In Vick's absence it falls to Milloy (36) and the D to keep the Falcons competitive.
Ronald Martinez/Getty Images
at St. Louis
NEW ORLEANS (M)
N.Y. GIANTS (M)
at Tampa Bay
at New Orleans
The King 500
368Kynan Forney, Guard
Late in camp, the 6' 3", 307-pound Forney shed his sweat-drenched uniform and, eager to get home, proclaimed, "My legs are heading south for I-85." It's best he keep those legs fresh, because the O-line must quickly assimilate coach Bobby Petrino's audible-rich offense. "When we get it down," Forney says, "defenses won't be able to tee off on us, because we change everything."
Can a season end before it's even begun? The best plan for these birds may be to get through this year and start fresh in '08
Gee, hardly anything at all. Iconic, pillar-of-the-franchise quarterback
Michael Vick is facing prison time and a lengthy suspension from the NFL in one
of the ugliest scandals in league history. He won't be playing in the NFL for a
very long time. Coach Bobby Petrino is a rookie straight out of Louisville
(albeit with three years' experience as an NFL assistant), and his predecessor
was canned after three seasons. Three-time Pro Bowl running back Warrick Dunn
underwent back surgery right before training camp, and the offense was turned
over to Joey Harrington, whom much of the league has consigned to the slag heap
of first-round quarterback busts, five years after the Lions selected him out of
Oregon with the third overall pick in 2002. Other than that, things have been
quiet in Atlanta.
WHERE THEY'RE HEADED
Straight to the bottom? Maybe not. Oddly, Petrino might be the perfect
coach to take over this listing ship. He is a no-nonsense X's and O's football
wonk who doesn't get caught up in any of the extracurriculars that surround the
job. "I played for Tony Dungy," says Dunn, a former Buccaneer. "He was not a
screamer, but he was able to coach you and also have a relationship with you.
Bobby coaches you too, but he's not joking around or interacting with the
players. You can have a conversation with Bobby, but he's not going to talk your
It can be argued that this is the perfect management style for a team that
will play in one of the longest shadows imaginable. But on the eve of training
camp Petrino gathered the Falcons and openly addressed the Vick issue. According
to veteran linebacker Keith Brooking, Petrino said, "There are things going on
that are out of our hands. Mike's situation is unclear, but we can't do anything
about that. And our mission is unchanged." Brooking adds, "Coach Petrino is
right. This is my 10th year in the league, and it truly is not only a
game-to-game league, but a day-to-day league. You have to have that tunnel
vision, regardless of what is going on, because the teams you're playing do not
care [about your issues]."
Petrino's ability to steer the Falcons through the Vick crisis is his most
public challenge. But it is just as crucial that he turn Harrington into a
useful NFL quarterback to run the offense that Petrino has been building for
more than two decades in the game.
NFL fans are familiar with Harrington's story: He started 55 games in four
years with Detroit and threw two more interceptions than touchdowns; the Lions
won just 19 games in that span. Last year he went to Miami as Daunte
Culpepper's backup and ended up starting 11 games, including four straight
victories in November.
"I feel better than I have in six years," Harrington said during training
camp. "While the Detroit experience was awful, and I wouldn't wish it on
anybody, I learned a ton from it. I looked at last year as the chance to sling
the ball around. I had lost myself as a player, and now I've gotten a lot
of my confidence back."
When Petrino was asked in training camp if he had spent time reconstructing
Harrington's psyche, he said, "I thought I might have to. But I haven't. And if
you look at his Miami tapes, he did a lot of good things."
Betting on Harrington remains a leap of faith until he proves himself. The
surrounding cast is respectable. The right side of the offensive line, with
tackle Todd Weiner and guard Kynan Forney, is as good as any in football.
Jerious Norwood averaged 6.4 yards per carry as a rookie, and if Dunn is
healthy, they form a solid pair. Joe Horn comes over from New Orleans to
stabilize the receiving corps, provided he has gas left in the tank at age
Petrino brought in Mike Zimmer from the Cowboys to upgrade an inconsistent
defense that five times held opponents to 10 points or fewer but four other
times surrendered 30 or more. Zimmer is attempting to transform the Falcons' D
into a conservative first- and second-down unit that puts itself in position to
pressure the quarterback on third-and-long. "The new defensive staff has this
philosophy where you have to earn the right to rush the quarterback on third
down," says veteran strong safety Lawyer Milloy. "And they're a lot more
in-your-face than the old staff."
There are significant questions on the defensive side: Will John Abraham give
the Falcons more than six healthy games? Will veteran cornerback Lewis Sanders,
signed in the off-season from Houston, hold down the side opposite DeAngelo
Hall, who seldom gets tested?
But those seem like minor matters on team fighting larger turmoil. "Losing
Mike doesn't make us a better team," says Milloy. "But are we going to spend the
year using that as an excuse?"
The good news is that expectations are so low, Petrino's Falcons will almost
surely exceed them. -- Tim Layden