Sometimes it takes an outsider to remind you of what you already know. On Sunday I was talking with Charles Chandler of the Charlotte Observer, and he said, “It’s amazing what these guys have done.”
He meant the Falcons, and it is. And we around here saw it firsthand last season, the rise to 11-5 one year after the agony and indignity of Petrino/Vick. And now we watch as the Falcons head to Foxborough 2-0 and only a 4 1/2-point underdog against the gold standard of professional football, and we dare to ask: Might they win?
And about now, we should take three steps back and try to see the landscape, as opposed, say, to the hair on Michael Turner’s chinny-chin-chin. We should take a moment to reflect, not for the first time but maybe for the first time in a while, just what has transpired.
In the span of two offseasons, a franchise has gone from being both mocked and pitied to being hailed as a new paradigm. It has happened for many reasons, from the celebrated (Dimitroff, Smitty, Turner, Gonzo) to the subtle (Lofton) to the hidden (O-line coach Paul Boudreau). But mostly it has happened because of Matt Ryan.
Had Thomas Dimitroff taken Glenn Dorsey with the third pick of Round 1 on April 26, 2008, it wouldn’t have rendered the “process” less valid or made Mike Smith as phony as Jerry Glanville. But Ryan made it all work, and he made it work overnight. More than just the right pick, he was the right pick at the right moment.
Michael Vick exited Flowery Branch and the whole operation collapsed. Matty Ice showed up and everyone began to believe anew. It wasn’t because he made any campaign promises. (Like Smitty, Ryan is a smart guy who works hard not to say too much. And if you’ve seen his AirTran spot, you know he’s no Al Pacino.) He made people believe because there’s something about Matty that has that effect on people.
It was once said of Joey Harrington — a Falcon quarterback in the lost season of 2007, lest we forget — that he’d step into a huddle and 10 other guys would want to step out. When Ryan steps in the huddle, those other 10 see him and think, “Hey, we’ve got a chance.” Lots of successful sports people write books on leadership. Ryan is the living text.
Say Dimitroff had waited a year to take his quarterback. Nobody in this draft — not Matthew Stafford, not even Mark Sanchez — would have had the restorative effect on a woebegone team and a fractured fan base that Ryan has had here. And without Ryan playing for the Falcons in 2008, none of us would have had cause to believe so completely in the process. Because with Chris Redman at quarterback, the 2008 Falcons would have gone 5-11.
Joe Flacco, taken in Round 1 of the same draft, slipped into Baltimore and made a decent team better, but Joe Flacco could not have made a bad team believe. Ryan did that by showing up and working hard and respecting his elders — he spent $10,000 to install a new stereo system in the locker room — and hanging tough in Week 2 last season in Tampa, and he did it by not being afraid to be The Man Who Followed Michael Vick.
To this day, all Ryan has said about his predecessor as face-of-the-franchise is this: “I’m not Mike Vick; I can’t be Mike Vick.” But the Falcons didn’t need another No. 7. They needed a guy who wanted to be here, who wanted to take the ball and this team and see where he could lead it. And every week he proves to be even better than we thought he was.
Nineteen months ago he left Boston and a lot of folks deemed him another Falcons mistake. This weekend he returns to New England as the league’s fourth-ranked passer, as field commander of one of the NFL’s nine unbeaten teams. This up-from-desolation saga is being written because a lot of bright people keep doing inspired work. The most inspirational of all wears No. 2.