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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


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

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

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

COLOR PHOTO: BILL FRAKES [T of C] VICKTIMIZED The Atlanta Falcons' season took a turn for the worsebefore it even got started when Michael Vick broke his right legin a preseason game (page 46).

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY AL TIELEMANS SPOT DUTY Johnson has started three games in three years withAtlanta.