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Petrino leaves Falcons

The star-crossed season of the Atlanta Falcons continued, stunningly, Tuesday afternoon when coach Bobby Petrino told owner Arthur Blank he wanted out as head coach.

A league source said Blank reluctantly granted Petrino's wish and let him out of his contract. Within hours, Petrino was introduced as the head coach at the University of Arkansas.

"The guy's not the head coach [of the Falcons] anymore,'' the league source said. "It's probably for the best. He was one of the worst communicators in pro sports.''

As of early Tuesday evening, the two candidates to serve as the Falcons interim coach for the last three weeks of the season are defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer, who once turned down the Nebraska head-coaching job to stay in the NFL, and offensive coordinator Hue Jackson. The Falcons are expected to announce their decision at a Wednesday afternoon press conference.

The Falcons, 3-10 in Petrino's rookie NFL season, were not a happy team from training camp through now. First there was the Michael Vick suspension over his dogfighting charges, which happened just before the start of camp in July. Then there were skirmishes between Petrino and several players during the season, most notably cornerback DeAngelo Hall after Hall's blowup during a game against Carolina Sept. 23. Hall was openly critical of Petrino's autocratic coaching ways, and several players on the team were privately critical of Petrino as well. The general consensus in the locker room was that Petrino changed very little from his style as a dictatorial coach at the University of Louisville when he was handed a five-year, $24-million contract as the Falcons coach in January.

Though Petrino steadfastly maintained he was in the Falcons job for the long haul -- and Blank reiterated that definitively after discussing the college vacancies with Petrino Nov. 25 -- he clearly was uncomfortable with several factors as an NFL head coach. The Hall dustup, for instance, did not end just because the team fined him $100,000 for conduct detrimental to the team after the September incident. Hall continually said nettlesome things in the press, which angered Petrino, but he realized he was powerless to do much about it until at least this offseason, when he knew he'd be able to cut or trade Hall. Petrino clearly did not like the power players have in pro football versus how coaches can dictate to players in college football.

After the season, it's likely Atlanta will talk against to one of the finalists for the job last year -- San Francisco assistant head coach Mike Singletary. The top pro candidates this year are expected to include offensive coordinator Jason Garrett of the Cowboys and defensive coordinators Rex Ryan of Baltimore and Jim Schwartz of the Titans.

At Arkansas, Petrino succeeds Houston Nutt, who stepped down two weeks ago and became the head coach at Mississippi. Petrino was introduced as the Razorbacks coach by incoming athletic director Jeff Long at a late-night news conference

"Today was a day of decision," Petrino said. "It was difficult on one side, very easy on the other. It was difficult to leave Atlanta, the staff, players, fans. The timing of it was probably the thing that made it most difficult. Coming to Arkansas was the easy part."

The Falcons declined further comment beyond a terse, two-paragraph statement released Tuesday night. Blank and general manager Rich McKay were scheduled to hold a news conference Wednesday.

After losing Vick, Bobby Petrino tried three starting quarterbacks without success. The Falcons are 3-10 and assured of the 32nd season of .500 or worse in their 42-year history.

"Anytime you're without of the best athletes in the National Football League, it's going to be tough," Hall said earlier in the season. "Take Peyton Manning from the Colts, and they'll go through a little slump."

The resignation of Petrino was another jarring blow in a surreal year for the Falcons, who had dealt with Vick's legal troubles since the first day of training camp. A plane flew over the team's practice facility pulling a sign that said: "New team name? Dog Killers?"

That was a far cry from Petrino's introductory news conference, when he talked of his reasons for leaving Louisville.

"I was able to see the commitment that has been made here," he said. "I believe this is truly the best football job in the NFL. It was an easy decision for me."

Of course, he had no idea what Vick was doing in his spare time.

Petrino's stint was one of the shortest for a non-interim coach since the 1970 NFL-AFL merger. Pete McCulley was fired after starting out 1-8 with San Francisco in 1978, and Sid Gillman lasted only 10 games in his second stint as San Diego coach, going 4-6 in 1971 before quitting.

In an interesting twist, Lou Holtz coached the New York Jets for 13 games in 1976. He went 3-10, then left the team with one game remaining to become Arkansas' coach.

Petrino leaves with the third-worst winning percentage among Atlanta coaches. Only Norb Hecker, who was 4-26-1, and Marion Campbell, who went 17-51 in two stints as head coach, rank below Petrino's .231 mark.

In four years as Louisville's coach, Petrino produced a 41-9 record and some of the highest-scoring teams in the country. But the Falcons were anemic without Vick, ranking 24th in total yards and 30th in scoring.

Atlanta also was plagued by injuries on the offensive line, which forced Petrino to start two players who weren't even drafted out of college.

Just hours after Vick's sentencing in Richmond, Va., Atlanta took its fourth straight double-digit loss, 34-14 to the New Orleans Saints.

"Not a good day," Petrino said afterward.

The resignation had to be a major surprise to Blank, who fired Jim Mora just two seasons after he led the Falcons to the NFC championship game, and lured Petrino with a lucrative contract.

Before Monday's game, Blank said he felt better than ever about his decision to hire Petrino given all the adversity the team faced this season.

"I feel real fortunate we have a terrific guy leading our team, our CEO, in Bobby Petrino," Blank said. "I think he's proven to me he's a better head coach than we thought he was going to be, dealing with a set of cards we didn't see unfold this year, which probably never in the history of the NFL has anything like this happened. Bobby has done a wonderful job dealing with all of these issues. He's kept the players focused."

But there were signs of dissension, especially in the way Petrino dealt with his players.

He ran the team with an aloof style, feeling no reason to share his decisions on personnel with the affected players. He could walk through the locker room without speaking to anyone and was openly criticized by two of the team's stars, Pro Bowlers Hall and Alge Crumpler.

Petrino drew the ire of the veterans with his decision to cut nose tackle Grady Jackson, one of the team's most productive defensive linemen, during the bye week. Quarterback Joey Harrington was noticeably perturbed a few weeks ago when, after leading the Falcons to two straight wins, he heard from the media that Petrino still considered injury prone Byron Leftwich the starter.

Against the Saints, the Falcons made another change at the most crucial offensive position, giving Chris Redman his first start since 2002. While Redman threw for 298 yards and two touchdowns, the Falcons lost again.

They have been outscored by an average of 18.5 points in their last four defeats.

After the latest loss, Petrino sounded as though he was still committed to getting the Falcons turned around.

"We'll come back on Wednesday to take a look at it, and then we'll get back to work," he said. "We have to find something to rally around."

But clearly, Petrino already had decided to abandon the sinking ship.

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