Carolina
5 at Green Bay
26 at Philadelphia
2 at Oakland
9 NEW ORLEANS
30 at San Diego
7 at New Orleans
14 TAMPA BAY
21 at Minnesota
28 ST. LOUIS
NFL Rank: 24
Opponents' 2007 winning percentage: .469
Games against playoff teams: 4
NOW AT SI.COM SI VAULT
EXCERPTED FROM SI
November 13, 1989
GIVEN HIS obnoxious, thundering-rap rep, Deion Sandershas bent over backward to ingratiate himself with his new teammates on theFalcons, as he did with the Yankees. The punt return for a touchdown right outof the box helped. His gifts of Gucci watches to the 10 other Falcons on thereturn squad didn't hurt his cause, either.
Free access to all FALCONS stories and photographs from the SI archives, plusvideo clips.
SI.com's NFL personnel expert Michael Lombardievaluates the Falcons' units.
New era starts with Ryan, and with typical rookie QB questions.
Nice one-two: powerful Turner, versatile Jerious Norwood.
Some too old, some too young; White has real potential.
Has neither the big blocker nor the great pass catcher.
No left tackle, injured right tackle, new system, new technique.
Excellent on the edges, but lacks true power and size on the inside.
Effectiveness hinges on '08 second-round pick Lofton.
Lack a cover corner; limited range spells trouble at safety.
Dome will boost Elam's accuracy, not his distance.
The Burner averaged 5.5 yards a carry in four years asLaDainian Tomlinson's backup in San Diego, good enough for a six-year, $34.5million free-agent deal from the Falcons. The 5'10" 244-pounder should comeinto his own burrowing behind fullback Ovie Mughelli in coordinator MikeMularkey's run-heavy scheme.
TACKLE MACHINE In a new role, Brooking isn't likely to lose his taste for the takedown.
DALE ZANINE/US PRESSWIRE
LEE CRUM (COVER)