This is the Falcons fourth training camp at their pristine practice facility in Flowery Branch, Ga., which is a 45-minute drive up I-85 from Atlanta. The atmosphere is carnival-like in a good way, with hundreds of kids lining the field in face paint and waving Falcon fans under their chins in the 92-degree heat. It beats the circus that descended on the Branch last year. "Do you see PETA protestors in red paint lined up at the gates? Do you see any planes with banners flying overhead?" asked team president Rich McKay, pointing skyward, in a Panama Jack hat. "You could say things are a little quieter this year. We'll take it."
Owner Arthur Blank got rid of everyone who gave him agita last season, including outspoken veterans DeAngelo Hall and Alge Crumpler. And while you can still buy Hall and Crumpler jerseys on the clearance rack at the entrance of the field, there is no sign of Michael Vick's former NFL best-selling jersey. They were donated to World Vision charity and sent to the country of Georgia -- the same charity that sent the Patriots 19-0 shirts to Guatemala. So while there's a whole new set of Georgians wearing Vick's No. 7, these Georgians perched on the hill at camp are ready to move on and see what the new flock can do.
1. Ryan vs. Redman (and Harrington and Shockley for that matter). Coach Mike Smith said there's an open competition for the QB job and he's been true to his word thus far, rotating each QB for first team snaps. Chris Redman looks like he's having the time of his life, firing the ball with the confidence that comes from 10 TDs in four starts at the end of last season. Cerebral Matt Ryan has also impressed with his quick pickup of the playbook as a rookie, while Joey Harrington and D.J. Shockley are battling for the third spot.
Smith will most likely start Redman, especially with unproven rookie Sam Baker starting at left tackle and guarding the QB's blindside. The threat of Ryan's endorsement ready cheekbones getting smashed into the field turf is too great a risk until the line's ability is proven.
2. No matter the QB, he'll have a reliable target in Roddy White. The man has serious speed off the line and can separate from defenders. He was eighth in the league last year with more than 1,200 receiving yards, and he doesn't look like he's lost a step. He's been spending extra time with Ryan whenever he gets a chance, explaining that, "I know Matt's our future, so the more I socialize with him off the field, the better we'll be at connecting when we're on it."
3. The players heart Mike Smith. "When I compare coaching regimes, last year was like being locked up in prison for seven months and this year is like lying on the beach under an umbrella with a Corona in your hand," said linebacker Keith Brooking, who's in his 11th season as a Falcon. While Bobby Petrino closed himself off to the team, Smith's style is to keep an open dialogue with the players. The good news is because they like him, they'll play hard for him. Heck, he even lets them call him Smitty.
Take your pick. New coach, new QB, new CB, new TE, new RB, but the Falcons also have a new face in old, reliable Broncos kicker Jason Elam. The 38-year-old Elam takes over for 47-year-old Morten Andersen and has a 90 percent field goal conversion rate the past two seasons, which will give the Falcons the threes they need. Plus, Elam grew up in the Atlanta area and is downright giddy to be kicking in a dome after 15 years at Mile High. "I'll sleep well knowing it will be 70 degrees and no wind," he said.
While most prognosticators are predicting the Falcons to be this year's Dolphins, they could squeak out a few home Ws early and surprise people -- especially Week 1 against the Lions, who have only won once in the Georgia Dome, and in Week 3 versus the Chiefs. Their strength of schedule is in the middle of the pack, and while this will still be a rebuilding year for the Falcons, they won't be as horrendous as people think if they jell early.
In the "Oh no he didn't!" moment of camp, rookie wideout Harry Douglas smacked 13-year safety Lawyer Milloy upside the head during a running play in the team's first practice in pads. As an aside, one of my favorite NFL posters from the late '90s had then-Patriots Milloy and Ty Law underneath the heading "The Firm" back when John Grisham was still selling out Barnes and Noble. While some players were impressed with Douglas' bravado, others are waiting for Milloy's eventual retribution for breaking the unwritten respect-the-vets law. It didn't happen Thursday -- Milloy was on the sidelines with a bruised toe.
• Rookie Curtis Lofton has taken over the middle linebacker spot, pushing Brooking back to the weakside position, and Brooking couldn't be happier. Four of his five Pro Bowls came when he was playing weakside.
• This team has sweet living quarters. Blank built four condo complexes off the far edge of the practice fields four years ago that are only used for training camp. Each player gets his own room in the four-bedroom, two-bath pads, plus access to an amenities building with pool tables, ping pong and Playstations, as well as a lake to fish from off the side and a pool to jump in off the back.
• Besides a QB competition there's competition in the secondary. It looks like Chris Houston and Brent Grimes will be the starting cornerbacks. Von Hutchins was the first casualty of camp when he was placed on IR with a sprained foot, leaving Chevis Jackson, Blue Adams and Antoine Harris working for the nickel spot.
• Michael "the Burner" Turner gets down and burrows yardage. He could be the real deal this season behind fullback Ovie Mughelli and under Mike Mularkey's scheme, which favors the run.