> Gee, hardlyanything at all. Iconic, pillar-of-the-franchise quarterback Michael Vick isfacing prison time and a lengthy suspension from the NFL in one of the ugliestscandals in league history. He won't be playing in the NFL for a very longtime. Coach Bobby Petrino is a rookie straight out of Louisville (albeit withthree years' experience as an NFL assistant), and his predecessor was cannedafter three seasons. Three-time Pro Bowl running back Warrick Dunn underwentback surgery right before training camp, and the offense was turned over toJoey Harrington, whom much of the league has consigned to the slag heap offirst-round quarterback busts, five years after the Lions selected him out ofOregon with the third overall pick in 2002. Other than that, things have beenquiet in Atlanta.
> Straight tothe bottom? Maybe not. Oddly, Petrino might be the perfect coach to take overthis listing ship. He is a no-nonsense X's and O's football wonk who doesn'tget caught up in any of the extracurriculars that surround the job. "Iplayed for Tony Dungy," says Dunn, a former Buccaneer. "He was not ascreamer, but he was able to coach you and also have a relationship with you.Bobby coaches you too, but he's not joking around or interacting with theplayers. You can have a conversation with Bobby, but he's not going to talkyour ear off."
It can be arguedthat this is the perfect management style for a team that will play in one ofthe longest shadows imaginable. But on the eve of training camp Petrinogathered the Falcons and openly addressed the Vick issue. According to veteranlinebacker Keith Brooking, Petrino said, "There are things going on thatare out of our hands. Mike's situation is unclear, but we can't do anythingabout that. And our mission is unchanged." Brooking adds, "CoachPetrino is right. This is my 10th year in the league, and it truly is not onlya game-to-game league, but a day-to-day league. You have to have that tunnelvision, regardless of what is going on, because the teams you're playing do notcare [about your issues]."
Petrino's abilityto steer the Falcons through the Vick crisis is his most public challenge. Butit is just as crucial that he turn Harrington into a useful NFL quarterback torun the offense that Petrino has been building for more than two decades in thegame.
NFL fans arefamiliar with Harrington's story: He started 55 games in four years withDetroit and threw two more interceptions than touchdowns; the Lions won just19¬†games in that span. Last year he went to Miami as Daunte Culpepper'sbackup and ended up starting 11¬†games, including four straight victoriesin November.
"I feelbetter than I have in six years," Harrington said during training camp."While the Detroit experience was awful, and I wouldn't wish it on anybody,I learned a ton from it. I looked at last year as the chance to sling the ballaround. I had lost myself as a player, and now I've¬†gotten a lot of myconfidence back."
When Petrino wasasked in training camp if he had spent time reconstructing Harrington's psyche,he said, "I thought I might have to. But I haven't. And if you look at hisMiami tapes, he did a lot of good things."
Betting onHarrington remains a leap of faith until he proves himself. The surroundingcast is respectable. The right side of the offensive line, with tackle ToddWeiner and guard Kynan Forney, is as good as any in football. Jerious Norwoodaveraged 6.4 yards per carry as a rookie, and if Dunn is healthy, they form asolid pair. Joe Horn comes over from New Orleans to stabilize the receivingcorps, provided he has gas left in the tank at age 35.
Petrino broughtin Mike Zimmer from the Cowboys to upgrade an inconsistent defense that fivetimes held opponents to 10 points or fewer but four other times surrendered 30or more. Zimmer is attempting to transform the Falcons' D into a conservativefirst- and second-down unit that puts itself in position to pressure thequarterback on third-and-long. "The new defensive staff has this philosophywhere you have to earn the right to rush the quarterback on third down,"says veteran strong safety Lawyer Milloy. "And they're a lot morein-your-face than the old staff."
There aresignificant questions on the defensive side: Will John Abraham give the Falconsmore than six healthy games? Will veteran cornerback Lewis Sanders, signed inthe off-season from Houston, hold down the side opposite DeAngelo Hall, whoseldom gets tested?
But those seemlike minor matters on team fighting larger turmoil. "Losing Mike doesn'tmake us a better team," says Milloy. "But are we going to spend theyear using that as an excuse?"
The good news isthat expectations are so low, Petrino's Falcons will almost surely exceedthem.
(M) Monday (T)Thursday
15 N.Y. GIANTS(M)
21 at NewOrleans
18 TAMPA BAY
2 at St.Louis
10 NEW ORLEANS(M)
16 at TampaBay
23 at Arizona
NFL rank ...T27
Opponents' 2006winning percentage ... .473
Games againstplayoff teams ... 5
AN OPPOSINGTEAM'S SCOUT SIZES UP THE FALCONS
> There'spotential here for a big-time disaster. They could be really bad. . . . Look,we all know the history with college coaches coming into the league. BobbyPetrino is supposed to be a pretty sharp guy, but this is just a really hardthing to do, especially in this situation. . . . Joey Harrington can't get itdone. Look at his record. And they've got nothing behind him. . . . Of course,Alge Crumpler is a stud at tight end. On the other side DeAngelo Hall and KeithBrooking are great players, period. John Abraham is supposed to be a greatplayer, but he's basically a nickel pass rusher who's full of himself and getshurt a lot. . . . This looks like a team that needs everything to break justright in order to go 5-11. And they'll probably be worse than that.
THE KING 500
Late in camp, the6' 3", 307-pound Forney shed his sweat-drenched uniform and, eager to gethome, proclaimed, "My legs are heading south for I-85." It's best hekeep those legs fresh, because the O-line must quickly assimilate coach BobbyPetrino's audible-rich offense. "When we get it down," Forney says,"defenses won't be able to tee off on us, because we changeeverything."
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COACH BOBBYPETRINO (0-0 in NFL), first season with Falcons
NEW ACQUISITION(R) Rookie (college statistics)
JOE HORN (NEWACQUISITION)
JOEY HARRINGTON(NEW ACQUISITION)
OVIE MUGHELLI(NEW ACQUISITION)
JUSTIN BLALOCK(R)(NEW ACQUISITION)
BILLY CUNDIFF(NEW ACQUISITION)
JAMAALANDERSON(R) (NEW ACQUISITION)
SACKS 13 1/2
SACKS 2 1/2
LEWIS SANDERS(NEW ACQUISITION)
> 2006 RECORD7-9 NFL RANK (Rush/Pass/Total): OFFENSE 1/32/12 DEFENSE 9/29/22
DALE ZANINE/US PRESSWIRE
¬†GRASPING In Vick's absence it falls to Milloy (36) and the D to keep theFalcons competitive.