ATLANTA — During the first days of training camp last year, Lawyer Milloy knew Bobby Petrino wouldn’t last long as a head coach in the NFL.
Milloy, now preparing for his third season with Atlanta and 13th overall, still believes Petrino demeaned players during his brief tenure and disgraced himself by leaving for Arkansas with three games left in the NFL season.
A four-time Pro Bowl selection who’s started 190 of his 196 games, Milloy is grateful that new Falcons coach Mike Smith has restored order and dignity in the locker room.
"It’s a lot better atmosphere," Milloy said during an autograph session Saturday at the Georgia Dome. "I kind of dreaded going to work. This year, it seems like the cloud has been lifted. We have a coach that’s had success in this league, and he knows how to treat men like men."
Other than former teammates DeAngelo Hall and Warrick Dunn, no Atlanta veteran was more outspoken than Milloy after Petrino was introduced as Arkansas’ new coach only a few hours after leaving Atlanta.
Milloy is still disgusted with the televised image of Petrino standing on a stage that night and chanting, "Pig! Sooie!" with Razorback cheerleaders. It makes Milloy appreciate Smith.
When camp started last summer, Milloy was willing to give Petrino benefit of the doubt. After all, Michael Vick had just come under federal indictment for dogfighting, and Petrino likely would have stayed at Louisville if not for the chance to coach the talented Falcons quarterback.
It didn’t take long, however, for Milloy to realize that Petrino planned to coach with an iron fist.
Milloy, an admittedly proud man who helped New England win its first Super Bowl, was stunned in camp last year when NFL veterans like himself, Keith Brooking, John Abraham and Joe Horn had to join rookies and other inexperienced players in running wind sprints after an oppressively hot practice.
Petrino also demanded near silence at team meals on the nights before preseason and regular season games.
Thankfully, with Smith in charge, that’s no longer the case.
"It’s all about knowing how to run a team," Milloy said, "and knowing how to give guys freedom and be a disciplinarian at the same time."
Smith, a three-year assistant in Baltimore who spent the last five years with Jacksonville, returns the compliments: "I certainly appreciate the support that we as a coaching staff have gotten from our veteran players like Lawyer, Keith, John Abraham and Todd McClure. It makes all the difference in the world for younger guys who sometimes don’t know what to expect from themselves and their teammates."
Milloy, who’s missed the last few days with turf toe, still maintains that he made the right decision to sign a three-year, $6 million contract with the Falcons in March 2006.
Atlanta made the only firm offer Milloy received after leaving Buffalo as an unrestricted free agent, but Cincinnati and his hometown team of Seattle invited him to visit.
Now, on his third head coach in three seasons with the Falcons, Milloy doesn’t regret an experience that allows him to help young defensive backs like Chris Houston, Brent Grimes, Chevis Jackson, Thomas DeCoud and Wilrey Fontenot.
He intends to play a 14th year in 2009, likely with another team, but Milloy’s attention now is on this season. Atlanta plays its first preseason game on Saturday night at Jacksonville. The regular season begins Sept. 7 when Detroit visits the Georgia Dome.
Even though many preseason publications consider Atlanta as one of the NFL’s worst teams alongside Miami, Kansas City and St. Louis, Milloy isn’t making concessions. The Falcons have a combined 11-21 record since he arrived, and with so much uncertainty on the offensive line and in the secondary, Milloy acknowledges that growing pains are inevitable.
"You have a chance to win in the NFL," he said. "Every team is getting younger and younger, so right now my job is to get these guys ready to win ballgames. Hopefully by the end of the year, people will say we rebuilt faster than people thought."