Eight years ago, the rookie owner saw his sixth-seeded team upset Green Bay at Lambeau Field on a snowy Saturday night. This Saturday night, Green Bay will play here as the lower seed, as an underdog seeking to unseat a member of the NFL’s upper crust. Because that’s what Arthur Blank’s Falcons have become.
“We’re a relevant team in the NFL now,” Blank said this week. “This is an important team in the NFL.”
Note that Blank chose to use one word twice — “team.”
On the night of Jan. 4, 2003, the emphasis wasn’t so much on the collective as an individual. That famous upset was seen as a function of Michael Vick, described in the fifth paragraph of the Associated Press game report as “the 22-year-old improvisational genius.” But Vick would preside over only one more playoff victory as a Falcon, and he took his final snap for this franchise on Dec. 31, 2006.
Yet here the Falcons sit, the reversals of losing Vick and Bobby Petrino, head coach for all of 13 games, having been rendered a long-ago memory. They were a playoff team in 2008, a winning team in 2009, the class of the NFC this season. These Falcons, simply put, are constructed better than any Falcons have ever been.
Said Blank: “This team reflects Thomas [Dimitroff, the general manager] and Smitty [coach Mike Smith]. This team is very balanced — No. 5 in both offense [points scored] and defense [points yielded] and last in penalties. That’s not a formula for glamorous, but it is a formula for success.”
Back to January 2003: Vick controlled that game in Green Bay and the Falcons became the first visitor to beat the Packers in a playoff game; a week later, the Eagles controlled Vick on a blustery night in Philadelphia and won by two touchdowns. Those Falcons had but one way to win, and that way was tied to No. 7. These Falcons have many ways.
“We’re more balanced,” Blank said. “There’s not a single player who’s the focus. Michael was extremely talented, and win, lose or draw there were people who’d come to watch him play.”
Also this: “I’m thrilled about this year, but also beyond this year — and not just because of our quarterback Matt Ryan. We’re positioned for success for a very long time.”
Blank’s first season as owner was giddy beyond all expectation: He bought the team in February 2002, saw Vick rise from newly promoted starter to Pro Bowl quarterback, saw his team finish 9-6-1 but back into the playoffs when New Orleans lost at home to Carolina on the regular season’s final day. Then the Falcons went to Wisconsin and won, and in July 2003 the team arrived for training camp in Greenville, S.C., widely tipped as a Super Bowl team.
Then Vick broke his leg against Baltimore in the third preseason game, which undid the 2003 season, which led Blank to fire Dan Reeves and hire Jim Mora, who led the Falcons to the NFC title game — also in Philadelphia, also a comprehensive loss — before running out of ideas. So Blank fired Mora and hired Petrino, and by the shank of 2007 this team had become an object of pity: Quarterback in jail, coach in Arkansas.
The Falcons weren’t seeking excellence when they went out hunting a new GM and a new coach in January 2008 — they were hoping for a shred of credibility. They found Dimitroff via webcam and Smith via a series of interviews at the Senior Bowl in Mobile, and now Blank’s beloved franchise appears built to last. Which beats the heck out of being built to finish last.
First things first, however: The Packers in another playoff game. Who’s Blank picking? The Pack by a touchdown? “Yeah, right,” he said, unappreciative of the insolence.
Then: “We’re certainly in a better position [as opposed to eight years ago, when the Falcons, as the No. 6 seed, couldn't play a home game] … We’re set up to have a chance to do well. That said, we’re playing a team that travels very well.”
Eight years ago, the Falcons had to go play in the snow to announce themselves to the NFL. This time the road to the Super Bowl leads through Atlanta — where as we know it never ever snows.
By Mark Bradley