Saturday, October 25, 2003
A season lost: Falcons flop after Vick's injury
ATLANTA -- Things looked so promising for the Atlanta
The energetic owner. The sold-out stadium. The new uniforms. The
coach closing in on 200 wins. And, of course, the most exciting
player in the NFL.
Then Michael Vick got hurt -- and it all fell apart.
The Falcons (1-6) took a six-game losing streak and the worst
record in the league into their off week, a stunning collapse even
by the standards of the up-one-year, down-the-next NFL.
After all, Atlanta reached the second round of the playoffs last
season, becoming the first visiting team to win a postseason game
at Green Bay's hallowed Lambeau Field.
And now? No one has a clue.
"It's the core of the same guys who went to Green Bay and won
one of the biggest games in history," safety Keion Carpenter said,
"so I have no idea what the problem is."
Well, here are a few ideas:
-- Coach Dan Reeves, who seems to have lost touch with his
players. They've been whining about everything from the
play-calling to supposedly being worked too hard during the week.
At age 59, and still one win away from his 200th career victory,
Reeves will need one of his greatest comebacks to still be coaching
this team in 2004.
-- The 3-4 defense, which no longer fits the personnel because of
injuries at linebacker. The Falcons have surrendered more than 30
points in five of the last six games and are on pace to give up the
second-most yards in NFL history.
-- Most important, the injury to Vick, who went down in the
second preseason game with a broken right leg. His astounding
ability to take off with the ball masked all sorts of shortcomings
on offense, especially on the line.
"I've never been in this situation before," said Vick, still
several weeks from returning. "I really don't know what to say to
anybody around here. Just try to keep guys' chins up. Keep
fighting. That's all you can do, man, and hopefully when I get back
to 110 percent, I can try to win some games for us."
The disintegration of the Falcons has come with all the ugliness
that usually accompanies a losing team -- and a few new twists.
Cornerback Tyrone Williams was suspended for a game after he
supposedly blew up at the coaching staff. Quarterback Doug Johnson
was benched. Cornerback Juran Bolden was arrested for driving a
stolen car and marijuana possession.
Owner Arthur Blank became so disgusted with his team's
performance he took out an ad in the local newspaper to personally
apologize to the fans.
In fairness, the loss of Vick was a staggering blow. He was the
team's signature player, the guy voted to the Pro Bowl in his first
year as a starter. He ran for 777 yards, threw for 2,936 and
single-handedly bailed out the Falcons in several games. Most
notable was a victory at Minnesota, where he rushed for an NFL
QB-record 173 yards, the last 46 on an electrifying touchdown run
Then again, the Falcons aren't the first team to lose their
starting quarterback. Minnesota's Daunte Culpepper went down this
season, and the Vikings kept winning with journeyman Gus Frerotte.
"I'm not going to put it all on No. 7," Blank said, referring
to Vick. "The reality is, he's one man. We're not a one-man
football team. One man didn't make this football team last year."
But without Vick's mobility, the offensive line has looked
hideous. The Falcons already have given up four safeties, one short
of the league record for a season. Left tackle Bob Whitfield, the
line's senior member, was so distraught he tried hypnosis. He
probably would have been better off hiring a magician.
While Reeves showed a willingness to bend with Vick as his
quarterback, the coach's old-style offense took on a more familiar
look with Johnson taking snaps: runners barreling straight into the
line, and a shortage of downfield throws.
Reeves considered turning the play-calling over to his
assistants, but couldn't bring himself to do it. Apparently, he
plans on going down with his ship.
"Being involved with the offense the way I am, I think if I
turned it over to somebody, I'd be constantly saying, 'Well, I
don't want to do that, that's the wrong thing," Reeves said. "At
least I can defend what I did, right or wrong. I don't want to
blame somebody else right now."
Defensively, the blame has fallen on embattled coordinator Wade
Phillips, who stubbornly stuck with a 3-4 alignment even when
outside linebackers Sam Rogers and Will Overstreet went down with
season-ending injuries, depleting a key position.
Now, Phillips has to deal with the loss of Pro Bowl inside
linebacker Keith Brooking, expected to be out several weeks with an
"I just don't think you can sit there and say you're going to
get better, because we haven't gotten better," Phillips said. "I
can't say right now exactly what we're going to do, but there's
going to be some changes."
It's about time. The Falcons have given up more total yards
(416.7 per game), yards passing (266.9) and points (31.5) than any
"We've played so poorly defensively," end Patrick Kerney said,
"that it makes me feel sick."
At least the schedule gets a bit easier. Atlanta's first seven
opponents have a cumulative record of 28-15; the next nine are
Still, it's difficult to envision this team making much
improvement until Vick returns. Reeves intends to stick with Kurt
Kittner at quarterback, even though the second-year player was just
9-of-29 in his first pro start.
Through it all, Reeves said he has no intention of quitting.
"I would never resign," he said, a steely look in his eyes.
"I'm not a quitter. I'm responsible for these guys and I'm asking
them to do everything they can to get this thing turned around, and
I'm damned sure going to do everything I can."