Falcons have come a long way under Mike Smith

FLOWERY BRANCH — You may still be making payments on a car purchased when Bobby Petrino was head coach of the Falcons.

It wasn’t all that long ago.

In 2007, the Falcons were in the midst of one of the worst periods in franchise history. The coach bolted before the end of the season for a college job. The franchise quarterback was facing federal charges related to dogfighting. It was the 42nd season for the franchise, and it had yet to register back-to-back winning seasons.

Four years later, the Falcons are making back-to-back playoff appearances. Sunday’s opening-round playoff game against the Giants will mark the third postseason trip in four years. The Falcons finally got those consecutive winning seasons — a streak that now stands at four.

There were bright spots for the organization in the past — a Super Bowl berth, two NFC Championship game appearances — but it currently is in an era of unprecedented success.

“We’ve been through some really lean times,” said veteran center Todd McClure, the longest tenured Falcon. “We’ve been through some good times. I’ve been here 13 years, and this has been the most consistent stretch. It’s been nice. Early in my career it was up one year, down one year. Now, we’ve had some success over a period of time. It’s fun to play when you are having this type of success.”

The Falcons hired general manager Thomas Dimitroff and coach Mike Smith following Petrino’s desertion. They set about changing the culture immediately. Defensive tackle Jonathan Babineaux said in the first meeting with Smith the coach “set us straight on how things are going to happen and guys followed his lead.”

Smith has a 43-21 record in his four seasons at the helm. He is six wins away from tying Dan Reeves as the coach with the most wins in franchise history. Reeves, who took the Falcons to the Super Bowl in 1998, coached in Atlanta for seven seasons.

Smith said he has not reflected on how far the Falcons have come in his tenure. He’s too busy coaching. He does, however, keep a newspaper clipping in his office closet, written on the verge of the franchise clinching back-to-back winning seasons. The article, under the headline ‘History not on Falcons’ side,’ serves as his reminder of what’s at stake.

“Going to the playoffs is a goal we have every year, but it’s not the goal,” offensive tackle Tyson Clabo said. “I think at this point, just making it to the playoffs is old hat. I think we have a good foundation. We have a good team. We should be in the playoffs. So, what we do next is what is going to seal it for us.”

There is little doubt that 2007 was the low point for the organization. Petrino came with his set of rules, including having players wear sweat suits on the road. According to one member of the organization, not being able to dress up nearly caused a “revolt.” His tenure ended with a note left in lockers informing players of his departure after the 13th game of the season. Through it all, there was the distraction of Michael Vick’s legal issues and his departure. The team finished 4-12.

The organization got another key piece by drafting quarterback Matt Ryan with the third overall pick in the 2008 draft — one positive left by Petrino. Ryan has missed only two games in four seasons.

“I’ve been here when it’s been bad, 4-12 and things like that,” wide receiver Roddy White said. “To consistently win year in and year out and give yourself a chance to get to the Super Bowl is good. It’s going to be like that around here for a long time.

“When it’s bad, you don’t think [things will get better]. But you have faith and you think it’s going to get better. ... Luckily we got our franchise quarterback in here and he’s a good player. That really helped us out.”

Making the playoffs is no longer the main goal. They are 0-2 in playoff appearances under Smith and players say they are ready to take the next step.

“You cherish these moments because we’ve been through the rough times,” backup quarterback Chris Redman said. “Now, we are reaping some of the benefits. We know what it took to get here and we know what it takes to hopefully go farther.”