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Ryan, Falcons prepare for training camp
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FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. — Bob Berry was the quarterback when the 1971 Atlanta Falcons finished 7-6-1 for the first winning season in franchise history.

Berry returned for a 7-7 finish in 1972, thanks to losses in the last two weeks of the season. No big difference? Maybe not, but the difference between a tie and a loss set a pattern that has not been broken.

In 43 seasons, the Falcons have never enjoyed back-to-back winning seasons. Since the team's 1966 inaugural season, it has had only 10 winning records. Each time, the Falcons finished no better than .500 the following year.

Now, that goal of back-to-back winning seasons, laughably modest by more successful franchises, falls to second-year quarterback Matt Ryan, who as a rookie led the Falcons to a surprising 11-5 record in 2008.

Ryan has heard much about Atlanta's long history of futility. All he asks is that he and the 2009 team not be judged on that inglorious past.

"I'd like to think that this is going to be the year that we have a good year," Ryan said. "What's done is done. The past is kind of the past. Our focus is on just trying to be the team that we feel we can be."

Ryan and the Falcons open training camp on Saturday with a team that must replace five starters on defense but looks deep and balanced on offense, thanks in part to the addition of 10-time Pro Bowl tight end Tony Gonzalez.

Ryan returns after starting every game, passing for 3,440 yards and 16 touchdowns, and was named The Associated Press NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year.

There is ample talent surrounding Ryan on offense. Michael Turner, who rushed for 1,699 yards and 17 touchdowns in his 2008 breakout season, returns with Jerious Norwood at running back. Roddy White, who caught 88 passes from Ryan for 1,382 yards and seven touchdowns, is the top receiver, but Michael Jenkins added 50 catches for 777 yards.

And now Ryan has Gonzalez, who gives the offense a receiving threat over the middle of the field, making it more difficult for defenses to load up against the run or place an extra defensive back on White.

"I think we set a certain standard for ourselves," said Ryan of last year's 11-5 finish. "And with the experience we had last year I think we did a pretty good job, but I think the bar has raised. We have to feel like we have to go out there and play better than we did last year because what we did as an offense wasn't good enough to get us where we ultimately want to go."

The Falcons lost in the first round of the playoffs to Arizona last year, so their goal is winning a playoff game.

Long-suffering fans may have a more modest goal of a second straight winning record.

The lack of sustained success has been especially painful in the last decade.

In 1998 the Falcons finished 14-2 in the regular season and made it to their only Super Bowl, but they fell back to 5-11 in 1999.

In 2002, Michael Vick led Atlanta to a 9-6 record and a playoff win at Green Bay, but again the Falcons fell back to 5-11 the following year.

In 2004, coach Jim Mora's Falcons won the NFC South with an 11-5 record. The goal of back-to-back winning seasons seemed to be a lock when the Falcons were 6-2 midway through the 2005 season, but a 2-6 collapse in the second half left the team 8-8.

The key to ending the pattern may be on defense, when coach Mike Smith must replace five starters: linebackers Keith Brooking and Michael Boley, defensive tackle Grady Jackson, safety Lawyer Milloy and cornerback Domonique Foxworth.

The Falcons' first two draft picks, defensive tackle Peria Jerry and safety William Moore, could earn starting jobs in training camp as the replacements for Jackson and Milloy, respectively.