After a morning practice during training camp, coach Dan Reeves
walked over to a makeshift fence and greeted a handful of
Falcons fans. Just two seasons ago he had guided Atlanta to
Super Bowl XXXIII, marking the record ninth time in his 35 NFL
seasons as a player and coach that he had reached the title
game. As Reeves signed autographs, his 1972 Cowboys championship
ring flashing in the sunlight, a little girl approached. But
before Reeves could sign her shirt, she pulled away and asked,
"Hey, Coach Whoever-You-Are, is Jamal Anderson coming out to
"Yes," chuckled Reeves, "we've all missed Jamal."
No one more than Coach Whoever-He-Is; without Anderson, Reeves
was transformed from the 1998 NFL Coach of the Year to just
another guy with a headset. A battering ram at running back two
autumns ago, Anderson set a league mark with 410 carries and a
team record with 1,846 yards rushing. After Atlanta rewarded him
with a five-year, $32 million contract, Anderson confirmed just
how valuable he was to the Falcons--but not in the way he had
intended. In the second game of last season Anderson tore his
right ACL; Atlanta's subsequent collapse from 14-2 to 5-11 could
be directly linked to his absence.
"We already knew how great he was on the field," says Reeves.
"But when Jamal got hurt, we didn't realize all the intangible
things he brought: his leadership, his toughness or the spark he
gave this team. Those are the things we really missed."
Without Anderson--who has been known to steamroller a tackler,
trot back to the huddle and yell, "Oh my goodness, did you see
how I busted that mother up?"--the Falcons lost most of their
offense and all of their swagger. Quarterback Chris Chandler, who
lacked a decent target coming out of the backfield and missed
Anderson's superb blocking on blitzes, saw his pass rating fall
from 100.9 to 83.5. Atlanta dropped from No. 1 in the league in
time of possession to No. 27, from No. 6 in rushing to No. 30,
and from No. 1 in turnover differential to No. 31. "The biggest
thing was that Jamal kept the defense off the field," says middle
linebacker Jessie Tuggle. "You also knew that when he hit the
field, he came to punish people. That motivated you. When his
knee went out, the team as a whole lost a lot of confidence."
The only positive result to come out of Anderson's injury
(besides the phone call he got from 'N Sync to help cheer him up)
was the opportunity it gave to other Falcons to grow in the
offense. Second-year wideout and kick returner Tim Dwight led the
team in touchdown catches (seven) and plays from scrimmage of 30
or more yards (16). Anderson's absence also left Atlanta's
offensive line with plenty to prove. "We had to mature as a team
playing without Jamal," says veteran tackle Bob Whitfield. "We
didn't want people to think that when he went out, our offense
went with him."
Although most backs need 12 to 18 months to fully recover from a
knee injury as serious as Anderson's, he was on track in May to
be at full speed for the season opener--until he suffered a
setback. The patella tendon that doctors had grafted to repair
his ACL became inflamed, which limited him to participating in
only two of the Falcons' 16 minicamp workouts. (It also scared
the club to the point that it signed former Lions back Ron Rivers
two weeks before training camp began.)
"That was the first time I said, 'Man, I'm tired of this,'"
recalls the 27-year-old Anderson. "I don't expect to be the same
player I was right off the bat. But I am getting stronger every
day, and by the time the season starts, I think I'll be capable
of doing most of the things I did before. But you never know how
this thing will respond."
Anderson didn't have to wait long to test his knee. On the first
day of camp he broke through the line, shot to his left, butted
heads with a defensive back and then, as he neared the sideline,
was lit up by linebacker Keith Brooking. Anderson jumped right
up, shook off the hit and jogged back to the huddle. Still,
despite his vigorous pleas for carries, the Falcons brought
Anderson along slowly. Reeves knows a little bit about how to
rehab knee operations, having recovered from 10 himself, and by
limiting Anderson's exposure to pain, he hoped to build the
running back's confidence in his knee. Later in camp Anderson was
cutting at full speed and craving contact. He even got back at
Brooking during a fumble drill when he raced to a loose ball and
scooped it up before the linebacker had even gotten off the
"I never once thought of myself as some kind of impenetrable
force or entity that couldn't be stopped," Anderson says. "Well,
wait a second, that's not right. There are certain teams that
could never stop me, but they shall remain nameless."
As the old Jamal gradually reappears, so too might the Falcons'
chances of rejoining the NFL's elite.
SEPT. 3 SAN FRANCISCO
10 at Denver
17 at Carolina
24 ST. LOUIS
OCT. 1 at Philadelphia
8 N.Y. GIANTS
15 at St. Louis
22 NEW ORLEANS
NOV. 5 TAMPA BAY
12 at Detroit
19 at San Francisco
26 at Oakland
DEC. 3 SEATTLE
10 Open date
17 at New Orleans
24 KANSAS CITY
COLOR PHOTO: BERNIE NUNEZ/SPORTS IMAGERY EYE CATCHER Used almost exclusively as a special-teamer earlier in his career, Dwight has become a lethal deep threat.
COLOR PHOTO: GREG FOSTER
1999 Record 5-11 (3rd in NFC West)
NFL rank (rush/pass/total): offense 30/17/27; defense 29/9/16
2000 Schedule strength
NFL rank: 22 (tie)
Opponents' 1999 winning percentage: .465
Games against playoff teams: 5
PLAYER TO WATCH
The Falcons are hoping defensive end Patrick Kerney turns out to
be a lot flashier than his choice in cars. The team's
first-round pick in 1999, he still drives the '91 Volvo wagon
his parents gave him during his freshman year at Virginia.
"There's a lot of nice rides around here," Kerney says, "but
mine gets me where I need to go." Atlanta hopes he can drive its
pass rush after the departure of Chuck Smith, who signed with
the Panthers. A former lacrosse player at Virginia, Kerney had 2
1/2 sacks in limited action last season. "He's got a good motor
and good technique," defensive line coach Bill Kollar says. "But
he needs to get bigger and stronger." The 6'5" Kerney already
added 15 pounds, to 272, during the off-season.
PROJECTED LINEUP WITH 1999 STATISTICS
Coach: Dan Reeves
Fourth season with Falcons (167-128-1 in NFL)
Offensive Backs PVR*
QB Chris Chandler 66 307 att. 174 comp. 56.7% 2,339 yds.
16 TDs 11 int. 83.5 rtg.
RB Jamal Anderson 40 19 att. 59 yds. 3.1 avg. 2 rec.
34 yds. 17.0 avg. 0 TDs
RB Ron Rivers 179 82 att. 295 yds. 3.6 avg. 22 rec.
173 yds. 7.9 avg. 1 TD
FB Bob Christian 254 38 att. 174 yds. 4.6 avg. 40 rec.
354 yds. 8.9 avg. 7 TDs
Receivers, Specialists, Offensive Linemen
WR Terance Mathis 58 81 rec. 1,016 yds. 6 TDs
WR Shawn Jefferson 109 40 rec. 698 yds. 6 TDs
WR Tim Dwight 136 32 rec. 669 yds. 7 TDs
TE O.J. Santiago 283 15 rec. 174 yds. 0 TDs
K Morten Andersen 237 34/34 XPs 15/21 FGs 79 pts.
PR Tim Dwight 136 20 ret. 11.0 avg. 1 TD
KR Tim Dwight 136 44 ret. 21.5 avg. 0 TDs
LT Bob Whitfield 6'5" 318 lbs. 16 games 16 starts
LG Bob Hallen 6'4" 305 lbs. 16 games 14 starts
C Calvin Collins 6'2" 310 lbs. 14 games 8 starts
RG Anthony Redmon 6'5" 308 lbs. 15 games 15 starts
RT Travis Claridge (R)6'5" 308 lbs. 12 games 12 starts
LE Patrick Kerney 25 tackles 2 1/2 sacks
LT Travis Hall 45 tackles 4 1/2 sacks
RT Shane Dronett 44 tackles 6 1/2 sacks
RE Brady Smith 33 tackles 6 sacks
OLB Henri Crockett 42 tackles 1 1/2 sacks
MLB Jessie Tuggle 91 tackles 3 1/2 sacks
OLB Keith Brooking 94 tackles 2 sacks
CB Ray Buchanan 63 tackles 4 int.
SS Marty Carter 73 tackles 1 int.
FS Ronnie Bradford 40 tackles 0 int.
CB Ashley Ambrose 57 tackles 6 int.
P Dan Stryzinski 80 punts 39.5 avg.
 New acquisition (R) Rookie (statistics for final college
year) *PVR: Player Value Ranking (explanation on page 139)
THE BOOK an opposing team's scout sizes up the Falcons
"Their success depends on two things: Jamal Anderson's ability
to come back and carry the running attack, and their offensive
line's ability to keep people off Chris Chandler. He was sacked
32 times last year, and that's too much. They'd better hope that
their rookie tackle, Travis Claridge, is good.... The defensive
line is as thin as it's ever been. I count only five functional
guys. The upside is that they have a terrific third tackle in Ed
Jasper.... Depth at cornerback will be a problem, with Michael
Booker in the tank. Everyone will go at them with three- and
four-wideout packages. They'll have to outscore people, because
I don't see them stopping anybody.... The wideouts are good;
Shawn Jefferson gives them a nice possession receiver, but if
the running game and the offensive line don't hold up, Chandler
will be facing a ton of blitzes, and he won't have time to find
those wide receivers.... They'd better be careful about
overworking Tim Dwight. He's a little guy. If they expect him to
handle all the returns, as he did last year, plus carry a lot of
the offense, they're kidding themselves."