Step 1 for Falcons: Reclaim lost credibility

Falcons head coach Dan Quinn finishes the preseason with a 20-19 win over the Ravens taking the field at the end of the game on Thursday, Sept. 3, 2015, in Atlanta. Curtis Compton /

Credit: Curtis Compton

Credit: Curtis Compton

Falcons head coach Dan Quinn finishes the preseason with a 20-19 win over the Ravens taking the field at the end of the game on Thursday, Sept. 3, 2015, in Atlanta. Curtis Compton /

Benefit of the doubt isn’t a birthright. We afforded it to the Falcons of Thomas Dimitroff and Mike Smith for a simple reason: They won big from the start. They took a 4-12 team that had seen its quarterback go to jail and its coach head for the Ozarks and went a giddy 11-5. For one of the few times in this franchise’s pockmarked history, believing was easy.

Trading for Tony Gonzalez? Yes! Moving up for Julio Jones? Risky, but in Dimitroff we trust(ed). Signing Ray Edwards? A fine idea at the time. (It became less fine after watching him play.) For five winning seasons – this at a place that hadn’t had consecutive plus-.500 seasons before Dimitroff and Smith – we expected the best of the Falcons because they knew what they were doing. Then the 2012 team fell 10 yards shy of the Super Bowl and the winning stopped.

The 2015 Falcons are poised to open their season in prime time under an impressive new coach. But after the past two years, we’re not as wide-eyed as in the early days of Smitty and Dimitty and Matty Ice. Watching this team go 10-22 was bad; watching this organization shed much of its hard-won credibility was worse.

Everything the Falcons had done well – or seemed to do well – was thrown open to question. The best coach this team had known stood revealed as a late-game bungler. The best GM this club had employed was exposed as the architect of a house cards. (No offensive line, no defense, no depth.) The owner who’d hired these men and basked in their reflected glory was recast as a bulldozer of churches who cared more about getting his own stadium than the needs of his “stakeholders.”

These had been the master planners of the Falcons’ ascent. The plan, sad to say, had been wadded up and tossed in yonder trashcan. Panic took hold. The Falcons blew a game in London at historic Wembley. Smith blew another against Cleveland. Apart from Jones and Matt Ryan and Desmond Trufant, all of Dimitroff’s draftees had been rendered suspect. Even at that, they had a chance to win the Worst Division Ever by beating Carolina at the Georgia Dome on the final Sunday. They lost 34-3.

Before the game, it was reported that the Falcons had retained a search firm to help find a new coach – even though Smith was still employed and could well have become a division winner by nightfall. That deflating leak was was viewed by many as an in-house attempt to simplify the decision to can Smith. (Had the Falcons beaten Carolina, they’d have played host to a Round 1 game against Arizona, which was down to its No. 3 quarterback. Say they’d advanced to the conference semis: Would they have had the gall to change coaches then?)

Losing made the point moot. The Falcons fired Smith but kept Dimitroff, which was odd. Stranger still was the press release emailed at 5:48 p.m. on Jan. 7, when the Falcons announced a restructuring in a way that made it sound as if Dimitroff had been defrocked of personnel duties.

From the release: “As part of the realignment, assistant general manager Scott Pioli will take on pro and college scouting and NFL Draft responsibilities, reporting to Dimitroff. Dimitroff will also retain management responsibility for salary cap, player affairs, equipment, sports medicine and performance, and video activities.”

By 6:30, Falcons publicists were calling reporters to clarify:Dimitroff would retain final say over personnel (not to mention video activities). Then the Falcons hired Dan Quinn as coach and gave him final say over the 53-man roster. How many Final Says can be housed under one roof in Flowery Branch?

Against this tattered backdrop, the Falcons begin a new era against Philadelphia on Monday night. The party line from Hall County holds that everyone in the rebuilt front office is as happy as a clam. Still, we look on the past week’s manic shuffling of offensive linemen and wonder if that’s even half-true.

And there’s your difference. Once upon a time, we had faith in the Falcons; today we wonder. A new era begins, but it’s one without any benefit of the doubt.