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Falcons itching to end the season

POSTED: January 6, 2008 5:03 a.m.
FLOWERY BRANCH— Todd McClure spent the last three years feeling good about his job.

The Atlanta Falcons’ ninth-year center was the leader of an offensive line that blocked for the NFL’s No. 1 rushing attack.

Not anymore. McClure oversees a unit that’s had 11 lineup changes since Week 6, when Atlanta failed to score off three New York turnovers in a 31-10 loss to the Giants.

But even if the Falcons still had quarterback Michael Vick and the same linemen starting every week, McClure thinks the Falcons (3-12) still would have struggled in former coach Bobby Petrino’s offense.

"Yeah, because we know what we’re capable of, and this system we were running, we just don’t have the personnel for it," McClure said on Wednesday. "We’re not the right fit for it. To go from where you’re leading the league in rushing to where we’ve been this year, uh, it’s pretty humbling."

Petrino, whose schemes helped Louisville win 41 of 50 games over the previous four years, was just 13 games into the job before suddenly resigning and leaving for Arkansas.

That was Dec. 11. A few days later, offensive coordinator Hue Jackson left practice early one day to interview for the head coaching job at Duke.

The Blue Devils hired David Cutcliffe instead, and Jackson returned to calling plays in the Falcons’ 37-3 loss at Tampa Bay. Atlanta finished the Week 15 embarrassment with four turnovers, 27 passing yards, a 0.0 rating for quarterback Chris Redman and a 0-for-9 performance on third down.

Now, with one game remaining in a season that’s included Vick’s 23-month federal prison sentence and Petrino’s quick departure, McClure looks forward to the offseason.

"Yeah, it’s been a long year, man," McClure said. "It’s something I don’t care to ever go through again, you know? But hopefully we can all learn from it and not let it happen again."

McClure, a seventh-round draft pick out of LSU in 1999, has started most of his career alongside right guard Kynan Forney and right tackle Todd Weiner.

Injuries hit both starters this year, and Weiner eventually joined starting left tackle Wayne Gandy on season-ending injured reserve. Rookie left guard Justin Blalock has struggled since the opening loss at Minnesota, and three untested players have tried to fill Gandy’s job.

The team’s biggest acquisitions in free agency have done little to justify big signing bonuses. Receiver Joe Horn has been injured most of the last two months, and Petrino rarely gave fullback Ovie Mughelli a big role in game plans.

"I know it’s been tough on those guys," said Brian Finneran, a favorite former target of Vick and a receiver who has missed the last two seasons with knee injuries. "I really feel for them and wish I could help out. They’re my teammates, but it’s been a year where it’s seemed like anything that could go wrong did go wrong."

Atlanta ranks last in scoring, sixth in sacks allowed and 25th in rushing, hardly the results Blank envisioned last Jan. 1 when he fired coach Jim Mora, coordinator Greg Knapp and former line guru Alex Gibbs.

In hiring Petrino two weeks later, Blank believed the Falcons had an offense that would rely less on rushing and give Vick, a three-time Pro Bowl pick and former No. 1 overall draft choice, more chances to throw the ball downfield.

Vick last year became the first NFL quarterback ever to rush for 1,000 yards in a single season. Unfortunately, Atlanta missed its second straight posteason, and Vick blamed the schemes on predictable play calling and poor protection for taking away his improvisational skills.

The Falcons finished last in passing as Vick managed just a 52.6 completion percentage.

At least for McClure, however, those were the kinds of problems Atlanta had a chance to solve before Vick’s dogfighting charges and Petrino’s bizarre exit.

With just four more days until the season finally ends, McClure believes the Falcons’ only recourse is to be competitive against Seattle and try to impress scouts as individual players.

"So that’s the way I think guys are approaching it, but once this season’s over with, I think we’ll take kind of a sigh of relief," McClure said. "Then we’ll know that there’s a new beginning, and we can look forward to that."



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