Vick no longer top of mind in Atlanta

ATLANTA -- As miserable as the Falcons have been for most of their four-decade existence, some Atlanta fans still honor the past more than they embrace the present.

Several hours before a Thanksgiving game against Indianapolis, four fans queued up at a train station were dressed in regulation Falcons game jerseys.
The names across the back of the shirts: Brian Finneran, Peerless Price, Patrick Kerney and Michael Vick, none of whom is on the Falcons' current roster.

But for most Falcons fans, players and media, Vick -- who will be sentenced Monday for his role in a dogfighting ring -- now is clearly part of the past. Later Monday, Atlanta (3-9) will play host to longtime rival New Orleans (5-7) in an NFC South game (ESPN, 8:30 p.m. ET).

Technically still under contract to the Falcons -- although the team is fighting to recover nearly $20 million in bonuses paid to Vick under the terms of a contract extension signed in 2004 -- the mercurial quarterback is a superstar in absentia. And because he is not in the locker room and most vestiges of his presence there have long since been removed, Vick is not in the everyday thoughts of his teammates.

"Guys still talk about him and think about him," cornerback DeAngelo Hall said last week, "but you don't hear his name brought up every day like you used to. It's not an out-of-sight and out-of-mind kind of thing. Not at all. He's still one of us and still means a lot to guys on the team. He has friends here and always will. But we've known for a long time he wasn't going to be here, and we had to play a football season without him."

Several teammates have stayed in contact with Vick, but it has been a bit more difficult since he voluntarily turned himself in and began serving his prison sentence last month. Tight end Alge Crumpler told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution last week that he recently had a long discussion with the banished quarterback. Wideout Joe Horn, arguably Vick's strongest advocate on the team during the spring and summer, has measured his words about Vick more carefully. But because Horn is having such a poor season -- the latest free-agent wide receiver on whom the Falcons appear to have struck out -- his words don't have much gravitas anyway.

"He's still a good person who made a mistake, or whatever, and he's paying for it," said Crumpler, who was Vick's most trusted receiver. "The guys who played with him and knew him, no, we haven't divorced him."

Sporting goods stores here still have a few of Vick's No. 7 jerseys hanging on racks, but not many. Mired in a losing season under first-year coach Bobby Petrino, the Falcons and their fans don't play the what-if game anymore with Vick as the centerpiece of a debate over how Atlanta might have fared in '07 with him in the lineup instead of the three journeyman quarterbacks who have tried to replace him. Fact is, fans spend more time these days wondering about how long Petrino will stick around -- his history suggests an itinerant bent -- than whether Vick will be around again.

On the city's two sports-talk radio stations, the din surrounding Vick has quieted and really only surfaces on those occasions when he is part of a court proceeding. Even his staunchest defenders, while not fully silenced, have developed the equivalent of Vick laryngitis.

Because the Falcons announce only the tickets distributed for home games, it is hard to officially quantify the impact Vick's absence has had. But the Georgia Dome crowds clearly have been well shy of capacity, and the franchise experienced its first home TV blackout since owner Arthur Blank purchased the team in 2002. Team officials are reluctant to assign blame for the failure to fill the seats, although they privately concede Vick was their biggest draw and they essentially have stopped talking about the former face of the franchise altogether.

There is no denying Vick's name -- whether it is on T-shirts, in the headlines or is part of some rant on local radio -- doesn't carry the same magic it once did.

"Some people still have, like, a fixation-type thing with him," said Fred Kalil, sports director for the local NBC affiliate. "If you're sitting on the couch, maybe paying a little bit of attention to the 6 o'clock news, and his name comes up, yeah, your ears perk up some, I'm sure. But it's not like the feeding frenzy it was for a while there. I really do think there was some legitimacy to the Vick fatigue syndrome people talked about in this city. It wore everybody out. But now it's kind of just worn out, except when there's a court date or something along those lines."

That said, there does remain a sense of borderline morbid curiosity about Vick, and that was demonstrated last week when the NBC affiliate scored high ratings for a tour of the Surry County, Va., property the quarterback once owned, which was the center of the dogfighting ring. The property recently was sold to a businessman and is scheduled to be auctioned off later this week.

Television outlets here also have focused in recent weeks on Vick's mansion in the posh Sugarloaf development, which is on the market.

Certainly the interest factor will be high Monday, when Vick is formally sentenced by Judge Henry Hudson for the charges to which he has pleaded guilty.

All the local network affiliates have dispatched reporters to Richmond for the sentencing. The independent broadcast studio ESPN usually retains for remote reports from Atlanta has blocked off its entire schedule for the day, in the event its cameras are needed. Sports-talk radio stations are gearing up for one more round of debates. And the "Monday Night Football" gang will be forced, at least one more time, to weave Vick into the discussion.

But come Tuesday morning, it seems Vick is apt to be removed from the consciousness here for quite a while.

Senior writer Len Pasquarelli covers the NFL for ESPN.com.