The year was 2007 and the Atlanta Falcons were the absolute laughingstock of the entire NFL. In one year, their quarterback was arrested for dog fighting and their coach, Bobby Petrino, left the team mid-way through the season by taping a note to the players lockers and fleeing like a thief in the night. Oh yeah, they also went just 4-12 that year.
How would this kid hold up in his first NFL game?
Heading into the 2008 season, the Falcons hired a relative unknown in head coach Mike Smith and a GM without any GM experience in Thomas Dimitroff. In the draft, the Falcons chose to hitch their wagons to Boston College QB Matt Ryan. Some people, including me, thought the Falcons would have been better served getting Glenn Dorsey in the first round and shoring up their defensive front (hey, we can’t all be perfect).
The very first game of the 2008 season pitted the Falcons against the Detroit Lions. The Lions were coming off of a 7-9 season in which they lost seven of their last eight but they were still favored over the Falcons by three points despite the game being played in the Georgia Dome.
Heading into the season, Sports Illustrated had nine of their “experts” pick who they thought would win each division and who would be the wild-card choices. Zero out of nine picked the Falcons to make the playoffs. Not to be outdone, ESPN had 16 “experts” pick their division winners and wild-card teams. Again, no Falcons. The point of this isn’t to knock ESPN and SI but to show just how relevant the Falcons were (or weren’t). The Falcons had no chance of success this season, none.
But one play turned it all around. The Falcons got the ball first against Detroit. They ran the ball twice with the newly acquired Michael Turner for a total of 12 yards. Then it happened. The franchise was seemingly turned around in one play. Matt Ryan dropped back for the first pass of his professional career and hit Michael Jenkins on a skinny post for 62 yards and a TD! The Falcons didn’t look back in that game as they grabbed the Lions by the jugular and jumped out to a 21-0 lead before winning the season opener 34-21.
The fate and fortunes of the franchise changed on that one play. The Falcons went 11-5 that year after finishing just 4-12 and being the laughing-stock of the league the previous year. Since that game, the Falcons haven’t looked back and have four straight winning seasons under Mike Smith. That one play was the starting point that turned it all around for the franchise.