2 Atlanta Falcons Get set for the Michael Vick era, as the supertalented quarterback assumes command

September 01, 2002

Much has changed for Michael Vick since he spent his rookie year
as an underconfident understudy to veteran quarterback Chris
Chandler. For one, Atlanta waived Chandler, and Vick is now the
starter. Overwhelmed at times last year by the complex
play-calling demanded by coach Dan Reeves's system, Vick is far
more comfortable in the huddle now that Reeves has streamlined
the playbook's language. Where Vick often hurried through his
reads last year, he has slowed his drop back, letting plays
develop and flashing a velvety touch when necessary. He even
worked with team officials to better handle the media and fan
crush he faces as one of the NFL's most dynamic quarterback
prospects.

For all of Vick's on-field improvement and newfound peace,
however, he's still vexingly inscrutable to his teammates. "He's
like a 1918 movie: lots of action, but the dialogue's definitely
limited. He hasn't said but four words all camp," joked offensive
tackle Bob Whitfield over a mid-August training-camp meal, as a
half-dozen teammates nodded in agreement. "But he's obviously
more comfortable this year. He relaxed in the pocket, and he's
not hurrying everything." As Vick approached with his dinner,
Whitfield couldn't resist bellowing, "And now he calls the plays
right, too!"

Vick sees such good-natured barbs as evidence that his teammates
regard him as their leader. Now, he says, his challenge is to be
just that. "Last year I had to constantly remind myself that I
was good enough to play at this level," he says. "I always knew I
had the physical ability to perform, but my confidence wasn't
where it needed to be. I knew that I had to work the entire
off-season to prepare. I studied my playbook every day, even if
it meant locking myself in my bedroom when Mom came to visit. I
watched all my plays from last year. It's what I had to do."

What he saw bothered him: too many rushed throws and broken
plays. He struggled to read, and consequently to escape, blitzes;
he was sacked 23 times in 113 drop backs, a staggering average of
one sack every 4.9 times he intended to throw. When he did pass,
he made life troublesome for his receivers, firing panicked,
off-target throws that too often fell to the ground or forced his
receivers to make difficult body catches--or sprain their fingers
trying. And those complex play-calls, with each receiver's route
described in detail, added to his anxiety. "I couldn't even get
us out of the huddle," Vick says. "It was frustrating."

But in Atlanta's penultimate game, against Miami, he says,
"Everything clicked." Replacing an injured Chandler, Vick nearly
led Atlanta to the upset, finishing the game 11 of 20 with 214
yards, with five rushes for 63 yards in a 21-14 loss. Then in the
season finale, against the Rams, Vick started and accounted for
234 of the Falcons' 255 total yards. "Remember, Mike was 21 years
old when he got here," says quarterbacks coach Jack Burns. "Of
course it was tough at first, but understanding any pro system
takes a while. He learned that nothing's easy but that if he
works hard, he'll be great."

Vick's confidence will continue to rise only if the Falcons'
running game rights itself. The team aggressively addressed the
need for improvement, signing speedy free agent Warrick Dunn to a
six-year, $24 million contract and drafting powerful Michigan
State tailback T.J. Duckett. At wideout the Falcons added free
agent Willie Jackson, who helped Saints quarterback (and Vick's
cousin) Aaron Brooks through growing pains over the last two
years.

Concerns about Vick are small compared with those regarding the
NFL's second-worst defense of 2001. But that should improve in
new coordinator Wade Phillips's 3-4 scheme. The speedy front
seven will benefit from the change, and former Rams free safety
Keith Lyle will join corners Ray Buchanan and Ashley Ambrose to
steady a shaky secondary.

In Vick the Falcons believe they have their long-sought
cornerstone, strong and silent. "We'll go where Mike takes us,
which is fine, because he's so very dangerous," says Buchanan.
"Things feel different with him. It's his time now. He knows what
he's doing, and that's all we ask." --J.E.

COLOR PHOTO: ALAN DIAZ/AP A simplified playbook has helped Vick gain the confidence he lacked as a rookie. COLOR PHOTO: NFL PHOTOS JACKSON

NEW TWIST

New owner Arthur Blank has visions of a packed Georgia Dome.
Season-ticket deals have dropped to as little as $100, sparking a
98.5% rise in sales, and the Falcons have peddled 10,000 end-zone
packages--up from 15 last year. With 8,000 more parking spaces,
Falcons supporters will also be able to do more of what fans do
best: tailgate.

ENEMY LINES
an opposing team's scout sizes up the Falcons

"Their new owner wants to win now, or at least wants to give that
impression. There's no other way to explain overpaying Warrick
Dunn, who I don't think was worth the money you pay an every-down
back. They also gave far too much money to Todd Weiner. Why would
you give that guy a $5 million bonus? Because you want people to
believe in you.... Bringing in Wade Phillips was their biggest
upgrade on defense. They'll be O.K. in the 3-4, because their
linebackers run well.... Keith Brooking is overrated. He flies
around, but he's nowhere near the Brian Urlacher-Ray Lewis
category.... Their biggest question mark is Patrick Kerney. Last
year he was good, but he's not coming off the edge anymore. He'll
have to be more stout against the run, something I don't think
he'll do very well.... Their secondary is a cause for concern.
They'll get beat deep more this year, but they're smart enough to
contain things.... Dunn will just be a change-of-pace guy. But he
could lead the team in receptions, and T.J. Duckett's a beast....
At wide receiver, Willie Jackson will help, but Shawn Jefferson's
slipping, and Brian Finneran is just a possession guy.... On the
O-line Bob Whitfield's getting older [he's 30], Travis Claridge
is a stiff, and the rest are just adequate.... Michael Vick will
have to carry these guys, but in this division, they'll be in the
mix."

SCHEDULE

Sept. 8 at Green Bay
15 CHICAGO
22 CINCINNATI
29 Open date

Oct. 6 TAMPA BAY
13 at N.Y. Giants
20 CAROLINA
27 at New Orleans

Nov. 3 BALTIMORE
10 at Pittsburgh
17 NEW ORLEANS
24 at Carolina

Dec. 1 at Minnesota
8 at Tampa Bay
15 SEATTLE
22 DETROIT
29 at Cleveland

SCHEDULE STRENGTH

NFL rank: 30
Opponents' 2001 winning percentage: .461
Games against playoff teams: 6

PROJECTED LINEUP with 2001 statistics

COACH: Dan Reeves; sixth season with Atlanta (188-157-1 in NFL)
2001 RECORD: 7-9 (T3 in NFC West)
NFL RANK (rush/pass/total): offense 16/17/15; defense 21/30/30

OFFENSIVE BACKS PVR*

QB Michael Vick 37
113 att. 50 comp. 44.2% 785 yds. 2 TDs 3 int. 62.7 rtg.

RB Warrick Dunn [N] 77
158 att. 447 yds. 2.8 avg. 68 rec. 557 yds. 8.2 avg. 6 TDs

RB T.J. Duckett (R) [N] 105
263 att. 1,420 yds. 5.4 avg. 12 rec. 80 yds. 6.7 avg. 13 TDs

FB Bob Christian 214
44 att. 284 yds. 6.5 avg. 45 rec. 392 yds. 8.7 avg. 4 TDs

RECEIVERS, SPECIALISTS, OFFENSIVE LINEMEN

[PVR*]

WR Shawn Jefferson 188 37 rec. 539 yds. 2 TDs
WR Willie Jackson [N] 110 81 rec. 1,046 yds. 5 TDs
WR Brian Finneran 213 23 rec. 491 yds. 3 TDs
TE Alge Crumpler 171 25 rec. 330 yds. 3 TDs
K Jay Feely 229 28/28 XPs 29/37 FGs 115 pts.
PR Allen Rossum [N] 372 11 ret. 9.9 avg. 1 TD
KR Darrick Vaughn 429 61 ret. 24.4 avg. 1 TD

LT Bob Whitfield 6'5" 310 lbs. 16 games 16 starts
LG Travis Claridge 6'5" 300 lbs. 14 games 11 starts
C Roberto Garza 6'2" 296 lbs. 16 games 4 starts
RG Kynan Forney 6'2" 305 lbs. 12 games 8 starts
RT Todd Weiner [N] 6'4" 297 lbs. 16 games 13 starts

DEFENSE

LE Travis Hall 39 tackles 2 1/2 sacks
NT Ed Jasper 20 tackles 4 sacks
RE Patrick Kerney 38 tackles 12 sacks
OLB Mark Simoneau 31 tackles 0 sacks
ILB Matt Stewart 21 tackles 0 sacks
ILB Keith Brooking 100 tackles 3 1/2 sacks
OLB Will Overstreet (R) [N] 35 tackles 5 sacks
CB Ray Buchanan 62 tackles 5 int.
SS Gerald McBurrows 47 tackles 0 int.
FS Keith Lyle [N] 17 tackles 1 int.
CB Ashley Ambrose 49 tackles 5 int.
P Chris Mohr 69 punts 38.8 avg.

[N] New acquisition
(R) Rookie (statistics for final college year)
*PVR: Player Value Ranking (explanation on page 98)

"They're overpaying Warrick Dunn, who I don't think is worth
what you pay an every-down back."

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)