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Inside The NFL

Aug. 05, 2002
Aug. 05, 2002

Table of Contents
Aug. 5, 2002

Inside The NFL

Cold Reception
Warrick Dunn may not fit into the Falcons' retooled backfield the
way he thinks

This is an article from the Aug. 5, 2002 issue Original Layout

Last April the Falcons made running back Warrick Dunn, their
high-priced free-agent acquisition, the star of their draft-day
party. He mingled with fans and signed autographs until it was
time for the club to make its first pick. "When they announced on
TV that we had taken [running back] T.J. Duckett," Dunn said last
week, "everyone in the room just stopped and stared at me. I
didn't know what to do. I was surprised. Really surprised. I
thought, Oh, no, they're gonna trade me."

No trade is in the offing for Atlanta. Change is, though. As the
Falcons opened training camp last week in Greenville, S.C., it
was clear that they had improved themselves at running back as
much as any team has improved itself at any position. Dunn looked
as fast and elusive as ever, fully recovered from the nagging
turf toe that plagued him in 2001. Duckett, the 254-pound back
who steamrolled the Big Ten for 3,379 yards in three seasons at
Michigan State, was a holdout, but running back is a relatively
simple NFL position to learn, and he'll surely be a big factor.

Atlanta needed to bolster its ground attack to take the heat off
young quarterback Michael Vick, who is still learning the ropes.
But the Falcons paid dearly. They signed Dunn to the kind of
contract usually reserved for a dominant back: six years, $28.9
million, with a $6.5 million signing bonus. Dunn is more durable
than his 5'9", 180-pound frame would suggest, but in his five
seasons with the Bucs he was for the most part a good situational
back capable of brilliance. In his last 44 games with Tampa Bay
he had only three 100-yard rushing performances. That's pretty
paltry production for a back who will make more in average annual
salary than six of last season's top 10 rushers. Add Duckett's
looming deal in this tight-salary-cap era, and the Falcons will
be paying marquee-back money to two runners. There's no question
that it makes Atlanta a better team today. No question it will
also hamstring the Falcons' efforts to stay under the salary cap
in the future.

Coach Dan Reeves said last week that the Falcons never envisioned
picking a running back high in the draft after they signed Dunn.
But when their turn came up at 18, their best options were
Duckett, one of the highest-rated players on their board, and
Hawaii wideout Ashley Lelie. Concerned about Lelie's nagging
hamstring injury, Atlanta went for Duckett.

Like most coaches, Reeves would prefer to ride one back. "I'd
love to say I could get Warrick 20 to 25 touches a game," Reeves
says, "but the game will dictate." The Falcons may use both backs
together, and they may split Dunn out on occasion.

Dunn says he still believes he'll be the Falcons' main rusher,
but you can't blame him for feeling as if he's in an NFL version
of Groundhog Day. After all, with the Bucs there weren't enough
footballs to go around for him and big back Mike Alstott.

The biggest beneficiary of the strengthened running game will be
Vick, who in eight games as a rookie last year completed only 44%
of his passes. "Those backs will help his development as much as
anything," says Falcons senior adviser Bobby Beathard, the former
Redskins and Chargers general manager who has resurfaced in
Atlanta to help new owner Arthur Blank. Last week, watching Vick
throw a soft 12-yard strike to tight end Alge Crumpler in a
scrimmage, Beathard said, "That's the kind of touch pass he would
have drilled a year ago. That's where he's better."

"The dimension that Warrick brings takes the pressure off me,"
Vick says. "We had a great off-season. We improved so much,
especially in the backfield. I think we're going to be
contenders."

A Career Unfulfilled
Leaf Lacked Passion

After three poor seasons the strange, apathetic career of
quarterback Ryan Leaf ended in retirement last week for three
reasons: Leaf didn't love the game, he elected against having
surgery on his injured right wrist and going through the
subsequent rehab, and he didn't need football. One close football
acquaintance of Leaf's told SI, "Ryan has most every dime from
that huge [$11.25 million] signing bonus in 1998 because he
invested mostly in bonds. He hasn't gotten killed in the stock
market. The fact is, he doesn't need to work."

According to Bobby Beathard, who as San Diego's general manager
in 1998 took Leaf with the second pick in the draft, the
quarterback in fact "hated" to work. "He was the
worst-conditioned athlete on our team every year," Beathard said
on Sunday. "[But] nobody in the history of football worked
harder at alienating everyone around him than Ryan Leaf did."

Emmitt's Lofty Goal
Smith Wants to Make Run at 20K

Emmitt Smith is 540 yards from breaking one of football's most
hallowed records, Walter Payton's mark of 16,726 career rushing
yards. Playing in an offense that will rely on him to be a
workhorse, he will--barring injury--certainly eclipse the record
this season. Smith speaks reverently of passing the late Payton,
who admired Smith so much that before he died in 1999, he asked
him to be there for Payton's son, Jarrett, if needed.

At 33 Smith is old for a running back, but he's not the retiring
type. In fact, after his first training camp workout in San
Antonio last Saturday he told SI, "I want 20,000 yards. That's
the next goal, and I don't see any problem getting it. I don't
feel like I'm at the finish line at all."

Last season Smith had his lowest rushing total since his rookie
year, finishing with 1,021 yards. (He needed 56 yards in the
season finale to reach the 1,000-yard mark for an NFL-record 11th
straight year.) He'll have to return to his dominant ways of old
to have any chance at 20,000. He's 3,813 yards shy, and no back
has ever been as productive as late in his career as Smith dreams
of being.

He says he doesn't want to have to leave Dallas to make a run at
20,000, but he will if he must. Though he knows that the Cowboys
will eventually ask him to move along, he says, "It'll be hard
for them to say, 'Cut him,' if I'm doing my job."

Read more from Peter King as he sends in postcards from camp at
cnnsi.com/football.

TWO COLOR PHOTOS: BOB ROSATO (2) Vick (inset) will drive the offense but hopes Dunn can help take the pressure off.COLOR PHOTO: AL TIELEMANS Smith will have to step up his pace if he expects to reach 20,000 yards.

Dispatches

New Cowboys quarterback Chad Hutchinson--having aborted his
pitching career with the St. Louis Cardinals and in pads last
Saturday for the first time since starting for Stanford in
1997--completed his first eight passes in a seven-on-seven
scrimmage. "This is where I've dreamed of being for a long time,
and I know it's where I belong," says Hutchinson, who will
probably back up Quincy Carter this fall. "I never felt
comfortable throwing a baseball." ... Rams coach Mike Martz is
already so impressed with Heisman-winning quarterback Eric Crouch
as a receiver that he sees him as a solid No. 4 wideout in the
explosive St. Louis offense immediately.... Former Green Bay
general manager Ron Wolf, now a consultant for the team, thinks
this could be the best team the Packers have fielded in 10 years.
That would include Green Bay's Super Bowl teams of 1996 and '97.
"Very good defensive line, very good offensive line," he says.
"Terry Glenn's a cut above anyone they've had at receiver in the
past 10 years. [Running back] Ahman Green's 25. And people talk
about Brett Favre like he's 102. He's 32. Brett's got plenty of
good years left." ... Not only is the Redskins' LaVar Arrington
the biggest young star linebacker in the game, but he also leads
like no other young player does. Before a simple seven-on-seven
drill at training camp last week, he went to the other six
defenders and screamed into their face masks, "Let's go now! They
get nothing!"