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Falcons get fresh start

FLOWERY BRANCH - Roddy White wheeled up in his black Escalade, with Lil Wayne blaring from the speakers and not a care in the world.

Quite a change from a year ago.

The Atlanta Falcons checked in for training camp Friday, eager for a fresh start after an infamous 2007 season that never had a chance once quarterback Michael Vick's secret dogfighting operation was uncovered. First-year coach Bobby Petrino added to the misery by sneaking out of town with three games left to take a college job at Arkansas.

Now, with a new general manager, a new coach and a new quarterback, the Falcons are looking forward to a nice, calm camp with few distractions, even as they face a massive rebuilding job.

'It's back to normal around here,' White said, his car still running while he signed in for camp. 'It's always good to come into training camp and not have any worries.'

A year ago, Vick's status was still in doubt when the Falcons reported for camp, greeted by animal rights protesters at the front gate and a small plane circling over the practice field, pulling a banner that said: 'New team name? Dog Killers?'

With Vick now in federal prison and unlikely to ever play again for Atlanta, the Falcons have slipped off the radar screen. These days, everyone seems to be talking about Brett Favre's short-lived retirement. Will he actually report to the Green Bay Packers? Will he get traded?

White could barely contain a smile as he talked about 'a certain team having to worry about who's going to come in or whether or not they're going to come in.'

'Everything is going real smooth around here,' he added.

With Vick now wearing stripes, Matt Ryan is the new face of this franchise. The rookie from Boston College was the third pick overall and will get a chance to claim the No. 1 job right away against a rather weak field of contenders that includes Chris Redman, who surprisingly finished last year as the starter, Joey Harrington, who was Vick's immediate successor, and D.J. Shockley.

'I think that's the mind-set for everybody coming into camp,' Ryan said. 'Everybody is out here to compete and get on the field. I'm no different.'

The Falcons took care of some last-minute business by locking up their last two unsigned draft picks. The team agreed to terms with offensive tackle Sam Baker, the second of their first-round picks out of USC, and signed linebacker Curtis Lofton, a second-round selection from Oklahoma.

Both will be available for the first practice, bright and early this morning.

'It's really important that we get them here,' said Mike Smith, the new coach.

The Falcons also are feeling out the possibility of bringing back defensive tackle Grady Jackson, who was cut by Petrino midway through last season and finished out in Jacksonville.

'We've had some talks with Grady's agent,' Smith said. 'We're just checking out each other's interests at this point.'

Smith plans to have nine practices in full gear during training camp, but there are no plans to have any full-contact drills.

'You just can't do that with an 80-man roster in training camp,' he said. 'The rigors of two-a-days, you're going to have to be smart in how you work your team.'

After releasing mainstays such as tight end Alge Crumpler, running back Warrick Dunn and defensive tackle Rod Coleman during the offseason to free up money under the salary cap, the Falcons could be in for another tough season. At the very least, Smith wants to get to the regular season with everyone he had.

'Our No. 1 goal,' he said, 'is to get to the opener healthy. We've got to have all of our parts if we are successful. That's the No. 1 goal. We have a lot of goals, but if we can get to the opener healthy, then we're going to have a chance to compete.'

Smith, the former defensive coordinator in Jacksonville, shrugged off the significance of his first training camp as a head coach.

'To me it's just another step in the process,' he said. 'Of course, I'm excited about it.'

At least he didn't have to worry about any protesters at the front gate.