Scenes from the first week of my 22-team training-camp tour....
FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- "Who's down?'' says Falcons senior personnel executive Billy Devaney, midway through the team's evening practice, craning his neck to see 30 yards downfield.
A crowd of players is ringed around a player writhing on the ground. Coaches come over. Trainers, too. I crane my neck and I can see the number. It's 86. Brian Finneran.
"Oh, no,'' Devaney says.
This is bad. Very bad. Finneran is Mike Vick's most important wide receiver, almost as important as tight end Alge Crumpler. Finneran catches everything; he's reliable and tough, a keystone. And now he's hurt. As of Sunday, the Falcons didn't know for sure how badly, but after you've been around a practice or two, you know when some guy's banged up and when he's really hurt. I could tell by the reaction of the people around him that Finneran has probably taken his last football step of 2006, and it's not even August.
When Vick got to him, Finneran was crying. Vick said something, turned to return to the huddle, and his face was twisted in pain.
The bizarre fate of it all. Finneran is a physical player, and here, untouched, running a simple 10-yard route in a practice in July, he goes down, probably for the year.
Later I sat with Vick. It was dusk, and families were here for the night, and Vick had a bunch of family in town, and kids were running everywhere. I'm not sure they noticed how incredibly sad Vick was. A couple of times he had to stop because he was getting emotional.
"Just to see Brian on the ground, crying ... '' said Vick, his voice trailing off. "Man, this is devastating. I gotta go to my room. Pray about it. Think about it. Our season's not gone, but it changed a lot today. It changed a lot.
"I've been with Brian five years," he added. "The ups, the downs. He's always there. He's always in here working out, trying to get better, trying to help other guys get better. You should have seen practice yesterday. I'm throwing the ball on the ground and he's going down to catch it. He catches everything. I always could look in his eyes in the huddle and know he wanted the ball, and if I got it anywhere near him he was going to catch it.