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Peter King
August 25, 2003
Michael Vick's broken leg on a meaningless scramble in a preseason game knocks the wind out of the Falcons and robs the NFL of its brightest star
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August 25, 2003

Tough Break

Michael Vick's broken leg on a meaningless scramble in a preseason game knocks the wind out of the Falcons and robs the NFL of its brightest star

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Atlanta falcons quarterback Doug Johnson has learned an important lesson since he started backing up Michael Vick at the end of the 2001 season: Never put down your helmet when the opportunistic Vick is on the field. Johnson suddenly had to buckle up last Saturday night when, with 4:20 left in the first quarter of a preseason game against the Baltimore Ravens, Vick scrambled out of the pocket and broke his right fibula as he was being pulled down by defensive end Adalius Thomas at the Falcons' nine-yard line. � While Vick grabbed his leg and groaned, a team with Super Bowl aspirations, and a league in love with its latest star, felt the pain. When the 23-year-old Vick learned later that he would be sidelined for at least six weeks, he and Falcons owner Arthur Blank wept.

"Typically it takes six weeks for a bone to heal," Falcons team doctor Andrew Bishop said after a further examination of Vick's leg on Sunday. "That just means the bone is healed, it doesn't necessarily mean everything else is as it's supposed to be. It could be as little as six weeks. It could be eight, 10. We just have to wait and see."

At the minimum Vick will miss September games against Dallas, Washington, Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay and Carolina. "I can tell you four coaches, especially [the Cowboys'] Bill Parcells, who are breathing a lot easier today," one NFL personnel director said on Sunday.

The electric Vick, seemingly on his way to becoming the best runner-passer in NFL history, spurred the Falcons to sell out all their home games before the season started for the first time since 1981. But the fans who had gone to watch their hero and Vick's coaches were left wondering, Why was he scrambling in a meaningless game? That was what bugged coach Dan Reeves on Sunday. "In the preseason you've got to learn that you don't run," he said. "You throw it away. But Mike is so competitive. We hadn't gotten anything done offensively, and he just took off."

"This really hurts the league," said Mike Ornstein, the football consultant for Reebok and a sports marketing executive. "Every year the league picks a guy to put out front. They've done it with Brett Favre, John Elway, Troy Aikman in the past. This year Vick had the hot jersey, and he was doing all the commercials."

Entering the Ravens game, the Falcons had a wide-open offense with a dual-threat quarterback. Now, with the 6'2", 225-pound Johnson, a slow and inexperienced pocket passer, they will have to rely on a more conservative attack. Primary backs Warrick Dunn and T.J. Duckett carried the ball on 35.9% of Atlanta's offensive plays last year, but expect them to run as much as 50% of the time until Vick regains his form.

When Johnson entered the huddle after Vick was injured on Saturday night, he saw long faces on the other 10 players. "Well," he said with his slight Florida drawl, "at least y'all know where I'm gonna be back here"—a reminder that he'll being staying in the pocket.

The Falcons tried to take solace in the fact that the 25-year-old Johnson, who played two years of minor league baseball and then started 22 games at quarterback for Steve Spurrier at Florida, is a tough competitor. In his one start last season, after Vick sprained his right shoulder the week before, Johnson completed 19 of 25 passes, including a 14-yard touchdown to Brian Finneran that beat the New York Giants 17-10. He finished the regular season with 37 completions in 57 attempts for 448 yards and two touchdowns.

Then, in a second-round playoff game at Philadelphia, Johnson was pressed into duty for one play after Vick scrambled and had the wind knocked out of him. "Second-and-20," Johnson recalled on Sunday. "Five wides, no backs. Spread formation. It's freezing, and I've been on the sidelines all game. But I had to go in, and we needed to throw the ball. I found Finneran and picked up [14 yards]. That kind of thing teaches you: You've always got to be ready."

A franchise, and a city, hopes that Johnson is up to the job. A league hopes it won't be for long.