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Perhaps Jeff George misunderstood the terms of the deal. Perhaps
when the Falcons approached the quarterback about a new contract
last September, maybe, just maybe, he thought they said, "Five
years, $2.5 million." If that's what George heard, then his
decision to decline the offer makes complete sense. But Atlanta
did in fact tender him a five-year, $25 million pact, and George
did say no. Yes, the contract was back-loaded, worth as much as
$7 million in its last year, but really, no sane man--certainly
not a player who had never won a playoff game--would sniff at
that kind of cash. As of the first of July, Atlanta and George
were still in a standoff. But is there any reason to believe
that he won't be the Falcons' starting quarterback in 1996? None

With George, the Falcons contend for a wild-card spot. Without
him, they're sunk. Atlanta cannot afford not to re-sign its
starting signal-caller. In '94 the team mortgaged its future and
gave up three draft choices, including two No. 1 picks, to
acquire the quarterback from the Colts. Since then George has
been one of the squad's few bright spots. Last year, as the
28-year-old set five franchise passing records, including yards
in a season (4,143) and completions (336), the Falcons qualified
for the playoffs for the first time in four years. George is the
prototypical quarterback for coach June Jones's run-and-shoot
offense. And as he is finding out, George is a hot commodity in
Atlanta only: When talks with the Falcons stalled in March,
George's agent, Leigh Steinberg, couldn't even scare up a trade;
no other team is in the market for a quarterback at George's
asking price.

With George present and accounted for, the league's 10th-ranked
offense remains intact. In '95 the Falcons led the league with
62 plays of 20 yards or more and became the first team in NFL
history to have four players (running back Craig Heyward and
receivers Bert Emanuel, Terance Mathis and Eric Metcalf) each
gain more than 1,000 yards rushing or receiving in a season.
Proving that there is some run to complement the shoot, the
Falcons won eight of the nine games in which Heyward--who
averaged a career-best 4.6 yards per rush--carried the ball at
least 14 times. Paving the way this season for the bulky back
will be former Eagles tackle Antone Davis, whose considerable
size (330 pounds) will bolster the right side of the line.

"We feel good about the people we have on offense, and if we can
get a little better on defense, we'll be competitive," says
Jones, who is of the minority opinion that a team with an
exceptional offense can overcome the handicap of a mediocre
defense. But here's the rub: Atlanta's defensive unit doesn't
even approach mediocrity. The 29th-ranked squad gave up 27 or
more points on five occasions last season. The secondary was
torched for seven 300-yard passing games and gave up 4,541 yards
through the air, the most in league history.

Despite not having a draft pick until the third round in April,
the Falcons helped themselves by selecting Alabama defensive
tackle Shannon Brown, a 290-pound run stopper who will be given
a chance to contribute immediately. The team gave up its '96
second-round pick and snatched safety Patrick Bates from the
Raiders (and out from under the Cowboys, who were also
interested). If Bates lives up to the potential that made him a
1993 first-round pick, the Falcons' defensive backfield will be
instantly upgraded. Bates's arrival allows 1995 No. 1 pick Devin
Bush to move to strong safety. "Both Devin and Patrick should
change the nature of receivers coming into that area," Jones
says. "They're bigger, stronger, faster guys."

Though the secondary was terrible last year, the Falcons' meager
pass rush (30 sacks) didn't help matters. With that in mind,
Atlanta signed two free-agent defensive linemen: former Bronco
Shane Dronett and ex-Lion Dan Owens. And happy though they may
have been to cut loose aging linebacker Chris Doleman, the
Falcons still need to replace his nine sacks.

Atlanta can only hope that newly arrived five-time Pro Bowl
linebacker Cornelius Bennett performs better than his former
Bills teammate Darryl Talley did for the Falcons in '95.
(Talley, who signed a two-year, $2 million free-agent contract
in '95, was a major bust and was dumped in February.) "I don't
want to just go to the Super Bowl," Bennett says. "I want to
win. I went to four Super Bowls with the Bills, and we got our
butts kicked every time. It's not acceptable just getting
there." Bennett and the Falcons should be so lucky.


COLOR PHOTO: BILL FRAKES Falcons formula: When Heyward bangs out the yards, Atlanta comes out ahead. [Craig Heyward]


1995 Yards per Game (NFL rank in parentheses)

Rushing Passing Total

OFFENSE 87.1 (27) 261.6 (6) 348.7 (10)
DEFENSE 96.7 (9) 283.8 (30) 380.5 (29)

Doomed Outside the Dome

No NFL team in the 1990s has enjoyed a larger home field
advantage than the Falcons. The chart below compares the home
and road winning percentages of NFL teams in the '90s (excluding
Carolina and Jacksonville); the difference between the two
figures is the statistical advantage that each club gains at
home--or loses on the road.

Largest Differential Between Home and Road Records in the 1990s

Home W-L Pct. Road W-L Pct. Diff.

Falcons 32-16 .667 11-37 .229 +.438
Broncos 33-15 .688 16-32 .333 +.355
Steelers 37-11 .771 22-26 .458 +.313
Packers 31-17 .646 17-31 .354 +.292
Chiefs 39-9 .813 25-23 .521 +.292


Last August, four days before the start of the 1995 season,
Oakland free safety Patrick Bates walked out of camp, announcing
that he was tired of playing football. In April the Falcons, who
tried to wangle a deal for the 6'3", 215-pound Bates during his
season-long sit-out, finally acquired the 1993 first-round pick.
"I did a lot of soul-searching," says Bates of his year away
from the game. "I grew as a man and matured. That's why I'm
excited about this year: It's a fresh start for me."


Head coach: June Jones


QB Jeff George 557 att. 336 comp. 60.3%
4,143 yds. 24 TDs 11 int. 89.5 rtg.

RB Craig Heyward 236 att. 1,083 yds. 6 TDs
RB Jamal Anderson 39 att. 161 yds. 1 TD
WR Terance Mathis 78 rec. 1,039 yds. 9 TDs
WR Eric Metcalf 104 rec. 1,189 yds. 8 TDs
WR Bert Emanuel 74 rec. 1,039 yds. 5 TDs
WR J.J. Birden 31 rec. 303 yds. 1 TD
LT Bob Whitfield 6'5" 310 lbs.
LG Robbie Tobeck 6'4" 295 lbs.
C Roman Fortin 6'5" 297 lbs.
RG Mike Zandofsky 6'2" 308 lbs.
RT Antone Davis[*] 6'4" 330 lbs.
PK Morten Andersen 29/30 XPs 31/37 FGs


LE Shane Dronett[*] 2 sacks 0 fum. rec.
LT Moe Gardner 1/2 sack 0 fum. rec.
RT Lester Archambeau 3 sacks 1 fum. rec.
RE Chuck Smith 5 1/2 sacks 2 fum. rec.
OLB Cornelius Bennett[*] 2 sacks 1 int.
MLB Jessie Tuggle 1 sack 3 int.
OLB Ron George 0 sacks 0 int.
CB Anthony Phillips 1 int. 0 sacks
SS Devin Bush 1 int. 0 sacks
FS Patrick Bates[*] 0 int. 0 sacks
CB D.J. Johnson 2 int. 0 sacks
P Dan Stryzinski 67 punts 41.2 avg.
PR Eric Metcalf 39 ret. 9.8 avg.
KR Jamal Anderson 24 ret. 22.5 avg.

[*] New acquisition (R) Rookie (college statistics)