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Falcons eager to forget dreadful season

POSTED: January 12, 2008 5:02 a.m.

ATLANTA — The Atlanta Falcons began training camp with Michael Vick’s federal indictment for dogfighting hanging over their heads.

From there, the season quickly fell apart.

By the time Atlanta ended a six-game losing streak on Sunday, Vick was three weeks into a 23-month prison sentence and former coach Bobby Petrino was recruiting at Arkansas.

Oh, yeah. The Falcons also finished their 4-12 season without a head coach and still trying to determine the future of general manager Rich McKay.

Owner Arthur Blank, already turned down by Bill Cowher and rebuffed by Bill Parcells, plans to replace McKay before the team hires another coach.

Whoever takes the job will be Atlanta’s sixth coach since December 2003. Petrino quit after 13 games. Dan Reeves and Jim Mora were fired. Wade Phillips and Emmitt Thomas worked three games each as interim replacements.

"There’s no way anyone, even Hollywood’s best screenwriters, could have predicted the way this season would go," running back Warrick Dunn said. "Everything that could go wrong did go wrong."

Dunn would know. As a respected team leader since 2002, Dunn played in a backfield with three quarterbacks this year. Joey Harrington went 3-7. Byron Leftwich was 0-2. Chris Redman had a 1-3 record.

By the time the Falcons finally had a coach (Thomas) and a quarterback (Redman) who seemed capable of winning, the season was over.

"Coach Thomas and Chris Redman helped us kind of keep our feet back on the ground and regain some respect in ourselves," said Roddy White, Atlanta’s first 1,000-yard receiver since 1999. "We needed that so much. There was never any time that our team felt secure this year. It was insane."

The sight of Vick, standing in a striped prison jumpsuit, is still almost impossible for some Falcons, like center Todd McClure, to believe.

McClure worked almost exclusively with Vick since the quarterback arrived as the NFL’s No. 1 overall draft choice in 2001. There was never a point in Vick’s six seasons that McClure could sense impending doom.

"Nah, man, anybody who knows Mike doesn’t need long to see that he’s kind of shy and quiet, but that he’s basically a good person," McClure said. "The whole ordeal, from the beginning of camp to the end of the season, was just so bizarre. I hope we never experience anything like this again. I don’t see how we could."

Petrino’s abrupt decision to abandon the Falcons was unprecedented, too, but not entirely unexpected. The first-year coach, who signed a five-year, $24 million contract last January, had a history of quick exits, though he initially seemed driven by the lure of coaching an offensive talent like Vick.

Instead of designing plays to help Vick mature and succeed, Petrino, who led Louisville to a 41-9 record over four years, never had a chance.

By the time Petrino left the Falcons without telling his players in person, Atlanta was 3-10. Injuries had ended the season for four starters on the offensive line. The massive defensive tackle tandem of Rod Coleman (surgery) and Grady Jackson (released at midseason) never happened.

Cornerback DeAngelo Hall was routinely complaining, and a rushing attack that led the NFL from 2004-06 was in shambles.

"We’ve all heard the phrase that tough times don’t but tough people do," linebacker Keith Brooking said. "There’s no question that the guys in this locker room have made it through one of the most difficult circumstances that any team ever faced."

Petrino has yet to speak publicly about the differences he had with pro players or problems in the front office. The only means of communication Petrino had in his departure was to leave a one-paragraph statement in each player’s locker.

Longtime NFL veterans like Lawyer Milloy, John Abraham, Alge Crumpler and Dunn immediately pointed the proverbial finger at Petrino, whom they called a coward, liar and quitter.

"No real man acts that way," Milloy said. "No man with any real self-respect treats his people like that. What goes around comes around, and he’ll figure that out soon enough."

McKay took criticism, not only for recommending Petrino and Mora to Blank, but also for decisions over the last three years to sign free-agent duds like Harrington, receiver Joe Horn and linebacker Ed Hartwell.

Matt Schaub, Vick’s backup from 2004-06, was traded before the draft to Houston so the Falcons could replace defensive end Patrick Kerney and revamp the offensive line and secondary.

Kerney revived his career with 141/2 sacks in Seattle, while his rookie replacement, Jamaal Anderson, had none as the No. 8 overall draft pick. Two second-round picks, guard Justin Blalock and cornerback Chris Houston, showed promise at times, but still aren’t quality starters.

Blank seems willing to let McKay retain his job as team president while the Falcons hire a GM who will bring the next coach aboard.

But Atlanta, which advanced to the NFC title game with an 11-5 record three years ago, might take a long time to rebuild.

"We’ll just have to see how everything shakes out," Dunn said. "A lot of us love the owner, we love the city and we love the organization. But this season has been too crazy, entirely out of control."



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