ATLANTA — The air of invincibility is gone. The swagger remains.
Jamal Anderson still has the captivating smile, the biting wit, the Ali-like bravado. Now, if only his right knee will cooperate.
"I'm not the Jamal of '98 -- not yet, anyway," said Anderson, the Atlanta Falcons running back who missed nearly all of last season after wrecking that knee on the most innocent of plays. "I'm just trying to get strong, get ready for the first game. But I fully expect to be as good or better than I was."
Anderson sat out the first two preseason games, giving himself more recovery time. He was understandably timid in his first post-injury appearance two weeks ago, carrying five times for zero yards against the Bengals.
"My concern went out the window with the Cincinnati game," he said. "I made up my mind that if I'm going to be on that field, I don't give a damn about my body. Concern got me five carries for no yards. I figure if I'm good enough to play, then I have to give it all I have."
Anderson ran with more recklessness in the next two exhibition games, but his numbers were still underwhelming: 13 carries for 35 yards.
"I've never had a stellar preseason," he reasoned. "I just focus on the steps I need to make in every game. If I ever got 100 yards, I would be like, 'Oh, no, I need to save this for the regular season."'
The Falcons will take Anderson any way they can get him. He is critical to the power-oriented offense favored by coach Dan Reeves, who already has cut his top two rushers from a year ago, Byron Hanspard and Ken Oxendine.
When Anderson is pounding on the defense -- dragging tacklers and churning out 4 or 5 yards a carry -- it opens up the deep passing game for quarterback Chris Chandler, a master of play action. In addition, Anderson understands all those nuances of the game that don't show up in the statistics.
"Jamal lifts everybody up," Chandler said. "I really enjoy having him in there, especially on third-down passing situations. His ability to see the blitz, understanding protections, blocking, catching -- all of those things make me feel a lot better."
Since the oft-injured Chandler is just as vital to the Falcons' offense as Anderson, protecting the quarterback takes on even more importance.
"Byron and Kenny seemed to have a hard time picking up the blitz," Chandler said. "Jamal will put an end to that."
But no one is quite sure how long it will take for Anderson to recapture that punishing style that carried him to three straight 1,000-yard seasons, culminating with a Super Bowl season in 1998.
Running behind a suspect offensive line, Anderson set an NFL record with 410 carries and a franchise mark with 1,846 yards rushing. The All-Pro back gained at least 100 yards in 12 of the 16 regular-season games, then added 113 more in a playoff victory over San Francisco.
With teams keying on Anderson, Chandler had a breakout season, passing for 3,154 yards and 25 touchdowns.
"We want to see the same thing," Chandler said. "When I threw the ball, it opened up things for him. When he ran the ball, it opened up things for me."
Recapturing that symmetry depends largely on Anderson's knee, which is still in the recovery stage 11 months after surgery. Doctors have told him it normally takes 12 to 15 months to make it all the way back.
The opener against San Francisco is only a week away.
"When he got to training camp, he had to take some big steps to get back to the way he was in '98," Chandler said. "Now, if he's not there yet, it's just a little step he's got to take."
The Falcons hope Anderson's unquestioned work ethic and demanding personality will rub off on his teammates.
"Everybody is a little more aggressive when Jamal is in there. Everybody feels more confident," fullback Bob Christian said. "Everything was kind of out of sync last year."
Anderson never endured a major injury until he took a handoff in Week 2 against the Dallas Cowboys. Without being touched, he crumpled to the turf at Texas Stadium, the pain exploding through his knee, the season over before it hardly began because of a torn anterior cruciate ligament.
"You start to think of yourself as an iron man," he said. "I had always been so strong."
Anderson was the "Dirty Bird" personified, an arm-flapping quote machine who took an entire city along for the ride. When he was hurt, the rest of the team went from NFC champs to 5-11 chumps.
Anderson watched in anguish as his once-scorned franchise became Atlanta's punch line again. He couldn't do anything about it, and he couldn't dispute those who disparaged the Falcons as a Super fluke.
Now, he's expected to get this team back on course.
It's a heavy load to place on someone with a gimpy knee, but Anderson insists he can handle the pressure.
"When I put on those pads, I feel good," he said, starting to sound a lot like Jamal, circa 1998. "I want to run through somebody. Whoever jumps in front of me is going to pay, pay, pay."