TAMPA — You'll have to excuse the Bucs if they don't recognize quarterback Matt Ryan and the Falcons on Sunday.
Chances are Ryan will look nothing like the guy who was sacked four times, threw two interceptions, was 13-of-33 for 158 yards and opened with nine straight incompletions in September at Raymond James Stadium. Since that 24-9 loss in Week 2, he has helped his team overhaul its look, too.
In what could go down as one of the NFL's most thorough and unpredictable turnarounds, the Falcons have been transformed with breakneck speed. After a 2007 season of tumultuous events, including the imprisonment of its quarterback (Michael Vick) and the unexpected resignation of its coach (Bobby Petrino), Atlanta is 8-5 and in the running for a wild-card berth.
The remaking of an organization requires more than just a change at quarterback or coach.
"The very first thing that we had to do was change the culture in the building," said coach Mike Smith, whose wisdom was questioned initially. "Not just in the locker room but in the entire building. I was very aware of what happened in the past, but it's not something that we've ever talked to our football team about. I've never once addressed the team. I told them that we all are going to start with a clean slate. What happened in 2007 is 2007. In 2008, we're moving forward."
Thomas Dimitroff, the first-year general manager, said: "We needed people in the building that were positive and passionate about football and persevering enough to deal with a whole new direction and the hard knocks that come with it."
Bucs running back Warrick Dunn can attest to that. He played six seasons in Atlanta and was outspoken about the turmoil, particularly Petrino's decision to return to the college ranks at Arkansas. Atlanta lost six of its final seven games, including two to the Bucs by a combined 68-10.
"It's like anyone else," he said. "When you're not happy and work is not fun, you're not going to do your best. It was the whole attitude. It was just a tough situation. So many bad things happened away from the game that you couldn't go out and do your best."
Much of the revival can be attributed to good choices, such as drafting Ryan No. 3 out of Boston College. The move was questioned by some, but Ryan and Smith, a former Jacksonville defensive coordinator, are two of the franchise's savvier acquisitions.
But there were other calls to make, from the release of Dunn to trading outspoken DeAngelo Hall — none of them easy.
"From the outset, Mike and I really evaluated the roster inside and out, not only for their skills on the field, obviously, but for the type of players and their mind-set," said Dimitroff, 42. "We knew we had to make some very tough decisions, moving away from some talented veterans."
Now, youth has been served, particularly in the case of the 23-year-old Ryan. He is on pace to finish with one of the best quarterback performances in franchise history. And Michael Turner, a 26-year-old free agent from San Diego, is the NFL's second-leading rusher with 1,269 yards.
It has all come together for the Falcons, so much so that maybe Smith doesn't look loony for having taken the job after all.
"It's probably a little quicker time line than we expected, but I had no reservations," said Smith, 49. "To have an opportunity like this to work with these guys has been great."
Times staff writer Rick Stroud contributed to this report. Stephen F. Holder can be reached at [email protected]