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There was the Jim Mora Jr., firing, which came after he expressed on talk radio his desire to coach at the University of Washington. The Falcons hit bottom when Mora’s replacement, Bobby Petrino, quit with three games remaining in a 4-12 2007 season.

The moves prompted Falcons owner Arthur Blank to pledge going forward that he would choose substance and character over flash and style. To get it done, he hired general manager Thomas Dimitroff _ a little-known director of college scouting for the New England Patriots.

Dimitroff’s hiring led to Atlanta signing Smith _ the Jacksonville Jaguars’ defensive coordinator _ free agent running back Michael Turner and drafting Boston College quarterback Matt Ryan.

“Matty Ice” as Ryan is known, was the 2008 NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year. But like many of his teammates _ including White, Turner and defensive end John Abraham _ Ryan isn’t in discussions about the NFL’s elite.

White, a three-time Pro Bowler, has 70 catches, seven for TDs, and is second in the league with 934 yards receiving. Turner has 733 yards rushing and should easily post his second 1,000-yard season in three years. Abraham is fourth in the league with 8 sacks.

Then there’s Ryan, coming off a breakout game against the Ravens in which he threw for 316 yards and three touchdowns, including the game-winner to White with 20 seconds remaining. Ryan’s 16 TD passes with only five interceptions are almost identical to this year’s numbers from Peyton Manning and Tom Brady, but it’s still too early for Ryan to be grouped with the top quarterbacks.

It all adds up to Atlanta playing for a still-skeptical national audience. Winning seems to generate more questions about whether they are for real than buzz about their success.

The Falcons aren’t complaining, particularly Abraham.

He played under the media microscope during his six seasons with the New York Jets and is happy with the peaceful quiet _ and success _ of the Smith regime.

“I kind of like it,” Abraham said. “I think it’s good for us that people are still talking about other teams being better than us. We’re just going to continue to keep winning and as long as we keep winning I really don’t care necessarily about what they’re saying.”