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Original Issue

Job Action G.M. Rick McKay's jump to the rival Falcons turns him against his old club

Talk about your strange scenes. Last Saturday, two hours before
the Bucs took the field against the Falcons and tried to keep
their flickering playoff hopes alive, Rich McKay was in the
visiting owner's box at Raymond James Stadium. On the TV above
him McKay appeared in a promotional ad as Tampa Bay's general
manager, hawking Bucs Super Bowl XXXVII commemorative items. On
the table in front of him was a game program in which there was a
story on McKay that said he "has done a remarkable job rebuilding
a [Bucs] franchise that previously had posted 10 consecutive
losing seasons."

What made it all so weird was that five days earlier, on Dec. 15,
McKay had been introduced as Atlanta's new president and G.M.,
having been hired away from Tampa Bay a year after helping
orchestrate the greatest season in the 27-year history of the
team. And here he was, in his first game as a Falcons employee,
sitting eight boxes down from his old seat at Raymond James. "I'm
pretty sure this has never happened before," said McKay, 44.

His family's association with the Bucs dated to the club's first
season, in 1976, when his father, John, was the coach. Rich
joined the club as a vice president in '92 and spent the last
nine seasons as G.M. But he had lost a power struggle with
second-year coach Jon Gruden, who didn't like a guy he saw as a
bean counter deciding who belonged on the roster. So earlier this
month McKay was granted permission to look for another job. The
Falcons quickly hired him.

"It was time," said McKay of leaving Tampa Bay. "I was becoming
the 'No' guy. Jon gave this franchise something it never had, a
Super Bowl championship, and his vision of the future and mine
didn't intersect."

Atlanta owner Arthur Blank, who took over the team in February
2002, has promised to give his new general manager the resources
he needs to succeed, and McKay's first task will be to hire a
coach to replace the fired Dan Reeves. "It's a mistake to hire
cheaply," Blank said. "I don't look at what we have to pay a
coach as an expense. It's an investment."

The hottest name in coaching is LSU's Nick Saban, but any
interested NFL team will have to make a sizable investment in
money and authority to lure a man who made $1.5 million this year
directing a team that is playing for the national title on Jan. 4
and is expected to contend again next year. Falcons defensive
coordinator and interim head coach Wade Phillips is not expected
to be a candidate, but Rams defensive coordinator Lovie Smith, a
former Tampa Bay assistant, will be among those interviewed.

McKay already has his franchise player in place, quarterback
Michael Vick, who guided the Falcons (4-11) to a 30-28 upset of
the Bucs. Few G.M.'s walk into a new situation and find the two
most important elements needed to succeed in the NFL: an owner
who's not afraid to spend money and, in Vick, a quarterback who
can take over a game. Said McKay of his decision to go to
Atlanta: "It's the kind of situation where you say, 'What time's
the plane leave?'"

Peter King's Monday Morning Quarterback, every week at

COLOR PHOTO: GARY BOGDON In Vick (7), McKay (above left, with Gruden) has a star he canbuild around.