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Atlanta's Douglas smashes through rookie wall

11/23/2008

Posted by ESPN.com's Pat Yasinskas

ATLANTA -- Back in minicamp and even at the start of training camp, the guy who won Sunday's game for the Atlanta Falcons wasn't even allowed to hang his clothes in their locker room.

That's Harry Douglas. He's the rookie wide receiver, return man and wannabe lawyer who weighs 171 pounds and knocked what had been the NFC South's best team flat. All Douglas did was score on a reverse in the first quarter, a 61-yard punt return in the fourth and set up two other scores as the Falcons defeated the Carolina Panthers 45-28 at the Georgia Dome.

When Douglas, the greatest rookie show to hit Atlanta since the days of Matt Ryan, walks into the team's facility at Flowery Branch on Monday, he'll be able to hang his clothes wherever he wants. But it hasn't always been that way.

Before the Falcons began cutting their roster, all the players couldn't fit in the main locker room. All the rookies, including Ryan, were stashed about 30 feet away in the locker room of the Arena Football League's Georgia Force.

Some day, the Falcons may have to take that space and make it a museum to what, through 11 games anyway, is shaping up to be one of the best draft classes in NFL history.

"That's where the bond all started,'' said middle linebacker Curtis Lofton, a second-round draft pick. "Maybe no one else knew it, but I think back there was where we felt that we had some special guys.''

Back in the summer, Douglas instantly was the social leader of the bunch. He's a talker with a degree in political science from Louisville and a desire to go into corporate law when football is over.

"Harry's smart enough to be a lawyer, but I'd say comedian before lawyer if you asked me what he'd be if he wasn't playing football,'' Lofton said. "The guy's always laughing and joking. He's just one of those guys who's always fun to be around, in life and on the field.''

Douglas never was more fun on the field than Sunday. That's when he became the latest in Atlanta's string of rookies to become a star. With Ryan putting on a season-long campaign to be rookie of the year, Lofton established as the quarterback of the defense, left tackle Sam Baker a force when healthy and cornerback Chevis Jackson returning a touchdown for an interception two weeks ago, Douglas took his turn at having a breakout game.

Douglas, the second of Atlanta's three third-round picks (Jackson was the first), wasn't a big factor for the Falcons early. But he took over the return job at midseason after Adam Jennings struggled and suddenly is getting increased playing time at receiver behind starters Roddy White and Michael Jenkins.

"Once I got my opportunity, I just wanted to show what I could do with it,'' Douglas said. "I think I'm more focused now than I was in training camp and early on. The biggest thing I've learned is that, if everyone does their job, the outcome is probably going to be good.''

The outcome couldn't have been better as the Falcons (7-4) continued to be the NFL's most pleasant surprise. That's largely because Douglas caught the Panthers (8-3) by surprise right from the start.

He lined up in the slot on the left on a third down and came into the backfield to take a handoff from Ryan. Douglas kept going to his right and scored on a 7-yard run with 5:03 left in the first quarter to give Atlanta a 10-0 lead. It was the first touchdown of Douglas' career. Douglas continued to contribute throughout the game, but really took over when things were getting tight in the fourth quarter.

After Carolina cut Atlanta's lead to 24-21 early in the fourth, Douglas caught a Ryan bomb for a 69-yard gain to set up one of Michael Turner's four touchdown runs.

Douglas followed that by rubbing it in on the Panthers. After the defense backed the Panthers up to their 2-yard line, Douglas fielded a punt and took it back 61 yards for a touchdown to give Atlanta a 38-21 lead with 4:47 left.

The only bad part of that play was Douglas beat the Carolina coverage team so badly, he held the ball out in celebration for the last few yards and was flagged for a taunting penalty.

The coaches probably will let that one slide. If that's the biggest mistake a rookie makes, it's not that big a deal.

"He's one of these young guys that we drafted this past draft class,'' coach Mike Smith said. "He's doing a heck of a job for us. He's maturing, like a lot of our guys, beyond his years. "That's a tribute to (general manager) Thomas Dimitroff and the personnel staff. They get players in here that can come in and compete early.''

This is the time of year you hear a lot about the "rookie wall." In a lot of NFL cities, rookies tend to get tired when they reach the point that would have been the end of their college seasons.

In Atlanta, there might be another sort of rookie wall. Douglas and the rest of the rookies are helping the Falcons break down all the walls that were supposed to keep them at the bottom of the NFL.