The Falcons opened training camp bearing a burden that few, if any teams, have ever had to contend with -- its star player being indicted on federal dog-fighting charges. The nationally captivating, emotionally charged case overshadowed the concerns of transitioning to a new head coach, injuries to standout veterans Warrick Dunn, Alge Crumpler and Rod Coleman.
The team, itself, was a sidebar to Vick's legal crisis.
Typically, teams don't mind flying under the radar. Nobody would want to have to
deal with being pushed aside under these circumstances. Once Vick pleaded
guilty and was indefinitely suspended this week, the team, which had done a
commendable job of building a cocoon around itself to avoid as many distractions
as possible, moved on.
They had tried their best to prevent getting wrapped up in the off-field
situation but it was difficult because of the massive attention it drew and the
fact that many players were very close to Vick. Now, though it can't be called
closure, there is at least resolution.
"For nothing else, to see how our teammate is doing," quarterback Joey Harrington, Vick's replacement, said of being unable to not follow the Vick
saga. "He's a guy who made some mistakes but he is our teammate and he's
part of our family."
Even with Vick, expectations for the Falcons weren't great. A college coach
making the jump to the pros hadn't worked in the recent past and Petrino, though
highly regarded among the NFL establishment, was a gamble. With Vick out, the
team in flux and having to deal with this unwanted drama, expectations have
dropped even lower.
"I can't say what our future record's going to be," said Crumpler, who
has recovered from knee surgery and will be at near full strength when the
Falcons open the season at Minnesota Sept. 9. "To me, that doesn't matter.
What matters is we come in, do what we're suppose to do, play hard and we build
on this process. It's not going to be an easy process. It's not been an easy
process for myself. It's not been an easy process for my teammates.
"There is no blueprint for this. This is, by far, one of the toughest
things I've ever had to witness and read about and have it affect my teammates
on a daily basis."
Harrington, whose past lack of success throws another unknown into the equation,
has looked good in the preseason, especially in the Falcons' 24-19 victory over
the Bengals Monday night. He completed 13 of 21 passes for 164 yards and two
touchdowns. He's also been a far more vocal leader in the huddle than Vick.
His handling of this offense and this team will be critical to the Falcons'
success because few people think Harrington is up to the task. Should he
succeed, the overcoming of long-shot odds could permeate through the roster and
get unsuspecting players to raise the level of their games and have top-tier
talent step things up even further.
The offensive line already looks better under Mike Summers. The wide receivers
have made headway too, in large part because of the leadership provided by free
agent acquisition Joe Horn.
There are still questions on defense, because of an influx on youth and
Coleman's thigh injury. However, the decent amount of playmakers -- DeAngelo Hall, Michael Boley, John Abraham -- could allow the unit to overcome any
shortcomings while upstarts Jamaal Anderson, Jimmy Williams and Chris Houston
get up to speed.
Crumpler: "It's Not Been an Easy Process"
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