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4 Atlanta Falcons
Tim Layden
September 03, 2007
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
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September 03, 2007

4 Atlanta Falcons

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

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WHAT'S NEW?

> 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 ear off."

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 35.

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