Cursed Falcons seek to regain fans' confidence Print
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Friday, 22 August 2008 06:18
NFL Headline News

 FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. (AP) -The scene reminded Thomas Dimitroff of something out of ``A Beautiful Mind,'' the movie about a mathematical genius.
Matt Ryan stood before a board in a private room at a swanky Boston restaurant in March. Dimitroff, the Atlanta Falcons' general manager, and their owner, coach, offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach watched as Ryan drew up various game situations.
The Boston College quarterback scribbled with no hesitation. Right. Correct. Perfect again.
When he finished, Ryan stuck the cap back on the marker and tossed it on the table with a confident flourish.
``He blew us away,'' Dimitroff said.
Imagine Ryan doing the same thing on the field, except the X's and O's are real opposing defenders and the audience is a packed Georgia Dome. That would be the easiest solution to the Falcons' woes - the franchise quarterback marching the team to victory.
Success is usually a little more complicated in the NFL, and it certainly has been for Atlanta's franchise. Other teams lose their quarterbacks to injury and their coaches to postseason firings.
In 2007, the Falcons lost Michael Vick to prison after a federal dogfighting investigation, and first-year coach Bobby Petrino bolted for Arkansas with three games left in a 4-12 season.
``Fans need to feel hope,'' said Jim Smith, the club's vice president of marketing. ``Quite honestly, with what we went through last year, and our coach quitting toward the end of the season, the unrest with the team, there wasn't a lot of hope early.
``But once we hired Coach Smith and Thomas, it started to build a little bit.''
Perhaps there are a few upsides to hitting rock bottom. Dimitroff, the former director of college scouting for the New England Patriots, acknowledged there's a certain freedom to the situation he and new coach Mike Smith inherit.
There's little pressure to win right away and an openness to massive change.
``In normal situations, you're not starting with such a clean slate,'' said Mike Smith, who was the Jacksonville Jaguars' defensive coordinator.
They overhauled the roster, for a start.
``There was definitely an extra emphasis on character,'' Dimitroff said. ``We accept what the program was coming off and what Atlanta was dealing with. That makes it more important. It makes you do more research.''
Now they have to hope more off-field woes don't shatter fans fragile trust.
Jim Smith, the marketing VP, wasn't sure what to expect when the team held its first preseason event for fans. He was thrilled to pull up 15 minutes before the start and see the line snaking out the door and across the parking lot.
Season ticket sales are down, though he believes the cause is a ``double whammy'' of last year's anguish and a weak economy. The Falcons have hired eight new ticket sales reps and are offering new partial season packages.
As Smith and his staff try to monitor fans' mood, they sense a cautious optimism.
The locals just want to see consistency, said 11th-year linebacker Keith Brooking, a native of Senoia, Ga., who played for Georgia Tech. It's not something they've gotten - the franchise has never posted back-to-back winning records in its history.
``But yet I think these fans, when there's a great product out on the field, they come and they support the Falcons,'' Brooking said. ``That dome is packed. They're screaming at the top of their lungs - 70,000-plus inside the Georgia Dome, there's not a better atmosphere in the NFL.''
Jeff Roberts of nearby Suwanee, Ga., has lived in the Atlanta area for 11 years but never gotten hooked by the Falcons. He said after watching a practice during training camp that he'd like to root for them - if they give him something to root for.
He's impressed by the most recent changes.
``They're starting to do things right,'' Roberts said.
The Falcons must hope enough fans find encouragement in doing things right. Improvement may be measured in Ryan, the third pick in the draft, showing signs of promise, not leading Atlanta to victory.
``Our goals won't be measured in wins and losses this year,'' Dimitroff said. ``We need to move forward and grow as a team.''

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