Moments after the January press conference at which Dan Reeves
was introduced as the Falcons' coach, running back Jamal
Anderson grabbed a TV cameraman and walked up to his new boss.
"Coach Reeves," said the big ballcarrier, "our viewers want to
know how excited you are to have Jamal Anderson as your running
Reeves wasn't fooled by Anderson's impersonation of a
broadcaster, but for a coach who is shelving the run-and-shoot
offense for a smash-mouth attack, the question was an easy one.
Last season Anderson, a seventh-round pick out of Utah in 1994,
rushed for 1,055 yards (4.6 per carry, second in the league
behind the Lions' Barry Sanders), caught 49 passes for 473 yards
and scored six touchdowns.
"He laughed," Anderson says of Reeves's reaction to the TV
stunt. "Then the first thing he said to me, before he even said
hello was, 'Are you in good shape, Jamal? I sure hope so.'"
Despite being only a part-time participant at the team's 15-week
off-season conditioning program, Anderson reported to training
camp a fit 235 pounds and was delighted to see that the
run-and-shoot had truly been mothballed. For the first time
since '89 more backs than receivers were in the Falcons' camp.
"It's like a convoy now when we run the ball," says Anderson,
who was the 24th running back selected in '94. "I have a
fullback and a tight end, a blocker for every tackler. I can't
help but think that we're going to kill people with this kind of
Anderson combines size and speed with one of the nastiest
stiff-arms in the league, a move he learned when he was nine. It
came courtesy of his father, James, the owner of a Los Angeles
security service whose clients have included Muhammad Ali, Sugar
Ray Leonard and Boyz II Men. "Jamal can be something special,"
says Reeves. "And we need him--yes, we do. A new system can help
you get better quick. But [without the right personnel] it can
also make you bad fast."
After qualifying for the playoffs as a wild card two seasons
ago, Atlanta got bad fast. Last year featured a bitter power
struggle early in the season between coach June Jones and
quarterback Jeff George. George's sideline outburst during a
Sept. 22 game against the Eagles led to his suspension and then
his release, and all but sealed Jones's fate as well. The
Falcons lost their first eight games and finished 3-13.
Reeves came on board as coach and executive vice president of
football operations after four seasons with the Giants in which
his teams went 31-33. He has won five division championships and
gone to three Super Bowls--all with the Broncos--during a
16-year NFL coaching career and leads active coaches in wins,
with 141. But in '95 and '96 the Giants' offense ranked 29th and
30th in the league, respectively.
To direct his Falcons offense, Reeves acquired journeyman
quarterback Chris Chandler from the Oilers. Atlanta is
Chandler's sixth stop during a 10-year NFL career. To beef up
the running game, he signed Harold Green, a former 1,000-yard
rusher (albeit in 1992) who spent last season with the Rams.
Reeves also used a second-round draft choice on Texas Tech
running back Byron Hanspard, who last year became only the sixth
player in Division I history to rush for more than 2,000 yards
in a season. In three seasons Hanspard averaged 5.7 yards a
carry and scored 33 rushing touchdowns. He's also a proven
receiver, as evidenced by the 35 receptions and seven touchdown
catches he had during his sophomore season, in 1995. His
blink-and-he's-gone speed is a perfect complement to Anderson's
Before a recent practice Hanspard, who became a Pentecostal
minister at 19, spoke of the Falcons' making the playoffs in
'97. "I am a person of faith," he said, "so I don't put limits
on what the Lord can do."
If Atlanta can't establish a running game, it might take an act
of God for the Falcons to reach .500.