For 10 years, the Falcons have lived in the shadow of a transformative quarterback whose dismissal turned a fan base sour. By reaching Super Bowl LI,MATT RYAN HAS FINALLY MADE ATLANTA HIS OWN
VICTORY CAME SWIFTLY. TRUE JUBILATION?
That took a while longer. More than 10 minutes elapsed between the end of Sunday's NFC championship game—the final whistle ever at the 25-year-old Georgia Dome—and the moment when Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan finally reunited with the man who put him in a position to have a hand in five of the game's touchdowns.
After hastily slaying the Packers 44--21, Ryan (27 of 38 for 392 yards and four TDs, plus another one achieved gawkily on his feet) climbed a makeshift stage near the 50-yard line and fielded questions from FOX's Terry Bradshaw. He congratulated team owner Arthur Blank and endured his media obligations. Offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan, meanwhile, took the elevator down from the coaches' box, hung a left into the bowels of the stadium, waded through hundreds of green-wristbanded VIPs, found his own wife and kids among the red-white-and-black confetti ... and then, around the 35-yard line, while the rest of the Falcons finally got their chance to hoist the George Halas Trophy, enfolded Ryan in a long, two-armed We really did this! embrace.
There was so much to that bro hug between two guys who didn't seem at all like bros last year. But a miserable 2015—21st in points, 26th in turnovers—begat a record-setting '16. Shanahan, the 37-year-old, presumed-to-be-next coach of the 49ers, proved he's one of the best play-callers in the league. And Ryan, even though there's one more summit left, climbed a mountain that few pundits believed he would ever conquer. The No. 3 pick in the '08 draft has never captured his adopted city the way his predecessor, Michael Vick, did. He may never do so. But here Ryan was, nine years into his stay, at a place Vick never could take this team or this community. The Falcons have long been Matty Ice's team. Now Atlanta is his too.
"I've gotten to know Mike, and he's been so supportive of me," Ryan said at his locker following the biggest game of his life, two weeks before the next biggest game of his life. "There was never [a sense of] I'm trying to do this better than he did. I wasn't trying to one-up him. I was just trying to do the best job I could."
In the decade since Vick's indictment on federal dogfighting charges and his eventual release by the team that drafted him No. 1 in 2001, Atlanta has undergone massive cultural and sociological change. Falcons fans have had to reckon not only with Vick's undoing but also with how the team handled it. Ultimately, they've found joy again in an offensive juggernaut.
HOUSTON WON'T host the sexiest Super Bowl matchup ever; it's certainly not the one NFL execs would have drawn up in their dreams. On one side Tom Brady is going for his fifth ring in seven tries, playing for a team that claims an entire region of supporters. On the other is a franchise that has played .438 football over its 51-year history, with just one prior (losing) Super Bowl appearance, in 1999, and a fan base consisting mostly of transplants.
Atlanta's transitory makeup can be traced back to the 1970s, when the majority-black city became a national and international player, shortly after the civil rights movement. The local government began renovating and expanding Hartsfield-Jackson airport in the late '70s, completing it by the early '80s under then mayor Andrew Young. That airport is now the busiest in the world. "I understood the economy was global," says Young, 84, who served as the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations from '77 to '79 and brought that international expertise to the mayorship. "I said, 'Atlanta's got to become the next great international city.' And people thought that was crazy."
In college Young spent time in Germany, which he got to know better later as an ambassador. As mayor he wooed German businesses with the promise that they could reach 80% of the U.S. market within two hours of Hartsfield-Jackson. He estimates that he brought in nearly 500 companies from that country during his eight years in office.
With jobs came employees, and Young had a pitch for them, too: Sell your house in New York or New Jersey, Cleveland or Detroit; I'll get you twice the home for half the money. People and companies bought in. Factor in the graduates being churned out at Emory and Morehouse and Georgia Tech, and the city's increasing role in the film industry (Georgia ranks third in the world in terms of movies filmed there), and Atlanta's metro area was suddenly booming. The metropolis became internationally viable, and in 1996 it became only the third U.S. city to host the Summer Olympic Games.
But as Atlanta flourished and the NFL took off, the Falcons, an expansion team from 1966, did not. Chris Chandler's Super Bowl XXXIII runners-up were hardly enough to win over a fan base. Then came the Michael Vick Experience.
No one today blinks when a team drafts a black quarterback with the No. 1 pick. That was hardly the case in 2001. Michael Vick was a black quarterback in a way that no one had ever seen: He was one of the fastest players in the league, and he could flick the ball 70 yards; he was brash, wore cornrows and had signature Nikes. "Michael was a rock star," says Falcons president Rich McKay. "He was iconic—to this fan base and even on the road. You'd go to the hotel, and there would be people waiting to see Michael."
When Blank bought the team in 2002, he knew he'd be battling the Braves and the Hawks, plus Georgia and Georgia Tech, for attention. So he began by revamping the game-day experience to emphasize tailgating. Doug Stewart, a former Atlanta radio show host who now hosts a daily sports podcast, compares the pregame scene back then to Mardi Gras—or, more aptly, Freaknik, a (now defunct) weeklong spring break party for students at Atlanta HBCUs.
In 2002, Vick became the first visiting QB to beat the Packers at Lambeau Field in the postseason, and he took the Falcons as far as the NFC title game in '04, against the Eagles. Then, in July '07, came the dogfighting charges. As serious as the allegations were, it didn't go over well in the black community when the Falcons immediately said they were considering asking Vick to take a paid leave, even as he alleged his innocence.
"Mike Vick reminded you of a family member if you were black—like a cousin or an uncle," says Stewart. "He was trying to do good, but he just didn't do right. He had all these little [incidents], the weed situation at the airport. [Vick was stopped in Miami for carrying a water bottle that police believed contained marijuana stored in a secret compartment; he was never charged.] It was almost like we were rooting for him to get his stuff straight.
"A lot of people—and particularly, a lot of the black fan base in this city—felt that [Blank] left Vick hanging [before the 2007 season]," Stewart says. "That he washed his hands of him too quickly."
McKay can understand that sentiment. He was the general manager of the team at the time, and he discussed with Blank how they might handle having their star player get federally indicted at the start of training camp. They could state with gusto that they stood behind him (and possibly find out later that they were on the wrong side), or they could release a pithy statement asking fans to respect the investigation. Instead they held a press conference explaining their conundrum and tried to be as truthful as possible. "It's very hard when you have a franchise player—and Michael was a franchise player-plus—in the situation he was in," says McKay. "[Whatever you do], you're going to have some very angry people on the other side."
Vick pleaded guilty that August. (He would eventually serve 19 months in prison.) Before the 2007 season even kicked off, the Falcons went from Super Bowl contenders to bottom of the league. Atlanta started three different quarterbacks, went 4--12 and saw their seasons-long sellout streak screech to a halt. With three games left in that first, frustrating post-Vick campaign, rookie coach Bobby Petrino typed out a four-sentence note, laminated it and dropped copies at each player's locker. The gist: He was quitting.
McKay says the team turned over more than 10,000 season tickets that off-season. "People want to feel good about their franchise. They're invested," he says. "And when they feel like you embarrassed them or like they were put in an awkward spot, they don't take it well."
Says Stewart, "If the Falcons had waited until [Vick's situation] played itself out [in court] and then moved on without him, then I don't think the animosity that still lingers in this city with the black population would be [as bad]."
The following January, McKay and the Falcons hired general manager Thomas Dimitroff; and that April, Dimitroff used his first pick on Ryan, a senior at Boston College. Considering the damage done, their rebuild would have to be transcendent.
DIMITROFF SET out in 2008 to create an offense that would one day carry his team, and he was hardly frugal in his approach. In '09 he traded a second-round draft pick to acquire future Hall of Fame tight end Tony Gonzalez from the Chiefs; in '11 he shipped five picks to the Browns to move up to No. 6 and grab receiver Julio Jones out of Alabama.
"We were driven in those early years by surrounding Matt with the talent we thought would help him evolve expeditiously," says Dimitroff. "Who knows what that definition is? I didn't put years on it."
The coaching staff was treated too as a complement to the franchise QB. Mike Smith took the Falcons within 10 yards of winning the 2012 NFC title game against the 49ers, then went 10--22 over the next two seasons and was replaced by Seahawks defensive coordinator Dan Quinn. Knowing the difficulties of defending an offense that uses the entire field, Quinn wooed Shanahan, who had helped Robert Griffin III win Rookie of the Year honors with the Redskins in '12.
Shanahan brought with him an offense that puts the passer on the move, which at first appeared tricky for a QB who is closer physically to Peyton Manning than he is to Cam Newton. The 6'4", 217-pound Ryan didn't like having his back to the D, but to sell play-action fakes Shanahan needed him to work on it. The Falcons went 8--8 in 2015, and Ryan threw just 21 TDs (the second fewest of his career) against 16 INTs (second most). "We weren't playing as well as we would have liked," Ryan acknowledges. "Those situations motivate you and drive you to get the job done."
Dimitroff restocked. He signed Pro Bowl center Alex Mack from the Browns to solidify the line; released 35-year-old wideout Roddy White, a four-time Pro Bowler; and replenished the receiver ranks with free agents Mohamed Sanu (27) and Taylor Gabriel (25). The GM was entering the last year of his contract; Ryan was on the other side of 30. If it didn't work out this year ...
"Of course I knew there was a lot of pressure," says Dimitroff. "Quite honestly, [it wasn't] just me. There was a lot of pressure on Matt, a lot of pressure on our offensive coordinator. Last year there were a lot of darts fired at a number of people. What I'm so amazed by is how Matt and Kyle handled it, how they grew and hardened their core to accept that that is what's expected."
Shanahan and Ryan's relationship, their embrace on Sunday, is reflective of these new Falcons, who have bought in totally to Quinn's philosophy of brotherhood. In October, Quinn and Dimitroff sent flowers and notes to players' wives before a weeklong stay out West, when Atlanta visited Denver and Seattle in consecutive weeks. T-shirts and hats splashed with slogans are nothing new in the NFL, but Quinn has created the equivalent of an entire Falcons fashion line—a black hat that reads THE HOOD in red (as in: the Brotherhood); a gray T-shirt with the small acronym IWAMFW (I Wish a Mother------ Would) on the sleeve.
At some point last season offensive playmakers began handing the ball to their linemen after touchdowns, allowing the hogs the honor of the spike—when possible. In the third quarter of Sunday's win, after hauling in a short pass from Ryan, Jones shrugged off one defender and pushed another down, leaving everyone in his dust on a 73-yard score. "Yeah," he said of his decision to flip the ball to the ground himself, "[my linemen] weren't down there when I got there."
As tight as this team is, the Falcons aren't packing for Houston because of some catchy slogan and a democratic approach to celebrations. Their 540 points this season are tied for seventh most in NFL history, and that's largely attributable to Dimitroff's astute acquisitions, Shanahan's scheming and Ryan's ability to evolve—and all of that came together on the first drive on Sunday. Facing first-and-10 from Green Bay's 36, Ryan sent the speedy Gabriel left in motion behind running back Tevin Coleman, in I formation, and the Packers' corner followed. After the snap the QB pivoted, faked a handoff to his right, turning his back to the defense to sell the play action, then looked deep for Jones, who was blanketed by two defenders. Fullback Patrick DiMarco, uncovered by a blitzing linebacker, squeaked out of the backfield into the right flat; Ryan led DiMarco upfield, and the back scampered 31 yards before being knocked out at the five.
"When I looked at Matt, his eyes were so big, it made me worry—Is there somebody right behind me?" says DiMarco. "I turned upfield bracing for a hit, and I said, Oh jeez!"
IN THE time it took the Falcons to rise and fall and rise again, their city has taken on a different look. African-Americans made up 61.6% of Atlanta in 2000, but 10 years later that number was down to 54.0%. Meanwhile, the white population has grown significantly, from 33.1% to 38.4%. The city has gotten whiter and faces massive gentrification, yet it has retained its identity as a hub for excellence, both black and otherwise. Hartsfield-Jackson bustles; a show named after the city and created by a native Atlantan recently won a Best TV Series award at the Golden Globes; songs by two native rap groups have topped the Billboard charts since Thanksgiving. (That didn't stop Donald Trump from referring earlier this month to Georgia's 5th congressional district, which includes Atlanta, as "falling apart.") Atlanta, like any city, has its blemishes, but no NFL home offers as integrated a game-day experience as the Falcons'. "There are plenty of other cities in our country that are diverse," says McKay, "but not comfortably diverse. And I think Atlanta is."
After cheering for Vick and then being fractured by his exit, Falcons fans wholly embrace Ryan, 31, who in two weeks could become the franchise's first MVP before delivering its first Super Bowl victory, all in a 24-hour span. Dimitroff attributes that in part to "an element of incremental leadership" that eased the QB into acceptance: "He was never walking around thumping his chest. He was very mindful about where his level of leadership was as he grew. Now he not only has the offense [behind him], he has the defense as well."
And the fans. For the second straight playoff game on Sunday the Georgia Dome crowd serenaded Ryan with M-V-P chants, although this one he could have lived without. Ryan was entering the huddle, trying to call a play, when the chant swelled, and the unquestioned leader of this team waved his arms up and down to tell his fans, as nicely as possible, Please shut the hell up.
"I appreciated it," Ryan said at his locker, in a display of irony that certainly he could appreciate. "I don't have the loudest of voices, so I needed them to be a little quieter."
"There was a lot of pressure," says Dimitroff. And "it wasn't just me. There were A LOT OF DARTS FIRED at a number of people."