- TOP PLAYERSOffensePABLO S. TORRE | August 20, 2012
- TAMPA BAY buccaneersENEMY lines WHAT A RIVAL COACH SAYSJune 28, 2012
- Faces in the CrowdJune 11, 2001
He powered his tree-trunk-like legs toward teammate Mark Simoneau, a 234-pound linebacker, driving him back several yards, and smashed through a pair of beefy defensive linemen and into the end zone. Then 5'11", 237-pound halfback Jamal Anderson, hero of the Falcons' only Super Bowl season, spiked the ball into the South Carolina mud and provided an updated—and R-rated—version of the Dirty Bird.
"That's right, m——————, I'm ready!" Anderson screamed at a group of defenders, enlivening the end of a rainy practice session a week into training camp. "Y'all m—————— can't stop me! If any one of y'all a———- wants to step up and test me, I'll do the same damn thing."
A few plays earlier Anderson had completely lost his cool, escalating a posttackle shoving match by whacking linebacker Jeff Kelly with an open-handed left hook to an ear hole of his helmet. That set off the biggest fight at a Falcons practice in several years and, in a bizarre way, gave this flailing franchise (9-23 since its 34-19 loss to the Broncos in Super Bowl XXXIII) a shred of hope for 2001. "Ever since that day he's had fire in his eyes, and that's something I haven't seen from him since 1998," cornerback Ray Buchanan says of Anderson. "We loved it because he runs better when he's mad, and right now he's running with more thug in him than ever before."
Anderson has been outrageously ornery while watching Atlanta, which hasn't had a Pro Bowl player for the past two seasons, plummet toward NFL irrelevance. Late last year, as he struggled to rebound from reconstructive surgery on his right knee and the Falcons wheezed to a 4-12 record that left them at the bottom of the NFC West, Anderson and several teammates initiated a locker room Fight Club patterned after the film. While the dozen or so players involved waged only open-handed battles, most of the participants were a tad more physically imposing than Edward Norton or Brad Pitt. "There was a lot of pent-up aggression and emotion," says tackle Bob Whitfield. "Our attitude was, We ain't beating anyone else, so we might as well beat on each other. It was our way of coming together."
The dramatic trade in April that landed Atlanta the No. 1 draft pick, which it used to select quarterback Michael Vick, may have given the franchise hopes of a bright future, but if the Falcons are going to succeed this season, Anderson will be the key. In 1998 he set an NFL record with 410 carries and gained 1,846 yards, the ninth-best single-season total in history. Then he blew out his knee in the second game of '99 and returned to action as a lesser threat in 2000, scrapping his way to 1,024 yards on 282 carries behind a shabby line.
The good news for Falcons fans is that Anderson believes he's ready to run as he did in 1998. Less cheery to them was Atlanta's failure to bring in any new blockers. Though the Falcons re-signed free agent Whitfield, one of the league's better left tackles, the other four positions will be manned by players who struggled in 2000. In the off-season coach Dan Reeves replaced line coach Art Shell with Pete Mangurian, who immediately began a scorched-girth policy. Which linemen were overweight? "All of them," Mangurian says. "Their collective body fat was off the charts. When you're too big, that's when you get tired and hurt, and last year that killed their continuity."
Other Falcons are less concerned with the linemen's tummies than with their hearts. "They've been playing like garbage the past two years," Buchanan says. "Now these guys know this is their last chance."
Last year Atlanta ranked second-to-last in the league in two key categories-sacks allowed (61) and third-down conversion percentage (28.9)—and had the NFL's fourth-worst rushing attack. With an improved running offense, oft-injured 35-year-old quarterback Chris Chandler will have more time to get the ball to his trio of veteran wideouts (Terance Math-is, Shawn Jefferson and the reacquired Tony Martin) and may also have a chance to stay healthy. Then the 2001 Falcons could save their biggest blows for outside the locker room. Says Whitfield, "We're going to continue the Fight Club—but we're going to fight other people instead of ourselves."
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