Three years ago, Mike Smith took over the head coaching position of an NFL team that was in utter disarray. The Michael Vick fiasco was playing out, and the recently-hired head coach Bobby Petrino had left town under cover of darkness mid-season and had run off to Arkansas to coach the Hogs.
It was a very bleak time for us long-suffering Falcon's fans, as it seemed Arthur Blank, who had mercifully purchased the team from the Smith family, just didn't have what it took to be an effective NFL owner. Yes, he had brought the exciting Michael Vick to town, but then had run off Dan Reeves (the only coach to ever lead us to a Super Bowl), and had hired Jim Mora, Jr., and then Petrino when Mora didn't work out.
What happened next concerned many here in Atlanta when Mike Smith (who no one here had really ever heard of) was tapped for the head coaching job, and promptly named Matt Ryan, the just-drafted rookie from Boston College, as his starting QB. Thus began the Mike Smith era.
The Falcons took off and immediately started winning football games, which surprised many around here not a little bit. Hmm, maybe things weren't as bleak as we though. They fininished the 2008 season at 11-5 and a wild-card playoff berth, to the utter delight of us long suffering fans.
The Falcons went on to lose their wild-card playoff game, but even so, we here were pretty happy with the way the season had gone - much better than anyone around here had even dreamed possible, and we thus spent the off-season looking forward to 2009.
The 2009 season was a bit of a let down, though finishing 9-7 was still above .500 - the first time in franchise history the Falcons had managed to post back-to-back winning seasons. Matt Ryan had been injured for a time, as well as had some other key players, but one thing I was beginning to notice was an emerging MO that was very different from most Falcons teams from the past.
They weren't quitting anymore.
So many times, year after year, had I sat and watched the seemingly hapless birds blow a lead and then just give up and quit. This team was different in that respect, along with some others, too. They were fun to watch again, and the last time I could say that about the Atlanta Falcons was back in the '98 Super Bowl year, during which I attended every regular season home game.
This year, they managed a 13-3 record, their second best ever behind a 14-2 run in '98, and earned home field advantage in the playoffs which, given their stellar home record over the last three seasons, is huge for this team. Yeah, they lost a couple of tough ones, particularly that second to last game against the Saints, but you never once got the feeling they had given up at any time during the season.
The real football season starts next weekend with the wild card match ups. By next Monday we will know who the Falcons will be facing the following week.
Then we'll find out just what kind of team we really have.