The rest of the players are forging ahead, but some of them are miffed that management won't ante up what they think are fair wages for the stars of the team. Even 1991 first-round draft choice Bruce Pickens, who is starting in place of Sanders, wants him back. "If we're going to the Super Bowl, we need Deion," Pickens says. "I know it, everybody knows it. There's only one Deion. I can't be him." Plan B signee Jeff Donaldson, 30, who is nowhere near as vicious a hitter as Jordan was, now is Atlanta's strong safety.
"We've already lost Jordan, which we shouldn't have," says center Jamie Dukes. "He was a hell of a player. But losing Deion—that would be the p.r. snafu of all time. We've got to sign him. There are different kinds of guys on a team, players and guys who help establish an identity. Deion is both. He's a great player, and he helped us establish who we are. He's got a flair for the dramatic and for clutch times like nobody I've seen since Ali."
As long as quarterback Chris Miller remains healthy, the Falcons can score points as well as anybody. But they have a porous defense. Gritty but undersized—right end Tim Green weighs only 245 pounds—Atlanta blitzes all the time to make up for its weakness up front. The all-out rush requires exceptional coverage from the corners. Sanders and Tim McKyer, with Pickens in reserve, form one of the best trios of coverage corners in the league. Even with them, plus Jordan, the Falcons gave up more yards than all but four other teams last year. Without exceptional coverage, Glanville's risky defense will be even more of a gamble.
Injuries also have hurt the Falcon defense. Last year's starter at left end, seven-year vet Rick Bryan, retired last week after suffering his second spinal column injury in three years. In addition, the only cornerback Atlanta drafted this year, fourth-rounder Frankie Smith, is out indefinitely after having surgery on the tip of the middle finger on his left hand.
At least the offense, which last year was fifth in points scored and eighth overall, remains potent. Should Rison not be available to start the season, the Falcons can plug in Drew Hill, a Plan B acquisition who caught 90 passes for the Houston Oilers in '91. The other three wideouts—Mike Pritchard, Michael Haynes and George Thomas, who combined for 128 receptions last year—all have 4.4 speed, and any one of them is capable of being a Sunday afternoon hero.
Herock deserves most of the credit for drafting and dealing for fast players. "Everybody says we've built a fast team for the dome, but I don't buy it," Herock says. "We'd have built the same team on grass. Offensively, we have a team good enough to make the Super Bowl. On defense, we'll attack, and we'll beat people up, but we'll also get beaten up because we're smaller. I think it'll come down to: Can we last? Can we hold up physically?"
There was no way to answer those questions, based on the Falcons' performance against the Bucs. "Just a scrimmage," McKyer called it. "You can't be worried until the last quarter of the last, preseason game." Well, all last season Steve DeBerg had four completions of longer than 40 yards as the starting quarterback for the Kansas City Chiefs. Now a backup for Tampa Bay, DeBerg, 38, pitched completions of 40 and 52 yards against Atlanta—both over McKyer.
Don't panic yet, Falcon fans. The guess here is that Sanders, who feels a very strong bond to the Falcon players, if not to the team's management, will join the team in time for its Sept. 6 season opener against the New York Jets at the Georgia Dome. "Before this week's over," Sanders said on Sunday, rubbing his head, "I'm going to have some gray up here."