Once-downtrodden Falcons now among NFL's best

BY PAUL NEWBERRY AP SPORTS WRITER ATLANTA (AP) – During their dismal first season, the Atlanta Falcons' mascot - a real bird - apparently decided he had seen enough bad football. So, he picked up and left. Just flew away.
For the better part of the next four decades, plenty of Atlantans probably wished they could've followed the lead of that prescient falcon in 1966. This was the home of a team that always found a way to quickly snuff out whatever hope it had. The franchise's only trip to the Super Bowl? That was ruined by the arrest of perhaps its most respected player the night before the big game. The Michael Vick era? That crashed and burned when it was discovered the one-of-a-kind quarterback had another passion - dogfighting. Well, look at the Falcons now. They have put together four straight winning seasons and are well on their way to a fifth, joining Houston as the only teams that are still unbeaten five weeks into the season. Since the beginning of 2008, the Falcons have won 48 out of 69 games. Only the New England Patriots have won more during that span. No one could have imagined the Falcons ever becoming a model franchise. Not even the player who's been with the team longer than anyone. "If you had asked me five years ago, it would have been hard for me to say yes," said center Todd McClure, now in his 14th season with the Falcons. "It had been such an up-and-down roller coaster for us." Atlanta, which is 5-0 for the first time in the franchise's 46-year history heading into Sunday's home game against Oakland, has assembled one of the league's most dynamic offenses, led by quarterback Matt Ryan and featuring all sorts of weapons - Hall of Famer-to-be tight end Tony Gonzalez, stretch-the-field receivers Roddy White and Julio Jones, bruising runner Michael Turner. The defense isn't too shabby, either. Under first-year coordinator Mike Nolan, the Falcons have taken on an aggressive, gambling personality, snatching away 14 turnovers and knocking Redskins rookie sensation Robert Griffin III out of the game last week with a concussion. Through it all, the tone is set by white-haired coach Mike Smith, who demands even-keeled dedication during the week, a fiery passion on Sundays. "It's all trickle-down economics," said safety Thomas DeCoud, who is tied for the NFL lead with four interceptions. "Whatever the big guy says, we buy into it wholeheartedly. He's always preaching consistency. He always says consistency makes greatness. There's a sense of pride on this team. We want to be great. I think we've really bought into it this season." Before 2008, consistency would've been the last word anyone attached to the Falcons. The team sported one of the most garish streaks in all of sports: never, not even once, had it put together back-to-back winning seasons. In fact, going into the `08 season, the Falcons might have been at their lowest point ever. Vick, the face of the franchise, was in prison after admitting to his brutal hobby. The team he left behind was coming off a 4-12 debacle. When the Falcons reported for training camp, someone hired a plane to fly over the practice field dragging a sign that read: "New team name: Dog Killers?" Little did anyone know, but things were about to change. Big time. Thomas Dimitroff, a bike-riding, new-age disciple of New England's Bill Belichick, was hired as general manager. Smith, a little-known defensive coordinator in Jacksonville, took over as the head coach. Ryan was drafted with the third overall pick and immediately handed the keys to the franchise. Just like that, the Falcons were transformed. Instead of needing several years to recover from the Vick debacle, as most people expected, they went 11-5 and made the playoffs as a wild card. In 2009, Atlanta missed the playoffs during an injury plagued season, but signaled it was truly a new era by winning the final three games to pull out a 9-7 record. For the first time, they had two winning years in a row. The success continued in 2010 - 13-3 and an NFC South title. Last year, in a sign of how far the Falcons have come, a 10-6 record and wild-card berth was actually considered a major disappointment. In fact, the only thing the new-look Falcons are missing is a signature playoff win. Heck, a playoff win of any kind. All three postseason appearances under the current regime were one and done: a mistake-filled loss to Arizona in the desert; a 48-21 blowout at home by the Green Bay Packers when Atlanta was the NFC's top seed; a putrid 24-2 defeat at the hands of the New York Giants last season. Those failures have helped keep this team focused, mindful that the week-to-week grind of the regular season is a necessary step toward the ultimate goal - Atlanta's first Super Bowl title. "It gives us an edge as far as not getting ahead of ourselves," Gonzalez said. "It doesn't matter what your regular season record is. You can't look ahead. You can't start saying Super Bowl or any of that talk. That's nonsense, as far as I'm concerned." Playoff flops aside, a franchise that once charted a new course every year or two has made stability its guiding principle. Dimitroff has been adept at making moves both subtle (18 players on the current 53-man roster were drafted in the third round or lower) and dramatic (Jones, Gonzalez and cornerback Asante Samuel were acquired through trades), but the GM strives mainly to keep the core of the team together each season. He stuck with that philosophy even after owner Arthur Blank made it clear last January he wasn't happy about another playoff loss. The biggest changes, it turned out, were on the coaching staff. Nolan, a former NFL head coach, stepped in to run the defense after Brian VanGorder left. Dirk Koetter took over as offensive coordinator for Mike Mularkey, who became the head coach at Jacksonville. Koetter's hiring was a bit of a puzzler. He came from the Jaguars, who had the NFL's lowest-ranked offense in 2011. But the new coordinator has clicked with Ryan, opening up the offense to take advantage of all the options in the passing game. The run-oriented offense that Smith prefers has given way to a wide-open passing attack. Ryan is averaging nearly 40 passes a game, easily a career-high pace, and getting an early push for the MVP award. "This is the most we've thrown the ball since I've been here, but we've got the guys to do it," McClure said. "We're using our playmakers. As long as we continue to do that and we keep Matt upright, the sky's the limit." That sort of talk used to be an anomaly in Atlanta. Now, it's the norm. --- Follow Paul Newberry on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/pnewberry --- Online: http://pro32.ap.org/poll and http://twitter.com/AP-NFL © 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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