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4 Atlanta Falcons Jamal Anderson and his teammates are fighting to regain respectability

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 Mathis, 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


COLOR PHOTO: JOHN BIEVER Anderson says he's ready to ramble again, as he did for 1,846 yards in the Falcons' Super Bowl season of 1998.


an opposing team's scout sizes up the Falcons

"Wow, they suck. It's amazing, but the Falcons didn't fill any
of their needs in the off-season. Other than drafting Alge
Crumpler, a tight end who should be awesome, they basically
stood pat. It makes no sense. They're a team in disarray....
Everyone talks about how poor their offensive line is, but their
downfall is their defense. They have guys like linebacker Mark
Simoneau, who misses way too many tackles, and they also use
Jeff Kelly--how do you put these guys on the field? Keith
Brooking is their best player, but they need more than one
guy.... The safeties, Marty Carter and Ronnie Bradford, are
backup-type guys. If you have safeties who can't tackle, you're
screwed. As good as cornerback Ray Buchanan is, he struggled
last year, but with those safeties, I can see why....
Offensively, who's going to carry the load? Jamal Anderson was
gimpy last year, and he wasn't able to explode out of the
backfield the way he did before his injury--and this is a guy
who was slow to begin with. Chris Chandler's on his last legs,
and the only way Michael Vick will help them this year is in a
few special situations.... I can't say enough about Crumpler.
He's one of the best tight ends to come out in a decade, one of
those rare talents who can block and catch. He went nuts hauling
in passes at the combine. It was like watching Eric Moulds go
through drills."


Sept. 9 at San Francisco
16 at St. Louis
30 at Arizona
21 at New Orleans
28 Open date
18 at Green Bay
25 at Carolina
Dec. 2 ST. LOUIS
16 at Indianapolis
30 at Miami

NFL rank: 26
Opponents' 2000 winning percentage: .477
Games against playoff teams: 6

PROJECTED LINEUP with 2000 statistics

COACH: Dan Reeves; fifth season with Atlanta (171-140-1 in NFL)
2000 RECORD: 4-12 (fifth in NFC West)
NFL RANK (rush/pass/total): offense 28/24/30; defense 27/24/25


QB Chris Chandler 98 331 att. 192 comp. 58.0% 2,236 yds.
10 TDs 12 int. 73.5 rtg.
RB Jamal Anderson 27 282 att. 1,024 yds. 3.6 avg. 42 rec.
382 yds. 9.1 avg. 6 TDs
RB Maurice Smith 284 19 att. 69 yds. 3.6 avg. 1 rec.
5 yds. 5.0 avg. 0 TDs
FB Bob Christian 263 9 att. 19 yds. 2.1 avg. 44 rec.
315 yds. 7.2 avg. 0 TDs



WR Shawn Jefferson 105 60 rec. 822 yds. 2 TDs
WR Terance Mathis 158 57 rec. 679 yds. 5 TDs
WR Tony Martin[N] 133 26 rec. 393 yds. 2 TDs
TE Reggie Kelly 234 31 rec. 340 yds. 2 TDs
K Jake Arians[1] 309 16/17 XPs 12/15 FGs 52 pts.
PR Darrien Gordon[N] 367 29 ret. 8.9 avg. 0 TDs
KR Darrick Vaughn 335 39 ret. 27.7 avg. 3 TDs

LT Bob Whitfield 6'5" 310 lbs. 15 games 15 starts
LG Bob Hallen 6'4" 295 lbs. 16 games 5 starts
C Todd McClure 6'1" 286 lbs. 10 games 7 starts
RG Kynan Forney(R)[N] 6'3" 304 lbs. 11 games 11 starts
RT Travis Claridge 6'5" 300 lbs. 16 games 16 starts


LE Patrick Kerney 45 tackles 2 1/2 sacks
LT Travis Hall 62 tackles 4 1/2 sacks
RT Shane Dronett 8 tackles 1 sack
RE Brady Smith 33 tackles 4 1/2 sacks
OLB Antony Jordan 6 tackles 0 sacks
MLB Jessie Tuggle 33 tackles 0 sacks
OLB Keith Brooking 35 tackles 1 sack

CB Ray Buchanan 80 tackles 6 int.
SS Marty Carter 94 tackles 2 sacks
FS Ronnie Bradford 69 tackles 3 int.
CB Ashley Ambrose 37 tackles 4 int.
P Chris Mohr[N] 95 punts 38.5 avg.

[N]New acquisition (R) Rookie (statistics for final college
year) *PVR: Player Value Ranking (explanation on page 119)
[1]1999 college statistics

"Crumpler is one of the best in a decade, a rare talent who can
block and catch."