Continued from page 1

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.”

Story Continues →