Shortly after boarding a chartered flight from Atlanta to San Francisco early last January, Jim Mora urgently punched a number into his cellphone. He had just wrapped up a press conference in which he was introduced as the Falcons' new coach, and now Mora wanted to make a statement directly to his top receiver, Peerless Price. His message: Get ready! Mora was bringing the West Coast offense to Atlanta, and he intended to turn Price into the next beneficiary of that pass-happy system. Price couldn't have been happier if Mora had told him he'd won the lottery.
A year ago Price arrived in Atlanta as a highly touted, high-priced free agent eager to hook up with rising-star quarterback Michael Vick. But Vick suffered a broken right leg in the preseason and missed the first 11 games, and Price wound up with mediocre numbers (64 catches, 838 yards, three touchdowns). Now the combination of Vick's return to health and the implementation of the West Coast should restore Price to prominence. The switch in systems also means he will be moving from split end, the position he played in former coach Dan Reeves' archaic offense, to flanker.
"You look at all the flankers who've played in this offense--guys like Terrell Owens and Jerry Rice--and they've thrived," Price says. "Now I have the same opportunity." Price told receivers coach George Stewart that his goal this season was to gain 1,200 yards; Stewart advised him to think bigger.
Price had never played split end before last season, and he was frustrated by how often he went up against double coverage. As a flanker he'll frequently be put in motion and will also line up in the slot. All that movement, Price believes, is one reason defenses won't be able to harness him as they did in 2003, when Atlanta averaged 164.4 passing yards a game (31st in the league). Price had only one 100yard game, and seven times he caught three passes or less in a game.
Vick's replacements, Doug Johnson and Kurt Kittner, combined for a woeful 10 touchdowns, a 50.4 completion percentage and 56.3 passer rating as the Falcons went 2-9 before Vick's return. (They finished 5-11.) "I wouldn't have been so upset if we had been winning," Price says, "but we were losing." Price became even more frustrated after an acquaintance advised him to look back at how receivers had performed in Reeves's offense over the years; when Price did that, he discovered that Atlanta hadn't had a 1,000-yard receiver since 1998. "It got to a point where I was wondering why they even signed me," he says.
Price often talked to family members about his struggles. They told him to stay optimistic, that the situation could only get better. His friends around the league, including defensive backs Deon Grant of Jacksonville and Champ Bailey, then with the Redskins, told him to keep his head up. "When you lose your starting quarterback, you're going to have problems, and it took Peerless half the season to understand that," Stewart says. "High-priced players want to prove that they're worth the money, but I told him it wasn't about the money. It's about being a professional."
Price has impressed the new coaching staff with his attitude and didn't let a shoulder injury keep him from practicing. "Some receivers don't want to get out there when they're nicked up," says Mora, "but I actually had to tell him to sit out one day." Price wants to make up for lost time with Vick, work on their timing and get comfortable in the new offense. Considering all the team's weapons, including Pro Bowl tight end Alge Crumpler and the backfield combination of Warrick Dunn and T.J. Duckett, the offense could be an explosive unit.
If the offense can click and the defense improves--which shouldn't be hard, since it was the league's worst last season--the Falcons have a chance to surprise people. Mora, the son of a former NFL coach, has energized the Falcons with his enthusiasm. He wants them to set high goals for themselves--something Price has already done. Most of all, Price wants to prove that 2003 was an aberration. "Those days are behind me," he says. "I don't care what happens to me now, because it can never be worse than what happened last year." --J.C.
PLAYER ON THE RISE
> Atlanta desperately needs a playmaker in the secondary, and rookie DEANGELO HALL, the eighth pick in the draft, has the potential to be its shutdown corner. He has outstanding speed and leaping ability, and doesn't shy from contact. He also could help them on special teams--he averaged 15.0 yards per punt return during his career at Virginia Tech.
ENEMY LINES An opposing scout's view
Defensively, their best player is Keith Brooking. He can really run, and he's a competitor. The guys around him are decent, at best.... There isn't much up front. Ed Jasper is a solid run stuffer, but nothing special. Of their two ends, Patrick Kerney has more speed and pass-rush ability than Brady Smith, but neither was big enough to be effective in a 3-4.... Their secondary is a mystery. I know Jim Mora is a big fan of Jason Webster, because they were together in San Francisco. He's a solid cover corner even though he's 5'9".... Having Michael Vick back will make a huge difference. His presence creates more confidence in all aspects of that team. The West Coast offense will be good for him, and I don't think it will hold him back.... Alge Crumpler is one of the best pass-catching tight ends in the business. He's big and he runs well, and he's also improved his blocking.... Of their two running backs, Warrick Dunn worries opponents the most. T.J. Duckett is just a big guy who's going to pound for yards. Dunn's an exceptional receiver out of the backfield, and he's a threat to go all the way if he gets a little space.
"The West Coast offense will be good for Michael Vick, and I don't think it will hold him back."
PROJECTED STARTING LINEUP with 2003 statistics
2003 RECORD: 5-11
NFL RANK (rush/pass/total):
COACH: Jim Mora; first season as an NFL head coach
12 at San Francisco
19 ST. LOUIS
3 at Carolina
17 SAN DIEGO
24 at Kansas City
31 at Denver
7 Open date
14 TAMPA BAY
21 at N.Y. Giants
28 NEW ORLEANS
5 at Tampa Bay
18 CAROLINA (S)
26 at New Orleans
2 at Seattle
NFL rank:T-23Opponents' 2003 winningpercentage: .488Games against playoff teams: 6
BRIAN BAHR/GETTY IMAGES
Atlanta paid a bundle for the Peerless free agent, but a depleted and outdated attack limited him to 64 catches.
COURTESY OF NFL