Inside slant: NFC South

Need to know what's going on with the Buccaneers' rivals in the NFC South. Here's the inside slant, courtesy of Bucsblitz.com and the Sports Xchange.

Atlanta

The first step of life without Michael Vick didn't result in a preseason-opening victory, but it did result in the turning of a page.

Beleaguered veteran Joey Harrington was mentioned far more often and in far more positive tones than Vick following Harrington's performance in Atlanta's 31-16 loss to the New York Jets Friday night.

The only mention of Vick from players or coaches came after prompts from media questions, whereas Harrington was being resoundingly and voluntarily praised by those who watched him lead the offense for three series (17 plays) and to its only touchdown.

"It was good. It was good for everybody," coach Bobby Petrino said. "Certainly for Joey but I felt going in he felt like he had a confidence in himself. It was good for all the other players to see him execute and move the ball and get us in the end zone. It certainly was important for the coaches to see that."

Added guard Kynan Forney: "It's a process. He's getting to learn us, we're getting to learn him. You saw tonight, he threw a couple passes and got his confidence going. As the season keeps going, we've got to keep people off of him so he can sit back there with some ice water in his veins and just throw it, instead of worrying about who's going to get him and all that type of stuff."

Atlanta quarterback Joey Harrington. (Getty)
Harrington still has a long ways to go before making believers out of most people, who've witnessed his struggles in Detroit and Miami. That said, the Falcons have realized that Vick probably won't be playing for them this season as a result of his indictment on dog fighting charges and Harrington is the guy they've got to rally around.

For Harrington, a decent training camp and a solid initial outing (six of nine, 88 yards) did wonders.

"My confidence level is miles beyond what it was in Miami and Detroit," Harrington said. "I feel so much better as a person and player right now than I have in my time in the NFL. I feel it's showing up in my play. I've had a really good camp, a camp that I'm proud of."

Petrino is going to start adding more and more plays to the offense and Harrington's ability to absorb those -- and get his teammates to understand them -- will be key if Atlanta is going to generate victories.

Harrington seems to understand that his performance and the team's success will likely be judged against Vick. That's fine, he said.

"I'm not looking to fill a void," Harrington said. "I'm looking to do my job. There are things that Michael did well and there are things I do well. I'm not looking to fill anybody's shoes. I'm looking to do my best to contribute to this team and do it in the way I know how to."

Carolina

Carolina Panthers owner Jerry Richardson challenged star defensive end Julius Peppers last week to step up and become the team's new defensive leader following the retirement of safety Mike Minter.

At the conclusion of a press conference to honor Minter, Richardson walked up to the podium and looked directly at Peppers, who was sitting in the second row next to Mike Rucker.

Then, with plenty of media looking on, Richardson said, "Julius, you're coming up. This is your time to step up. And I'm not talking about running and sacking -- I'm talking about leadership. This is your time."

Peppers had no visible reaction and he left the room before talking to reporters because he needed to get ready for practice. He hasn't talked to reporters since camp began.

Carolina defensive end Julius Peppers. (Getty)
This wasn't the first time Richardson told Peppers he wants him to emerge as the leader.

Earlier this off-season Peppers was one of five players invited to Richardson's lake house for a talk about what he expects from them. On his mind was finding a group of young leaders -- Jordan Gross, DeShaun Foster, Jake Delhomme and Steve Smith were the others -- to carry the team to the Super Bowl.

Peppers is due for a contract extension, one that potentially could net him more than $12 million per season and make him the highest-paid defensive player in the league.

The problem here is this: Peppers isn't the rah-rah type.

He'll rip you apart on game day, but he's not the type to stand up and give a speech before games or call everyone together when the going gets tough. He's a silent leader, one who leads by example. He practices hard and plays harder, but the bottom line is he's a quiet kid who is shy by nature. In fact, the media is still waiting for Peppers to speak for the first time at training camp.

Following Tuesday's practice, coach John Fox said he doesn't expect Peppers to change.

"I really want Julius to be Julius and I've got no complaints with him," Fox said. "The moral of the story is Mike Minter was a valuable part of our football team for all of my tenure and for five years before that. He was a captain all five years I was here. I think the message is he is passing the baton and there are a lot of candidates and Julius is obviously one of them."

New Orleans

Undrafted free agent Tyler Palko had a rough time in the first week of his first NFL training camp with some shaky moments under center with the Saints.

But after settling down and making some strides, the former University of Pittsburgh star was given the opportunity of his young career last Friday night in the Saints' second exhibition game against the Buffalo Bills.

Palko was selected to play the final three quarters by coach Sean Payton, who wants to develop a young quarterback for the future. And after All-Pro Drew Brees went out of the game, Palko showed flashes of ability -- both passing and running the ball -- in a 13-10 loss to the Bills.

Palko, who has been working as the fourth-string quarterback through the first two weeks of camp, moved the team well. But while showing glimpses of the skills he used during a record-setting college career, he also threw two interceptions -- one in the end zone to kill a scoring threat and the other in his own territory that led to the Bills' only touchdown.

"Tyler did a pretty decent job," Payton said. "The way that he takes care of the football is a concern. We have to correct that, or it will be something that comes back to hurt us. It is correctable."

Palko eventually completed 15 of 27 passes for 172 yards and a touchdown on a beautifully-thrown fade route to first-round draft pick Robert Meachem in the back corner of the end zone.

Palko, who turned 24 on the day before the game, was seven of 10 for 107 yards in the first half when several first-teamers were still around. He also rushed four times for a team-high 47 yards and drove the Saints to the Bills' 29 in the final two minutes before the Saints turned the ball over on downs.

"He does seem to feel comfortable in there," Payton said. "There will be a lot he can learn from on this tape. I'm sure he'll see it, evaluate it and make the corrections. He hung in there, but he has to learn to protect the football better. I think he's got some poise."

He was shaky in the first week of training camp and first exhibition game, but settled down in recent practices and showed some ability as he tries to make the transition to the pro game and learn Payton's system at the same time.

Palko, who has been playing behind Brees, veteran backup Jamie Martin and 2006 practice squad member Jason Fife, was appreciative of the chance he got against the Bills.

"(Payton) gave me an opportunity, and I'm grateful for that opportunity to come down here to a great franchise and a great city to play football," he said. "I just hope I don't disappoint him. Any time somebody gives you a shot like that, you don't want to disappoint him. You want to show him that he chose you for a reason and not make him look bad."

"I thought Tyler did a fine job," Brees said. "Every young quarterback is going to make mistakes. What I liked is the way Tyler responded. He keeps on improving, and he's going to get better."


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