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Season Lost: Vick Falls, Falcons Flop

When the superstar quarterback broke his leg in the second preseason game, it set the tone for Atlanta's 1-6 start.

October 26, 2003|From Associated Press

ATLANTA — Things looked so promising for the Atlanta Falcons. The energetic owner. The sold-out stadium. The new uniforms. The coach closing in on 200 wins. And, of course, the most exciting player in the NFL.

Then Michael Vick got hurt -- and it all fell apart.

The Falcons (1-6) have a six-game losing streak and the worst record in the league heading into their off week, a stunning collapse even by the standards of the up-one-year, down-the-next NFL.

After all, Atlanta reached the second round of the playoffs last season, becoming the first visiting team to win a postseason game at Green Bay's hallowed Lambeau Field.

And now? No one has a clue.

"It's the core of the same guys who went to Green Bay and won one of the biggest games in history," safety Keion Carpenter said, "so I have no idea what the problem is."

Well, here are a few ideas:

* Coach Dan Reeves, who seems to have lost touch with his players. They've been whining about everything from the play-calling to supposedly being worked too hard during the week. At age 59, and still one win away from his 200th career victory, Reeves will need one of his greatest comebacks to still be coaching this team in 2004.

* The 3-4 defense, which no longer fits the personnel because of injuries at linebacker. The Falcons have surrendered more than 30 points in five of the last six games and are on pace to give up the second-most yards in NFL history.

* Most important, the injury to Vick, who went down in the second preseason game with a broken right leg. His astounding ability to take off with the ball masked all sorts of shortcomings on offense, especially on the line.

"I've never been in this situation before," said Vick, still several weeks from returning. "I really don't know what to say to anybody around here. Just try to keep guys' chins up. Keep fighting. That's all you can do, man, and hopefully when I get back to 110 percent, I can try to win some games for us."

The disintegration of the Falcons has come with all the ugliness that usually accompanies a losing team -- and a few new twists.

Cornerback Tyrone Williams was suspended for a game after he supposedly blew up at the coaching staff. Quarterback Doug Johnson was benched. Cornerback Juran Bolden was arrested for driving a stolen car and marijuana possession.

Owner Arthur Blank became so disgusted with his team's performance he took out an ad in the local newspaper to personally apologize to the fans.

In fairness, the loss of Vick was a staggering blow. He was the team's signature player, the guy voted to the Pro Bowl in his first year as a starter. He rushed for 777 yards, threw for 2,936 and single-handedly baled out the Falcons in several games. Most notable was a victory at Minnesota, where he rushed for an NFL record for the position of 173 yards, the last 46 on an electrifying touchdown run in overtime.

Then again, the Falcons aren't the first team to lose their starting quarterback. Minnesota's Daunte Culpepper went down this season, and the Vikings kept winning with journeyman Gus Frerotte.

"I'm not going to put it all on No. 7," Blank said, referring to Vick. "The reality is, he's one man. We're not a one-man football team. One man didn't make this football team last year."

But without Vick's mobility, the offensive line has looked hideous. The Falcons already have given up four safeties, one short of the league record for a season. Left tackle Bob Whitfield, the line's senior member, was so distraught he tried hypnosis. He probably would have been better off hiring a magician.

While Reeves showed a willingness to bend with Vick as his quarterback, the coach's old-style offense took on a more familiar look with Johnson taking snaps: runners barreling straight into the line; a shortage of downfield throws.

Reeves considered turning the play-calling over to his assistants, but couldn't bring himself to do it. Apparently, he plans on going down with his ship.

"Being involved with the offense the way I am, I think if I turned it over to somebody, I'd be constantly saying, 'Well, I don't want to do that, that's the wrong thing,' " Reeves said. "At least I can defend what I did, right or wrong. I don't want to blame somebody else right now."

Defensively, the blame has fallen on embattled coordinator Wade Phillips, who stubbornly stuck with the 3-4 even when outside linebackers Sam Rogers and Will Overstreet went down with season-ending injuries, depleting a key position.

Now, Phillips has to deal with the loss of Pro Bowl inside linebacker Keith Brooking, expected to be out several weeks with an injured back. At long last, change is coming.

"I just don't think you can sit there and say you're going to get better, because we haven't gotten better," Phillips said. "I can't say right now exactly what we're going to do, but there's going to be some changes."

It's about time. The Falcons have given up more total yards (416.7 per game), yards passing (266.9) and points (31.5) than any team.

"We've played so poorly defensively," end Patrick Kerney said, "that it makes me feel sick."

At least the schedule gets a bit easier. The first seven opponents have a cumulative record of 28-15, the next nine are 29-27.

Still, it's difficult to envision this team making much improvement until Vick returns. Reeves intends to stick with Kurt Kittner at quarterback, even though the second-year player was just 9-of-29 in his first pro start.

Through it all, Reeves said he has no intention of quitting.

"I would never resign," he said, a steely look in his eyes. "I'm not a quitter. I'm responsible for these guys and I'm asking them to do everything they can to get this thing turned around."

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