Falcons Arrive Banged Up

At the start of the preseason, the Atlanta Falcons were being listed as one of the top teams in the NFC. After a injury to quarterback Mike Vick, nobody's giving them a chance in hell. Even the oddsmakers have the Dirty Birds listed as 1 point underdogs this weekend in Dallas.

For the Atlanta Falcons, this season was supposed to be about taking the next step, about proving they can compete year in and year out instead of only occasionally. But with quarterback Mike Vick out for at least the first four games of the regular season with a broken right ankle, it's about anger.

The Falcons were 9-6-1 last season, upset the Packers in the playoffs to become the first visiting team ever to win a postseason game at Lambeau Field, and they added wide receiver Peerless Price in the offseason.

The Cowboys were 5-11 last season, are beat up on defense and are favored over the visiting Falcons for Sunday's season opener in Texas Stadium. This doesn't sit well in Hot-lanta, where tempers are on edge.

"It's ridiculous how expectations have changed because we lost one guy," said linebacker Keith Brooking. "It pisses me off. I think we can use that (as motivation)."

Obviously, the folks in Las Vegas place stock not only in Vick's injury, as fourth-year veteran Doug Johnson prepares to make his fourth NFL start. But it's quite likely, too, that the Falcons' winless preseason is weighing on the minds of prognosticators.

While the starting defense was generally solid in exhibition losses to Green Bay, Baltimore, Miami and Cleveland, the offense was woefully inconsistent after blazing to a 21-3 lead in the second quarter of the opener against the Packers. A very spotty running game, a miserable track record on third downs and Johnson's uneven performance at Cleveland raised questions.

Atlanta has a few hurdles.

Their only fullback, Justin Griffith, is a rookie, which likely means coach Dan Reeves' offense will change more than he'd like it to because he tends to favor a traditional deployment of his fullback. The retirement of Bob Christian hurts here.

Tight end Reggie Kelly was rapped for four years by Atlanta fans for being a middling receiver, but now his blocking skills may be missed as he prepares to start for the Bengals after splitting in free agency.

Again, one of Reeves' staples - the two tight-end offense - cannot be counted upon, as the Falcons' other tight ends - Brian Kozlowski, recently claimed Sean Brewer and deep snapper Derek Rackley - are more H-backs than tight ends.

And despite the fact Johnson quarterbacked the Falcons' most important win last season - a victory on the road over the Giants when a loss would've dropped Atlanta to 1-4 - there are skeptics. Reeves, who was edgier than usual in his Wednesday press conference, doesn't want anybody to think about he's in that group.

"He's going to need the supporting cast to do well just like most quarterbacks do," Reeves said. "If we play as well as Doug plays, we'll win."

Plenty of players have said that they expect to be a lot better now that their coaches are game-planning instead of just running plays and schemes to test them out.

"You get (coaches) to put their heads together and formulate a game plan, it's going to make a hell of a difference," said Gerald McBurrows, who'll replace injured strong safety Cory Hall. "We've got too many true professionals to be really worried."

Running back Warrick Dunn, who's taken on additional leadership duties in Vick's absence, believes his teammates are ready to roll.

"A win on opening day does set the tone," Dunn said. "A lot of people thought the Falcons were Mike Vick, Mike Vick. Without Mike, we may be a more balanced offense. The preseason does not impress a lot of people. A lot of people aren't impressed by the Atlanta Falcons right now, but who cares about that in this locker room?"

20th meeting. The Cowboys lead 12-7, despite losing when they last played the Falcons, a 20-13 Atlanta win at home in 2001 when the Falcons' special teams made the difference. The Falcons are 2-8 in Dallas, their wins coming in back-to-back seasons, in 1986-87. They've lost four straight in Texas Stadium.

CowboysHQ Top Stories