Atlanta Falcon quarterbacks coach Mouse Davis did a double lake when quarterback Jeff George walked through the locker-room door one morning last March. Having been traded from the Indianapolis Colts several days before, George was in Atlanta to meet his new employers for the first time. Gone were his trademark shag haircut, scruffy moustache and Pillsbury Doughboy body. "Jeff looked like a totally different person," Davis recalls. "He wasn't the chunky, scraggly, ugly kid that I once knew. He'd hit the weights, lost 15 pounds, gotten a lot firmer. He looked like the clean-cut, all-American boy."
Last week Falcon left guard Lincoln Kennedy also expressed surprise as he watched George on the field and in the huddle. "I thought he'd be a jerk," said Kennedy. "I'd heard he wasn't a team player. But Jeff totally blew my mind. He's definitely somebody you want to block for. He's a cool guy."
Wait a minute. Jeff George, cool? "I don't think anybody has ever described me as being cool," says George with a laugh. "That's a first."
It is indeed. During George's four years in Indianapolis, he was more often described as a pouter, a whiner and a quitter, and exactly one year ago he was doing his utmost to live up to each of those descriptions. Though only halfway through a six-year, $12.5 million contract with the Colts, George refused to show up for training camp. When he finally rejoined the team, 16 days before the season opener, he received a decidedly chilly reception from his teammates as well as from fans. The Colts finished 4-12, with George starting by the season's sixth game. When he was traded to Atlanta for three draft picks, no one in Indianapolis was sorry to see him go.
The divorce was nasty, but the new marriage is starting out nicely. At 26 George is seeking a fresh start in Atlanta, and the Falcons are hoping that what they have seen so far this summer is an accurate forecast of what they will see once the regular season begins. In the first quarter of last Saturday night's preseason game against the Denver Broncos, after George had a pass picked off, he came right back on the next Falcon series, taking the team 74 yards in 11 plays, a drive that culminated in a dazzling 17-yard touchdown pass to Andre Rison. Chased out of the pocket on the play, George shot the ball toward Rison, who soared between two defenders to snare the pass. Although the Broncos beat the Falcons 37-16, new Atlanta coach June Jones was pleased with George's brief first-quarter performance. "Nobody else on earth would have gotten the ball in there to Rison," he said.
No one has ever questioned George's physical talents. It is the rest of the package that has left people shaking their heads. The No. 1 selection overall in the 1990 NFL draft (the Colts traded Rison and Pro Bowl tackle Chris Hinton to Atlanta for the pick), George had the scouts gushing. Dick Steinberg, the New York Jet general manager, spoke for many when he said, "He has so much talent, it's scary."
In four years with the Colts, George never came close to realizing his potential. True, his line was so bad that he was sacked 146 times, including an astounding 56 times in 1991. But rather than rise above his team, George spent much of his time bemoaning his plight—and assigning blame to everyone but himself.
Not surprisingly, George, who had been a three-sport star at Indianapolis's Warren Central High, came to be seen as less the Golden Boy than the golden boor, and last year's holdout brought all the bad feelings to the fore. The press hammered away at him, and on radio call-in shows fans vented their frustration. Liquor stores all over town put up signs advertising "Jeff George whine."
"I felt like I was under 24-hour surveillance," says George. "Radio and TV stations were camped outside my house. I thought, Man, why don't these people get a life?"
Explaining his holdout, George says that he was trying to force a trade and that he could no longer tolerate media attacks on his family. Dave and Judy George, Jeff's parents, who had attended every game, became the butt of jokes. The media found it odd that Judy worked as Jeff's secretary, and they chuckled at the George entourage, 200 strong on game days, which included both his grandmothers, who are in their 80's. "When they make comments about your family, that really hurts," says George now.
Still, few of his teammates rallied to George's defense. "He wants the fans to leave him alone," tackle Kevin Call said a year ago. "I mean, grow up and learn a little bit. If you don't want to get into the limelight, then get out. Go be a trashman or whatever it was he studied in school."
George would concede that his behavior was often immature, spoiled and self-absorbed. At the same time, he asks you to understand that he is quiet and shy and that he has few close friends outside his family. The love and attention that have been showered on him by his parents, brothers and extended family have served to insulate him from the real world.
The Falcons did their homework before they traded for George. Jones and player personnel boss Ken Herock relied heavily on recommendations from Carolina Panther scout Jack Bushofsky, who had been a longtime player personnel director for the Colts, and Seattle Seahawk offensive coordinator Larry Kennan, who had held the same position with Indianapolis when George was a rookie.
"I never looked at Jeff as selfish," Bushofsky says. "When everybody expects you to socialize and you don't enjoy it, you're considered an outcast. If I were still with the Colts, I would have opposed the trade. But it's best for Jeff to be away from the situation."
Adds Kennan, "Jeff's a shy country guy, and people misinterpret that as being an aloof jerk. He has been sheltered by his family. He doesn't have great social skills. He was pleasant to coach—he has the best physical talent of any quarterback in the game."
Perhaps what George needed most was not simply a change of scenery but also a firm nudge out of the nest. And Atlanta may be the perfect place for George to rehabilitate his career and his reputation. For one thing, the entire George clan is unlikely to pack up and move south. For another, the Falcons will be operating the run-and-shoot offense, which was designed by Davis and which is well suited to George's athleticism. Says Herock, "Every other NFL team that has run the run-and-shoot has had a guy on top who didn't know that offense. Here you've got the inventor of the system and, in Jones, his chief disciple."
Jones, a quarterback for the Falcons in the late '70s and the team's offensive strategist from 1991 through '93, is in temperament the polar opposite of Jerry Glanville, the man he replaced in January. Glanville fancied himself a street lighter, and he enjoyed challenging his players' manhood. Jones has a quiet, calm presence, and he may be just the right coach to bring George out of his four-year funk.
"I feel a more positive atmosphere," says Kennedy, a second-year pro. "With June you don't have to worry that he'll say one thing to your face and another behind your back."
Adds tackle Bob Whitfield, "June's a teacher. He's more of a players' coach. Unlike Glanville he doesn't rip your head off if you make a mistake."
Kennedy and Whitfield have already benefited from Jones's promotion. In the spring Jones suggested that both men check into Duke University's renowned weight-loss program, and thanks to it, they have lost more than 100 pounds between them. "If this had been the same situation as last year, and Lincoln checked in weighing what he did, Glanville would have run him out of football," says Herock. Kennedy weighed 415 pounds in May; today he's 348. Whitfield trimmed down from 340 to 298.
It remains to be seen whether Jones can get similar results from George, whose inflated sense of self has been his biggest obstacle. Though he ominously chose to change his number with the Falcons from 11 to 1, George insists that life in Atlanta will be different. "It's everybody's dream to play for your hometown team," he says. "I'm glad I did. But now it's time to start a new chapter in my life, to take my talent to the next level. I'm excited to see how good the Falcons—and I—can be."