2003 NFL Preview

The legend grows

Vick has Falcons Fever taking over Atlanta

Posted: Sunday August 10, 2003 12:00 AM

  Don Banks

This is the seventh in a series of postcards's Don Banks will e-mail from his annual NFL training camp tour.

Saturday, Aug. 9

Team: Atlanta Falcons

At the sold-out Georgia Dome in downtown Atlanta, where the never-been-more chic Falcons opened their preseason against Green Bay, the team they pulled the upset of the year -- or perhaps decade -- against in last January's NFL playoffs. The Falcons actually broke camp Friday at Furman University in Greenville, S.C., a scant 15 days after they reported on July 25. The Birds didn't stick around in Greenville long because they've got a state-of-the-art facility in Flowery Branch, just north of Atlanta. With that in mind, they might not even bother going to Furman after 2004, when its contract with the school runs out. The Falcons have an option for 2005, and owner Arthur Blank this week acknowledged he's torn between the convenience of staying home for camp and the advantages of building team chemistry on the road.

1. Welcome to Vick-ville, Ga., home of the Atlanta Falcons. That might as well be what this fair city goes by these days, because seldom has one team and one town been so captivated by one player. Man, is this place in love with Mike Vick. Walking to the Georgia Dome before the game Saturday night, I counted about 257 different images of the smiling third-year quarterback, with his No. 7 plastered on anything, everything, and everybody.

And Vick-mania won't subside after Saturday night, when he looked sharp against Green Bay in his preseason debut. Vick, who's already developed a reputation as a Packers killer, was a cool 6-of-7 for 110 yards in his three first-quarter drives, including a pretty 43-yard scoring strike to Brian Finneran. Vick's quarterback rating for the night was 158.3, which is the highest possible result in the impossibly hard-to-understand QB rating system. He also ran once for 9 yards. After the first quarter, Vick left the game with a 14-3 lead and his mojo completely intact.

I didn't see it, but I've been told by reliable sources that Vick's preseason highlight actually came in a recent midweek practice session. Rolling to his right, Vick threw back across his body and launched a 55-yard scoring strike to Peerless Price, who was running a post pattern. Big deal? It is considering that neither of Vick's feet were touching the ground when he released the ball.

Good to know Vick practices exactly like he plays in games. With unparalleled creativity and play-making skills.

2. The Falcons didn't waste any time getting the Price era underway. Atlanta's first offensive snap was a Vick pass to Price for 13 yards and a first down at the Green Bay 36. Playing into the second quarter, Price wound up with three catches for 31 yards, with the 13-yarder being his long gain.

Hey, nobody ever said he'd be worth the whole $37.5 million in one night.

Of his first hookups with Vick, Price said: "He's great. ... It's great playing with him. He made a couple of great throws out there tonight. Hopefully we'll be seeing a lot more of them and I'll be on the receiving end of a lot of them."

Yep, that's the idea.

3. With a certain No. 4 being back in Atlanta, just imagine what might have been, Falcons fans. What if then-Packers general manager Ron Wolf hadn't picked Atlanta's pocket in 1992, trading a first-round pick for a lightly regarded young quarterback who had a penchant for playing like he lived: on the wild side.

Brett Favre's Hall of Fame career could have unfolded in Atlanta the past decade, and maybe, just maybe, a Vince Lombardi trophy would be on display in Flowery Branch. As is, Favre played his last game in Atlanta in 1991, the year before the Georgia Dome opened.

But don't dwell on the missed opportunity for too long, Atlanta. After all, with Favre in place, there's no way the Falcons would have dealt up in the 2001 draft to select Vick No. 1 overall. So you missed out on the NFL's best quarterback of the 1990s, but landed the prototype passer of the new millennium.

4. I don't know yet how I feel about Atlanta's new uniforms, which debuted Saturday night against Green Bay. The further away you from the field, the more they look like the Houston Texans' tri-colored togs. Red is the new color -- it's actually an old Falcons color -- featured on the sleeves of the home jerseys. It's old advice, but good advice when it comes to uniforms: Less is usually more.

5. The Falcons unis weren't the only noticeable change on display at the Georgia Dome. Following an ever-expanding NFL trend, Atlanta spent $1.3 million on the installation of a FieldTurf playing surface this offseason. A total of seven different artificial surfaces were tested by Falcons players, but FieldTurf was the clear preference.

Seattle and Detroit's new stadiums, which opened last year, both feature FieldTurf, an artificial surface that looks and plays like grass without all the accompanying durability problems. The Jets and Giants will also play on FieldTurf this year at Giants Stadium. The Georgia Dome's artificial surface had been in place since the building opened for the 1992 season.

Chris Draft. After three years of part-time duty with the Falcons, this ultra-cerebral inside linebacker with the great football name is ready to emerge as an every-down player. He plays alongside Keith Brooking in Atlanta's 3-4 defense, and Falcons coaches are eager to see what he can do in full-time duty. Last season, despite starting just five games and sharing time with John Holecek, Draft amassed 97 total tackles (which ranked fourth on the team), with 3 1/2 sacks and two interceptions. Draft, 27, is a Stanford product who takes such a multi-scenarioed approach to his game preparation that coaches occasionally have no answer for his many classroom queries. Draft's fellow Falcons get right to the point with his reputation. His nickname? "Coach Draft."

Cornerback was the Falcons' weak spot last season, and despite addressing some needs this offseason, it will remain so until further notice. At one side, Atlanta has Ray Buchanan, who is 31 and likely would have been a salary cap casualty if his contract hadn't made him all but uncutable. At the other, newcomer Tyrone Williams has his detractors as well. His style of play wasn't physical enough for Green Bay, and his reputation for not being a strong practice player didn't help either. He replaces the departed Ashley Ambrose.

The Falcons added another ex-Packer in Tod McBride, but he has a thumb injury that's expected to keep him out all preseason. Another costly injury, Juran Bolden's patella problem, has landed him on the PUP list and will sideline him until October. Rookie Bryan Scott, the team's top draft pick, is promising. He's big, strong and physical, and Atlanta needs him to contribute in either the nickel or dime slots early in the season, along with valuable third cornerback Kevin Mathis.

Not to rain on anyone's Super Bowl parade in Hot-lanta, but Falcons fans would be wise to not overlook the following nugget of harsh reality: In its first 37 seasons of existence, Atlanta has never posted back-to-back winning seasons, let alone consecutive playoff trips. All told, the Falcons have managed a total of just nine seasons above .500 from 1966-2002, with six playoff qualifiers in that span. With their schedule being considerably tougher this season, those streaks are far from guaranteed to end.

The Falcons have to open their season at Dallas, in what will be Bill Parcells' first game as the Cowboys head coach. You know the 'Pokes will be fired up for that one. In the season's first half, Atlanta also has tough home games against Tampa Bay, New Orleans and Philadelphia, sandwiched around difficult road dates at Carolina and St. Louis. If the Falcons win and get back to the playoffs this year, they're going to earn it.

How to put this delicately? Falcons is no longer the F-word in Atlanta.

You know the details, but they bear repeating. This franchise, which has been one of the black holes in the NFL for decades, is now one of the league's reigning success stories. The Falcons sold out their season tickets for the first time in team history, at 58,000-plus. There are 4,000 names on a season-ticket waiting list -- yep, a waiting list -- and folks around here are talking about the upcoming NFL season even before they get around to discussing the Bulldogs' and Yellow Jackets' chances in college football.

What in the name of Marion Campbell is going on here?

The majority of the credit, of course, goes to the electrifying Vick and Blank, who has remade the franchise's image in lightning quick fashion since agreeing to purchase the team in December 2001. Blank has put his money where his mouth is, and everywhere else, spending freely to inject life into the moribund franchise.

Is Falcons Fever for real? I think you can say that, especially after Atlanta had an announced crowd of 68,818 for its preseason opener against the Packers. These fans, courted expertly by Blank, are embracing the Falcons like never before.

"I feel real good about where we are, but you've got to play the games," Blank told me Saturday before the game. "And we can do more. We plan on bringing a Super Bowl [trophy] here. That's what our goal is."

I'll have more from my interview with Blank on Sunday, including his thoughts on how much of the team's success rests precariously on Vick's shoulders. But on Saturday night, even in a 27-21 defeat, the buzz surrounding the Falcons continued to build ... in many different forms.

In Saturday's Atlanta Journal-Constitution, there was a front-page note on hip-hop star Ludacris, a local resident who has written a Falcons fight song that debuted Saturday night. Atlanta Stand Up, which is a new version of his single Stand Up from his upcoming CD, includes the following lyric:

"How we not gon' win? The team is sick;
"Nothing but touchdown passes off Michael Vick.
"Get hit by 56/'Cause he came to kill;
"Make way when the Dirty Birds take the field."

It's not exactly Hail to the Redskins, but you can dance to it.

Check back soon for more of Don Banks' Postcards from Camp.

Related information
Stories's Preview: Atlanta Falcons
Price the missing piece for Vick, Falcons
Michael Silver: Even in practice, Vick makes jaws drop
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