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With solid flight plan, Falcons not winging it

By Albert R. Breer
Globe Staff / August 18, 2010

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FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. — Matt Ryan arrived at Boston College in 2003, just as the Patriots were going from would-be flash-in-the-pan champion to dynasty, and their quarterback was moving from game manager to superstar.

So given the locale of his own maturation as signal caller, and his place as a third-year player, you might excuse Ryan for being a bit star-struck at the sight of Tom Brady.

That Ryan wasn’t in the least probably says a lot about where these Falcons are going.

“The biggest thing was just asking him how training camp is going,’’ said Ryan, when asked what he wanted to ask Brady. “That was pretty much the extent of it. I don’t know him well. But every time I’ve talked to him, he seems like a really nice guy.’’

Perfect.

As Thomas Dimitroff and Mike Smith move into Year 3 of the massive rebuilding project they undertook in Atlanta in 2008, Ryan’s attitude is reflective of what the general manager and coach need in their young players.

Only 31 players on the Falcons’ 80-man training camp roster have more than three years of NFL experience. Just 19 remain from before the arrival of Dimitroff and Smith, and 14 of the 22 starters have been acquired in the last three years.

That’s a lot of turnover, a lot of youth, and a lot of expectations on a lot of guys who are in their early to mid 20s.

But here’s the flip side: That youth isn’t exactly wet behind the ears. Only one of the Falcons’ projected starters — big-ticket free agent cornerback Dunta Robinson — is new to the team this season, and most of those starters played pretty important roles in an up-and-down 2009.

“We’re a young football team, there’s no doubt about it,’’ Smith said. “But those young players have a lot of experience. If you look at the young players we drafted in that draft class, the Matt Ryans, the Sam Bakers, the Harry Douglases, the Curtis Loftons, they have a lot of games under their belt.

“So even though they’re a young team chronologically, they’ve got a lot of games under their belt. We expect them to play beyond their years.’’

In some ways, the transition the Falcons went through in 2009 is akin to the youth movement Patriots have in 2010.

The Falcons overhauled their defense two offseasons ago, letting veterans Keith Brooking, Michael Boley, Grady Jackson, Domonique Foxworth, Lawyer Milloy, and Grady Jackson walk. And Atlanta took its lumps in 2009, yielding 31 or more points five times in its first 12 games.

But by the end of the season, things started to turn. Smith found out a lot about his troops in Weeks 15-17, when the club was mathematically eliminated from the playoffs yet clawed its way to a three-game winning streak to get over .500. The young defense allowed just 20 points total in that stretch.

“I told our guys, back before the 16th game of our season, that was really the start of our 2010 season,’’ Smith said. “And it was important for us to start out on the right foot. I thought our guys did that there, that day, and getting us to a 9-7 record and through the entire offseason program. It’s been very, very positive.’’

That doesn’t change that fact, though, that the team failed to live up to expectations after an 11-5 breakout in 2008. And that brings you back to Ryan’s words, which said so much, even if he really meant to say nothing.

Just as Ryan wasn’t awed by Brady’s presence, the key for these Falcons, as Smith said, is to “play beyond their years.’’

The 2008 draft class — a masterpiece of a group put together by Dimitroff and his scouts — should be the key. On offense, Ryan will be counted on to lead. On defense, it’s heart-and-soul middle linebacker Lofton and safety Thomas DeCoud.

“It’s not even so much our draft class as the positions we play,’’ DeCoud said. “Curtis is a middle linebacker, I’m a free safety, Matt’s a quarterback, so we have to take control from our respective positions on our sides of the ball. It’s not only a matter of us being the first draft class but our positions as well.

“But we were this organization’s, this front office’s first draft class, so we feel like we have to put that good foot forward, be the foundation and show guys how this organization gets things done with these people in control. We know what we need to do within our own system, and we know how to get other guys to do it the right way.’’

Smith will be the first to say that he hoped for more last year, but he understands the value of what they went through. He saw his team react in the face of adversity. The hope is that the players will handle it even better this time around.

“I think the expectation levels have ramped up, and they should if you’re going in the right direction and the arrow’s pointing up,’’ Smith said. “Your expectations should be much, much higher in Year 3.

“That’s something you can feel throughout our building, not just with the players, but our coaches and our support staff and everybody in the building has those ramped-up expectations.’’

The players know. It’s not hard to see that this club, coming off the first consecutive winning seasons in club history, is ascending.

Even more so, it’s pretty easy to figure that the Falcons could stay there for a while.

“It’s on our minds, on the back burner,’’ DeCoud said. “We don’t want to get ahead of ourselves. We’ve got work to do. We’ve just got to keep a level head, be humble and hungry like coach Smith always tells us and keep chopping wood.’’

DeCoud pauses, and the word “but’’ is interjected. He smiles and continues, “But we know there’s something special brewing here. We definitely know that.’’

Which is exactly what people around here want to hear.

Albert R. Breer can be reached at abreer@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @albertbreer.

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