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No joking matter

Mora's comments may cost him job with Falcons

Posted: Monday December 18, 2006 2:40AM; Updated: Monday December 18, 2006 9:47AM
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Upon further review, Falcons coach Jim Mora shouldn't have gone on a Seattle radio show and said he coveted the University of Washington job.
Upon further review, Falcons coach Jim Mora shouldn't have gone on a Seattle radio show and said he coveted the University of Washington job.
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"You're going to get booed tomorrow night.''
-- Atlanta owner Arthur Blank, to coach Jim Mora on Friday

ATLANTA -- Blank was right. Mora heard it from fans, who were incredulous that Mora would politic for another job (their feeling, not his) while in full possession of a pretty good one.

"It's been a bad day,'' he said a half-hour before midnight Saturday. "A very bad day.''

Mora was still in full salesman mode on Saturday night. There was another person -- me -- to convince that he was just kidding around when he went on a Seattle radio station last Thursday and talked longingly about wanting the University of Washington head coaching job. He'd done five radio interviews on Friday, trying to undo the damage of Thursday's bizarreness, then stridently repeated it to his team Friday night, then told ESPN's Ed Werder before the game he was so sick over the mistake that he couldn't eat.

We spent maybe eight, 10 minutes together after the 38-28 Atlanta loss to Dallas. He went through his explanation -- stressing that he was clearly being satirical and that if the entire radio interview had played, people would have heard the full gist of what he said and would have known it was a joke. What coach in his right mind, two days before the most important game of the season, would go on a big radio station in this media-driven age and talk about wanting another job -- and say he'd leave his current job, even if it were during the playoffs, if he could ever get that other job? A joke, he said; a big joke.

Problem was, he sounded so deadpan serious. He sounded like George Will, not Ali G.

"I'm stunned at how it's been taken,'' he told me. "Shocked. We were kidding around from the start. If you hear the whole thing, the seriousness is part of the humor.''

I came away thinking: Don't convince me; it doesn't matter what I think. It matters what the owner thinks. And I don't think Blank believes Mora was kidding. That is the most important thing in this entire scenario -- what Blank thinks. As I said on NBC Sunday night, Blank, a pillar of the Atlanta community, felt deeply embarrassed by Mora, and now I believe Mora probably has to go deep in the playoffs to retain his job for the final three years of his contract, which runs through 2009.

Image is extremely important to Blank, the co-founder of Home Depot. He dresses impeccably. Community involvement is vital, and he wants to be seen as a generous, hospitable and respectful neighbor. He wants everything he's involved in to be run perfectly.

You should see the Falcons' training complex in Flowery Branch, 40 minutes north of Atlanta. Gorgeous, with the most pristinely manicured practice fields in the NFL. When training camp is held there, players live in luxury condos built on the premises just so the team can live in comfort for five weeks every summer. To be involved with the Falcons, Blank believes, is to be involved with the best-run franchise in sports. At least that's his goal. So on the verge of an important game at home, last week, I'm told Blank was borderline apoplectic when he heard a tape of a serious-sounding Mora tell KJR Radio: "If that job's open, you'll find me at the friggin' head of the line with my resume in hand, ready to take that job.''

With image being everything to Blank, his team's image is now in the toilet. Right or wrong, whether Mora was serious or joking, Blank thinks his coach put the image there.

"Are you worried this interview puts your job in danger?'' I asked Mora.

"No,'' he said. "We've been under .500 once in three seasons. We played for the NFC Championship two years ago. We could make the playoffs this year. I don't believe that.''

Mora's a pragmatist, and I'd be shocked if he didn't read the writing on the wall. His job security was a bit tenuous anyway, because of the gnawing inconsistency his team has shown over the last two years. The offense has explosive qualities, but has been held to 20 points or fewer in eight of 14 games this year. After finishing 22nd in team defense last year and spending big-time to tune up the unit, Atlanta is 21st this year. It has lost 13 of its last 22 games.

We are putting the cart 10 miles in front of the horse right here, but if I'm Pittsburgh offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt and San Diego offensive coordinator Cam Cameron right now, I'm polishing the ol' resume. If Mora goes, I think Blank and GM Rich McKay would clean house and start over with the coaching staff. This is a franchise frustrated with the inconsistency of the franchise quarterback. The Falcons want to start over on offense, and they want to give Mike Vick a chance to shine in his prime -- if it's possible.

I feel for Mora because he's a good man, a considerate man. But even if he was joking last Thursday, it's one of the stupidest jokes I've ever heard.

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