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A Free Bird

New schemes have brought out the best in Falcons defensive end Patrick Kerney, who has helped Atlanta take control of the NFC South

The mammoth man in the Kurt Busch number 97 tank top and cutoff jeans hoisted the 27-inch TV set and let it fly, triggering hoots and hollers of admiration in the crowded infield at the Daytona 500. Giddy from cheap beer and the joy of making an ass of himself in front of strangers, Atlanta Falcons defensive end Patrick Kerney raised his arms triumphantly. Kerney's 331/2-foot heave earned him a gold medal in the Redneck Games, a series of absurd acts that the former prep school kid from Pennsylvania and his buddies had dreamed up that very afternoon. ¶ "Hot damn," one onlooker said to another as he surveyed the 6'5", 273-pound Kerney. "That's one big s.o.b." ¶ As determined to stand out away from the foot-ball field as he does on it, Kerney, 27, has a penchant for foolhardiness that only a Jackass aficionado could conjure up. He's far more serious when it comes to football, and his Pro Bowl--caliber effort this season has been a big reason the NFC South--leading Falcons (6--2) are one of the league's turnaround teams in 2004. "Pat plays like his Number 1 objective in life is to get to the football," says first-year Atlanta coach Jim Mora, whose team had a bye on Sunday, "and I'm talking about every single play of every single practice and game."

Like the rest of the Falcons, who were a dysfunctional mess (2--9) last year until quarterback Michael Vick recovered from a broken right leg suffered in the preseason, Kerney has returned with a vengeance. With seven sacks, he has already exceeded his total for last season.

Kerney, a sixth-year veteran who eats five carb-intensive meals a day (plus snacks) to maintain his weight, was miscast in former defensive coordinator Wade Phillips's 3--4 scheme, which required him to line up between a tackle and a guard. Things got so bleak last season that when Kerney made an appearance in Atlanta for the opening of a youth center, a fan yelled, "Dude, you've got to come off the edge and get some sacks." Playing in the 3--4, says Kerney, "was like smashing my head against a brick wall. Now I can go outside the wall and use my athleticism, and it's a very liberating feeling."

When it comes to freewheeling, Kerney is one of football's foremost authorities. After participating in football, wrestling and lacrosse at The Taft School in Watertown, Conn., Kerney accepted a lacrosse scholarship to Virginia, then walked on to the football team. He turned heads with his speed and went on to start for two seasons. He was equally adept at attracting attention at various social gatherings on campus. For a '70s party he showed up dressed as Mark Spitz--in nothing but a Speedo. He went even further during an outdoor affair hosted by one of the school's secret societies. "It was an evening party held in the quad, and there were about 100 people there, including some parents," Kerney says. "I came walking up in my robe, and a hush fell over the place as I removed it. Then when people saw me standing there naked, totally sober and drinking water, they were really freaked out."

An All-ACC pick at defensive end his senior year, Kerney was the 30th pick in the 1999 NFL draft. During his breakout 2001 season, when he had a career-high 12 sacks, he grew a mullet that "made him look like Mark Gastineau," says his friend and former college roommate Will Thompson. "It started out as a goof, but he didn't cut the back of his hair for 16 months. It was, Business in the front, party in the back."

More recently, in an attempt to spoof the throwback-jersey craze, Kerney showed up at the Falcons' facility wearing a Shaquille O'Neal get-up that included Lakers shorts, shirt and hat. Pleased with the reaction he received from teammates, who thought the tight-fitting shirt looked like a tattoo, Kerney took the act one step further. "I was going with my girlfriend to meet her parents in Alabama, and I wore it the whole drive down," he says. "She was freaking out until I changed out of it at the last minute."

Kerney didn't have to make a fashion statement to get noticed by Mora, who during his first minicamp was drawn to number 97's intensity. "I had been trying to define [my concept of] effort," Mora says, "and one day, when I was watching film with the team, I said, 'When we turn on the film and Pat Kerney doesn't stand out, because everyone on our defense looks like him, that's when we'll be where we need to be.'"

With teams using as many as three blockers to contain him and disruptive defensive tackle Rod Coleman sidelined by knee and shoulder injuries sustained in a car accident, Kerney has gone three games without a sack. Yet he has continued to make his presence felt: In Atlanta's 41--28 victory over the Denver Broncos on Oct. 31, Kerney chased wide receiver Rod Smith out of bounds after a short gain on a reverse and also made a diving, one-handed interception of a deflected Jake Plummer pass.

Two days earlier, with the Falcons still smarting from a 56--10 road loss to the Kansas City Chiefs on Oct. 24, Kerney asked Mora if he could speak to his teammates following practice. Mindful that it was Halloween weekend, Kerney talked about staying focused on the upcoming game, saying, "Guys, there's not a drink or a girl in the world that's going to feel as good as a win over the Broncos. Let's lay low tonight."

Sure enough, Kerney holed up in his house and replayed his favorite DVD, Jackass: The Movie.




Kerney (97) is making more plays in the 4--3 because he's not being locked up inside by bigger blockers.