It was a Monday night in December, and the Saints were in town. It was not a tough ticket. It was simply tough to watch.
It was Dec. 10, 2007. Earlier in the day Michael Vick had been sentenced to 23 months in jail by a judge in Richmond, Va. That night the team Vick used to lead lost to New Orleans 34-14 under the Georgia Dome to fall to 3-10. The next night would see Bobby Petrino, who had coached the Falcons those 13 games, being introduced as the head coach of the Arkansas Razorbacks.
For a franchise that had seen its share of valleys, that week — it closed with the Falcons losing 37-3 under interim coach Emmitt Thomas in Tampa — was the nadir. It was possible to view this city’s NFL entry as having nothing: No coach, no quarterback, no hope.
On a Monday night three years and 17 days later, the Falcons again played host to the Saints on a Monday night, and this time it wasn’t a occasion best avoided. It was, on the contrary, an event being billed as the biggest home regular-season in the Falcons’ 46 seasons of operation. Win and the Falcons would, in one fell swoop — and Falcons do swoop, last we checked — do all of the following:
• Beat their biggest rival, who happens to be the reigning Super Bowl titlist.
• Win their division for only the fourth time ever.
• Clinch the NFC’s No. 1 seed and home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.
That the Falcons could actually lose to the Saints and still accomplish Nos. 2 and 3 on the above list by beating woeful Carolina here six days later meant nothing to the man who’d made all this happen. In January 2008 Falcons owner Arthur Blank had interviewed New England’s chief scout from Boulder, Col., via Webcam, and such was the impression Thomas Dimitroff made that he was named general manager.
Within 12 months, Dimitroff had hired a coach (Mike Smith) and signed a feature back (Michael Turner) and drafted a quarterback (Matt Ryan) and lifted this woebegone franchise, miracle of miracles, to the playoffs. From there the men of Dimitty and Smitty have moved from strength to strength: A second consecutive winning season under arduous circumstances last season, and now 12 victories over the first 14 games of 2010. Funny how much easier things work with folks of surpassing smarts in charge.
But back to Dimitroff on Monday afternoon: He lives in Buckhead, but he’d abandoned the family home. He called the director of team travel and asked for a room at the team hotel downtown, Dimitroff said, “so I can get some work done and return phone calls.” But he wasn’t too harried to read AJC.com — presumably the Falcons get complimentary wireless — and he felt compelled to ring one writer (i.e., me) and remind him of an unusually sunny forecast offered in preseason.
“You going to be there tonight?” Dimitroff said. Then: “It should be something.”
It was convenient in December 2007 to say that Vick’s indictment/incarceration had set the Falcons back three years. As it turned out, they made the playoffs in their first season under Dimitroff, and nearly every move since has sped the plow. The trade for Tony Gonzalez last year and the signing of Dunta Robinson this spring were moves that had to be made if the Falcons were to be taken seriously, and we saw in big-time tests against Baltimore and Green Bay how serious this team is.
And now it was a Monday night in December in the final week of calendar 2010, and a culmination was there to be grasped, a culmination nobody could have foreseen three years and 17 days ago. In December 2007 the operative emotion regarding the Falcons was pity. We feel sorry for them no more. We feel only admiration.
And with that, the floor is again open for questions, comments and Christmas caroling. I’ll be here all game, and I’d appreciate the company. It gets mighty lonesome with only 70,000 of my best pals around.