FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. – Michael Vick will always be a part of the Atlanta Falcons.
They were the team that drafted him No. 1 overall. They were the team he made hip and relevant in the NFL. They were the team he left in disarray with his hideous hobby.
But it's no longer a big deal to face their former quarterback.
The Falcons have moved on.
"There's probably only a handful of guys left here that played with Mike," said his successor as Atlanta's quarterback, Matt Ryan. "I think we're probably a little bit beyond that at this point."
Indeed, the Falcons have put the Vick era in the rearview mirror, quickly rebuilding from the mess he caused with an unprecedented run of success — at least in the regular season. They have strung together four straight winning records, three playoff appearances and a division title since No. 7 left town.
And now, heading into Sunday's game against Vick and the Philadelphia Eagles, the Falcons (6-0) are more focused on what the future might hold than what happened in the past. They are off to the franchise's best start ever, the only undefeated team left in the NFL and intent on settling for nothing less than Atlanta's first Super Bowl championship.
Center Todd McClure, who once snapped the ball to Vick and now does the same with Ryan, feels the team has recaptured that feeling of excitement, that feeling of importance it had with its previous quarterback.
Only this time, it's different.
"It's not based off one guy," McClure said. "There's a buzz about this whole team. "
The Vick-led Falcons sure had their moments. They were the first visiting team ever to win a playoff game at Green Bay's Lambeau Field. They reached the NFC championship game for only the second time in team history.
But that was viewed largely as a one-man show, a team that only went as far as wondrous quarterback could take it. When Vick thrived, the Falcons usually won. When he struggled, they almost always lost. It was a thrilling yet exhausting ride, a team that largely followed the ebbs and flows of a single, one-of-a-kind player.
While Ryan has put himself on the cusp of being one of the NFL's elite quarterbacks, he's surrounded by plenty of weapons — deep threats Roddy White and Julio Jones, future Hall of Fame tight end Tony Gonzalez, bruising runner Michael Turner. The defense isn't too shabby, either. Ageless John Abraham keeps the heat on opposing quarterbacks, young Sean Weatherspoon has already developed into a top linebacker, and everyone in the secondary — from Asante Samuel to Thomas DeCoud — is getting a hand on the ball.
Which has made this latest meeting against Vick and the Eagles seem like just another game, just another step along the way to the ultimate goal.
"Just us against them," White said.
McClure, White and Abraham are among just five players remaining from Vick's time with the Falcons (the others are offensive tackle Tyson Clabo and defensive tackle Jonathan Babineaux). The massive turnover — not to mention a new coach (Mike Smith) and new general manager (Thomas Dimitroff) — has largely broken whatever hold Vick might've had on the team after he went to prison in 2007 for operating a dogfighting ring.
Besides, the Falcons have faced the Eagles every season since Vick signed with them in 2009. He was a backup for the initial meeting in Atlanta, and didn't play the following year in Philadelphia because of an injury. The Georgia Dome was filled with No. 7 jerseys when he returned last season for the first time as the Eagles' starter, but Ryan stole the show with four touchdowns passes in a 35-31 victory. Vick didn't even make to the end, wobbling off the field with a concussion late in the third quarter.
"Last year, going back to Atlanta, that was special. That added a little bit to the game," Vick said on a teleconference. "But now, it's just two good football teams going head to head. It's going to be a good football game, but there's nothing extra added to it. I'm not getting more amped up for this game than any other game."
Besides, Vick has bigger concerns than poking his former team.
Two straight losses have rattled the Eagles (3-3), who already fired their defensive coordinator and have hinted other changes might be coming. If Vick doesn't do a better job protecting the football — he's had eight interceptions and lost five fumbles — he'll soon be watching games from the bench.
"I never doubt myself. I'm always confident in myself," Vick insisted, sounding a lot like he did during his prime years in Atlanta. "Even the turnovers I've had, it's because I'm so confident in what I'm doing."
Vick and White remain close. They've already exchanged good-natured texts — Vick asking the Falcons receiver to drop a few passes, White suggesting that No. 7 throw a few more interceptions — but that's about the only link the quarterback still has to his former team.
Yet Vick will always be a big part of Falcons' history.
"He did a lot of good things when he was here," White remembered. "He excited the city ... and he won a lot of games. He won some playoff games, too."
If it sounds like White is taking a poke at his current quarterback — Ryan is 0-3 in the postseason — he's not. This is more about a team that's secure about the present and no longer feels threatened by the guy who was here before.
"Matt has kind of taken over and run with it," White said. "He's kind of given the city that spark again, that spark we had when we had Mike. We're rolling right now."
Yep, they've moved on.
Follow Paul Newberry on Twitter at www.twitter.com/pnewberr1963
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