Falcons Try to Move Past Vick Saga

The Atlanta Falcons were put in a difficult situation this preseason while dealing with all the distractions that followed the team with the Michael Vick circus. Can the Vikings' first opponent of the regular season get past the hype and play solid football?

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.

COACHING: Bobby Petrino, 1st year (0-0-0), Louisville (His four-year record, 41-9).

REMEMBERING: 2006 record: 7-9 (3rd in NFC South); failed to make playoffs.

  • The Falcons had the misfortune of being embroiled in Michael Vick's dogfighting controversy, which emotionally drained the franchise. The one positive to emerge from things was that most of the drama was finished by the end of preseason.

    As things quelled off the field, quarterback Joey Harrington stepped up as the leader on the field. He seems to have found a comfort zone in executing the multi-formation, multi-option passing game coach Bobby Petrino and offensive coordinator Hue Jackson installed. Atlanta won't be the rushing juggernaut that it's been the past three seasons but it will be more balanced.

    Defensively, new coordinator Mike Zimmer plans to play a more aggressive 4-3 scheme than the Falcons have over the past few seasons. Look for their corners to be involved in more man coverages while some creative gaming occurs with the front seven. The run defense could be an issue because Grady Jackson is just rounding into form after knee surgery and Rod Coleman could be out into the preseason after thigh surgery.

    Three keys for the season:

    1. Quarterback Joey Harrington has no choice but to play well. Personally, he's been set up to finally prove himself as an NFL starter following five years of showing otherwise. Should he not try to do so much and simply manage the game, the Falcons have enough playmakers to help him.

    2. Defensive end John Abraham must stay healthy. Should the injury-prone pass rusher make it through 16 games, it could dramatically solidify an unsettled defensive line and radically upgrade the pass rush. If Atlanta can bring the heat without having to blitz too many players, it could be in position to force turnovers.

    3. The wide receivers must step up. Joe Horn, if he stays healthy, will be fine. Michael Jenkins, Roddy White and rookie Laurent Robinson need to capitalize on a system that allows them to make plays after the catch. To do that, though, they need to hang on to the ball — a problem for White and Jenkins.

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