FLOWERY BRANCH — Roddy White has just one regret about the “Free Mike Vick” T-shirt he wore under his game jersey last year.
“I just wish they hadn’t fined me $10,000,” the fourth-year Atlanta Falcons receiver said with a smile on Thursday. “Too bad they didn’t cut me a break on that, but Mike’s a good guy, and he’s always been my friend.”
White wishes his breakout 2007 season had come with Vick as the Atlanta quarterback. During their time together on the field, White never could shake his tendency to drop Vick’s passes at crucial junctures.
Those problems all but disappeared last year as Vick began serving a 23-month federal prison sentence for organizing and bankrolling a multistate dogfighting ring from his country property in Virginia.
White never wavered in his belief that federal prosecutors singled out Vick for more punishment than he deserved. So, Dec. 10, the same day his friend was sentenced, White pulled his No. 84 jersey over a T-shirt that read “Free Mike Vick” as he dressed in the Georgia Dome locker room before a blowout loss to New Orleans.
The NFL, which had suspended Vick indefinitely in June, was not amused when Atlanta receiver Joe Horn raised the bottom of the jersey and to show the T-shirt for a national television audience after White’s 33-yard touchdown catch late in the first quarter.
Horn was fined $7,500 for his role. Cornerback Chris Houston and former Falcons DeAngelo Hall and Alge Crumpler were each fined $10,000 for wearing unauthorized eye strips.
White says Vick still appreciates his support and tells him as much when they talk occasionally on the phone. According to White, who yet to visit Vick in prison, officials at the U.S. Penitentiary in Leavenworth, Kan., allow inmates earn additional phone calls with good behavior.
As recently as last month, White spoke with Vick while Kevin Winston, the Falcons’ director of player development, was making a visit.
“Since Mike got locked up, Kevin has visited him a lot,” White said. “The thing about Mike is when I got here, he took me in under his wing, and he told me that, no matter what, I would be a Pro Bowler one day. That guy always kept me confident going into games, and we were always friends off the football field. Me doing that for him (with the shirt), that was nothing.”
The spectacular downfall of Vick, who was indicted on the day the Falcons began training camp last year, put the team on course for a horrific 4-12 finish.
In spite of Atlanta’s chaos on and off the field, White made the most of Bobby Petrino’s spread offense, an attack the former coach designed for Vick but soon turned over to an underachieving quarterback combination of Joey Harrington, Byron Leftwich and Chris Redman.
White, however, finished 2007 tied for eighth in the NFL with 1,202 yards receiving. He ranked 13th in catches (83) and tied Arizona’s Larry Fitzgerald for fifth with 19 receptions of 20-plus yards.
Some of White’s statistics were inflated by Atlanta’s inability to take or hold a second-half lead. Regardless, after two inconsistent seasons, White topped the combined production of his first two seasons in yards receiving and number of receptions and touchdown catches.
He became the first Falcons receiver with a 1,000-yard season since Terance Mathis in 1999 and showed Atlanta made the right decision in ‘05 to draft him 27th overall out of Alabama-Birmingham.
The playbook of new coordinator Mike Mularkey is more traditional than Petrino’s. Establishing a strong ground attack is foremost for Mularkey, and a commitment to new running back Michael Turner could affect White’s production.
Over the entire season, though, White believes the Falcons will benefit from balancing the number of runs and passes. Rookie quarterback Matt Ryan, the Atlanta’s new franchise centerpiece, might beat out Redman for the starting job, which could give Mularkey more confidence to pass.
“He’s commanding the huddle, which is always a good thing for a young quarterback,” White said. “He’s coming in there and putting guys in the right spots. When we make a mistake, he can point it out and tell us where to go.”