HOUSTON — On the night the Falcons drafted Matt Ryan No. 3 overall from Boston College, their quarterback, Michael Vick, sat in a federal prison in Leavenworth serving 18 months for animal cruelty. Their former coach, Bobby Petrino, had already bolted with two games remaining in the 2007 season for the University of Arkansas, leaving notes in the players' locker.
For six seasons, before he had been disgraced by his role in dog fighting, Vick had thrilled fans in Georgia and the Southeast with his improvisational rushing skills, explosive speed and strong arm. He had made three Pro Bowls, and in 2004 he took the Falcons to the NFC Championship Game, where they lost to the Eagles.
But after he went to jail, Falcons fans — many of them African-American — stayed away in droves from the Georgia Dome.
"We lost a big portion of our fan base. Michael had a lot of fans," Falcons president Rich McKay said. "I don't mean just African-American fans, I mean a big portion of our fan base. I think Matt, people looked at and said, 'Oh, he's a young quarterback, might have been picked too high, Boston College.'
"When we opened training camp, we had PETA at our gate and the helicopters flying over us."
You wondered if Matty Ice, the nickname Ryan had carried since his sophomore season at Penn Charter High School in Philadelphia, could melt a fan's heart.
"Obviously, when I got drafted here, Mike had been here for such a long time, and everybody knows how that ended in Atlanta," Ryan said. "For me, early on I just tried to go in and do the job the best I could. Michael has been incredibly supportive of me as I've gotten to know him, as I've gotten older. That support has meant a lot because he is such an icon for the city of Atlanta. He was such a huge part of the sports fabric in that town, and for him to be supportive and help me out in the way that he has throughout my career has been really, really nice."
It wasn't always that way. In fact, Vick was only half paying attention to the draft in 2008 when inmates watching ESPN asked, " 'You know who the Atlanta Falcons drafted?' I was like who? They said Matt Ryan," Vick told Sports Illustrated this week. "And you know there was a lot of talk about them selecting a quarterback, and you never know what's going to happen until you see it actually happen.
"I was a little shocked. Stunned. A little bitter. A little salty. But I was able to get over it quick because I understood the circumstances."
It didn't take long for Ryan to prove the Falcons might be okay with him at quarterback after all. On his first NFL pass attempt in a regular-season game, he hit Michael Jenkins for a 62-yard touchdown.
What's not to like about Ryan? He led the Falcons to five straight winning seasons and four playoff appearances under coach Mike Smith before it all derailed. The Falcons had three straight losing seasons, Ryan seemed to plateau and last year it led to the hiring of Dan Quinn and offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan.
Patriots quarterback Tom Brady says he didn't feel as much pressure entering the NFL as a sixth-round pick as Ryan did.
"That first year when I was with our team, I was really under the radar," Brady said. "No one knew anything. I was just trying to work hard to earn a spot. When you're the first pick overall, that's a tough journey, and I have a lot of respect for those guys. You can't do anything wrong."
A year ago, Ryan and the Falcons got off to a 5-0 start then didn't do much right, finishing 8-8. Ryan passed for 4,591 yards with 21 touchdowns and 16 interceptions while losing five fumbles. This year, on his run to a presumptive NFL MVP award, he passed for nearly 5,000 yards with 38 touchdowns and seven interceptions in the regular season.
After his release from prison, Vick had success with the Eagles before holding a clipboard for the Jets and Steelers. Nobody wanted him in 2016, so he says he's retired. But he will be rooting for Ryan on Sunday.
"That's why I've pulled for Matt since Day One," Vick said. "He can breathe life back in the city, as well as the other guys surrounding him."