August 27, 2008
SI's 2008 NFL Scouting Reports
Atlanta Falcons
Projected Finish: 4th in NFC South
In a new role, Brooking isn't likely to lose his taste for the takedown.
David E. Klutho/SI
2008 Schedule

The Era of Good Feelings has begun in Flowery Branch. Just don't expect Good Football anytime soon.

Owner Arthur 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 tonotify them of an emergency. The plane was fine; it was their team that had hitmajor turbulence. The pilot gave Blank an in-flight fax of Michael Vick'sfederal indictment on dog-fighting charges. "I still have it," says McKay. "Imight frame it just to put into perspective the calamity of last season and howwe move on from it."

Vick pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 23 months in jail. Then, 13 gamesinto the season, coach Bobby Petrino abandoned the team to take the same job atArkansas. After Atlanta finished 4-12, Blank, the cofounder of Home Depot, setabout cleaning out and rebuilding: Thomas Dimitroff, director of collegescouting for the Patriots, was hired as G.M.; affable Jaguars defensivecoordinator Mike Smith became the new coach; veterans DeAngelo Hall and AlgeCrumpler, who had been critical of team management, were cut loose; and a newface of the franchise, Boston College quarterback Matt Ryan, was drafted withthe No. 3 pick.

Blank had Ryan fostering goodwill at community events and hawking tickets incommercials practically from the moment he touched down at Hartsfield onApril 26. In fact, the owner and his front office are making a consciouseffort to present this young squad in a wholesome light. (More than half of theroster still in camp last weekend had two years' experience or less.) For ascrimmage staged at Mill Creek High, north of Atlanta, the team had threeparachutists trailing Falcons-red smoke and an American flag float to midfieldduring the national anthem, dozens of dogs doing flips and catching Frisbees(the message: These Falcons love pooches), and a fireworks show. Afterthe 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 willthey do anything to improve that abysmal record? Veteran Chris Redman might havebeen a safe choice at quarterback, at least early in the season. Redman was outof the league and selling insurance two years ago but started the last fourgames in 2007, throwing for 898 yards and eight touchdowns in that span. "I wasjust getting 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 Ryan showed an impressive command of the playbook and performedwell enough in preseason to be named the starter. He could get mauled early withan untested offensive line that includes rookie left tackle Sam Baker protectingthe blind side.

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 sinceTerance Mathis in 1999. Another optimistic note for the young QB is that newoffensive coordinator Mike Mularkey favors the run and has two reliable backs infree-agent Michael Turner and third-year man Jerious Norwood.

Veteran guidance for the squad will come from 11th-year linebacker KeithBrooking, the only player left from the 1998 Super Bowl team. Last seasonBrooking, 32, led Atlanta in tackles for the seventh straight year, and he'llreturn to his favored weakside spot as rookie Curtis Lofton takes over in themiddle. "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 of football, and Ibelieve they'll put a winning team out there on Sundays."

Keeping it simple is a good theme for a team that needs to separate itselffrom the recent past. Merely establishing a new identity with its fans willcount as progress. -- Lisa Altobelli


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