Beyond Repair The Falcons are in such disarray that not even the return of the electric Michael Vick--whenever that may happen--can save their season

November 03, 2003

Michael Vick is not Superman. He just plays him on TV.
Otherworldly as his skills may appear, even the Atlanta Falcons'
breathtaking young quarterback, who has been sidelined with a
broken right leg since Aug. 16, concedes that he's powerless to
put the derailed locomotive that is the 2003 Falcons back on
track. But try telling that to team owner Arthur Blank's
six-year-old son, Josh. Three weeks ago, on the evening after he
had witnessed Atlanta's fifth consecutive defeat, a 36-0
capitulation to the Rams in St. Louis on Monday Night Football,
Blank tucked his heartbroken child into bed and delivered the
cold, hard truth.

"Daddy, are we ever gonna win another game?" Josh asked.

"Well, Josh, everybody's working hard," Arthur said. "The players
have to play better, and the coaches have to coach better. When
that happens, we'll start to win again."

"Is Mike gonna play next week?"

"No, Josh. His leg is still healing."

"Can Mike play a teeny bit next week?"

"No, Josh. You have to understand, it's a team game. Mike Vick is
a great player, but he's not Superman."

Throughout Atlanta--and the Falcons' training facility in Flowery
Branch, Ga.--there are blank faces to match the Blank face that
the team's owner saw staring up at him on that mid-October night.
Everyone from besieged coach Dan Reeves to the most frustrated
fan is asking the same question: How can the absence of one
player, albeit the NFL's most exciting talent in years, trigger
the sudden implosion of a franchise that was on the rise just a
year ago?

Vick is baffled too. "I never thought this would happen," the
23-year-old quarterback said last Thursday. "I can't explain how
bad it feels to watch my team suffer every week. Like everybody
else, I wonder, How could this have been prevented?"

The answers are complicated because they reveal that Vick is that
important to the team, and that playing without him exposed
on-field shortcomings and locker-room dysfunction. "I guess
sometimes when your leader goes down, when there has been so much
hype and expectation, it takes away everyone's sense of
confidence," Vick says. "Guys can't come to grips with it, and it
hurts the team."

Football fans are suffering, too. When Vick, heralded as the new
face of the NFL, lay writhing on the Georgia Dome turf during a
preseason game against the Baltimore Ravens, it was a disaster
for the Falcons, their fans and the league. Unless you spent the
2002 season locked down as a reality-TV contestant, you're aware
that Vick had a breakout year that was capped last January by the
Falcons' historic playoff victory over the Green Bay Packers at
snowy Lambeau Field. After that game, when Packers quarterback
Brett Favre embraced Vick and said, "You're the future of this
league," it was the sporting equivalent of a transfer of power
atop the Capitol steps on Inauguration Day.

The emergence of Vick, coupled with several fan-friendly moves
made by Blank--after buying the team in early 2002, The Home
Depot cofounder reduced some ticket prices and expanded
parking--had inspired the Falcons' normally tepid fans to snap up
the team's season-ticket allotment for the first time since 1981.
Nationally, the team was generating Super Bowl buzz, and Vick was
the trendy preseason choice for league MVP.

Even as Vick and Blank bawled their eyes out in the Georgia Dome
X-ray room shortly after the fracture had been confirmed, neither
could have anticipated how much misery would follow. "Going into
the season, it looked like the sky was the limit," says running
back T.J. Duckett. "But now...."

Now, y'all, the sky is falling. On Oct. 19, with their 45-17 loss
to the New Orleans Saints, the Falcons (1-6) officially became
the NFL's most atrocious team. Atlanta's defense, which had been
a revelation last year during the team's surprising march to the
playoffs, is ranked last this season and gave up 507 yards for a
total of 1,003 in its last two games. Kurt Kittner, the second
quarterback to try to replace Vick (Doug Johnson was benched
following the fiasco in St. Louis), completed 9 of 29 passes for
118 yards. And Vick? Once projected to return for the
Monday-night matchup against the Rams, he stood motionless on the
sideline, his leg sore from just the easy drop-backs he had taken
six days earlier.

As Atlanta comes off its bye week, Vick says he might not make it
back until the Nov. 23 home game against the Tennessee Titans,
perhaps even later. "Hopefully I can return before the season's
out," Vick says, "but if I can't be myself, what's the point?"

His demoralized teammates no longer look to him for salvation.
"At this point, what's the difference?" says one player. "Mike
hasn't said it, but he has to be wondering if we'd be that much
better with him. Because we're so bad right now that I don't know
if anyone can save us."

That comment was typical of those uttered recently by several
Falcons players and executives who, on the condition of
anonymity, expressed doubts about the direction of the team. Some
prominent players voiced their displeasure with Reeves's
leadership and think that the 59-year-old Georgia native is
unlikely to remain as coach after this season. Other Falcons
openly conceded that Vick's absence has become a convenient
crutch, a cover for the team's breakdowns along the offensive
line and on defense. Wideout Peerless Price shook his head
vigorously when asked if Vick's absence could explain the team's
demise. "I don't think Mike being hurt has anything to do with us
losing," Price said. "There's so much else that isn't right."

It was the acquisition of Price, a speedy deep threat, that was
supposed to make this season right for Atlanta. A free agent,
Price was the object of an elaborate recruiting effort that
included a video presentation on the Georgia Dome scoreboard:
images of Vick's sweet spirals were interspliced with those of
Price's breakaway receptions, while Jermaine Dupri's Welcome to
Atlanta blared from the stadium's P.A. system. That evening Vick
dropped in on Price at the receiver's suite on the top floor of
the Ritz-Carlton in Buckhead, and the two plotted a course they
hoped would alter football history.

"We could be like Montana and Rice!" Price blurted.

"Yeah," Vick said, "or Young and Rice!"

Yet Price expressed concern that Reeves's offensive philosophy
was too conservative, and the following afternoon, in a meeting
with offensive assistants Pete Mangurian, Mike Johnson and George
Stewart, he reiterated those reservations. "They told me [the
Falcons played the way they did] because they didn't have
somebody like me to open things up," Price recalls. "They said
they needed me to get that done."

Reeves, who was on a family vacation, did not meet with Price
during the free agent's visit, though the two did speak on the
phone. Before signing, Price was left with the impression that
Reeves, who calls the plays, would employ more aggressive
strategies to get him the ball. But after catching only two
passes in each of Atlanta's first two games, Price vented his
frustration to reporters. He has just one touchdown reception
among his 31 catches for 347 yards and has told friends and
teammates that he feels he was misled during the recruiting
process. "I don't regret any decision I've ever made," says
Price, who signed a seven-year contract worth up to $42 million,
including a $10.5 million signing bonus. "But do I think about a
lot of things that are going on and wonder why? Yeah, I do."

That's a sentiment shared by the marquee pickup from the previous
off-season, tailback Warrick Dunn. About a month after signing
the 180-pound Dunn to a six-year, $28.5 million contract in March
2002, the Falcons curiously used their first-round draft pick on
Duckett, a 254-pound bruiser. Rather than designing the offense
so that both men would often be in the game at the same time,
Reeves instead has alternated the two runners, leaving each
player dissatisfied. A few times this season Duckett has run
impressively in the first half, only to be virtually ignored
after intermission. While Duckett's exasperation is relatively
muted--"It's crossed my mind that I should be used more," he
says, "but I just come to work"--Dunn complained about his role
to Blank last season and remains miffed.

"My reason for signing was that I was going to get a chance to
show what I could do," says Dunn, who played five seasons in
Tampa for the Bucs. "It was pretty much because of Mr. Blank--he
was much more [involved than Reeves] with me and Peerless."

That might explain why Dunn, like Price, questions whether he was
the victim of false advertising. "If you look at the way we're
playing, and the fact that I'm not really playing that much, it
makes you wonder," Dunn says. "Dan has his philosophies, and he's
a guy who has always loved big backs."

One veteran teammate criticized Dunn and Price for their
attitudes, saying, "When they're whining all the time, it doesn't
help our chemistry." Vick stays out of the fray. "I tell those
guys, 'Don't talk to me; communicate with the coaches,'" he says.
"The coaches are the ones who make the decisions, and they should
realize what plays their players like, and use them the right
way. All it takes is communication."

The man may have a reputation for stubbornness and lack of
approachability, but that doesn't mean Reeves, who has four
conference titles on his resume, has suddenly become a lousy
coach. "You have to change with the times," he says, "but when
you also know that what you do works, you've got to have the
faith to stick to your guns."

The coach's faith in Doug Johnson, who played well while filling
in for the injured Vick in a 17-10 road victory over the New York
Giants last fall, was buoyed by the fourth-year quarterback's
solid play in the season opener, a 27-13 road triumph over the
Dallas Cowboys. That gave Reeves 199 NFL wins, and when the
Falcons took a 17-0 lead over the Washington Redskins the next
Sunday, he was on the verge of becoming the sixth coach to reach
the 200-win milestone. But he is still waiting: Atlanta lost to
the Skins 33-31 and dropped its next five games while being
outscored 174-56. Johnson became hesitant in the pocket and made
poor decisions when he did pass. He was benched after throwing 10
interceptions and six touchdowns.

Because Johnson and Kittner lack Vick's elusiveness, the
weaknesses of the line are taking a toll. "Defenses have a
different look now that Mike's not the quarterback," tight end
Alge Crumpler says. "Last year there was a hesitancy--defenses
were working so hard to stop Mike that they weren't very sound.
This year they're teeing off." Because Reeves has been less
inclined than usual to rely on a powerful ground game, even when
Atlanta was still in games, play fakes have been ineffective.
That's one reason Atlanta ranks last in the league in third-down
conversions, at 24.7%. "That's part of the residual effect of not
having Mike back there," Falcons defensive end Patrick Kerney
says. "We're missing on third-and-two, third-and-three. Do you
know how automatic those yards are to someone as quick as Mike?"

Many in the organization believe that the offensive line isn't a
high enough priority for Reeves, that the coach thinks almost
anyone can be plugged into his system. It hasn't helped that the
play of 12th-year left tackle Bob Whitfield, arguably the team's
best lineman for the past decade, has fallen off dramatically. In
the wake of a 39-26 loss to the Minnesota Vikings on Oct. 5,
Whitfield was hypnotized on his weekly radio show in an effort to
improve his focus. (Scoffed one former Falcon, "What did the guy
do, hypnotize him to have better feet?") Whitfield, too, has an
opinion of how the team should cope with Vick's absence. "We need
to get back to basics and pound the ball," he says.

That wouldn't solve Atlanta's problems on defense. Coordinator
Wade Phillips's unit, which ranked eighth in points allowed last
season, has been hit by injuries: Outside linebackers Sam Rogers
and Will Overstreet are out for the season, strong safety Cory
Hall has missed five games with a bad knee, and Pro Bowl
linebacker Keith Brooking could miss up to six games with a back
injury. Atlanta's undersized line and overmatched secondary have
struggled mightily. The team's top free-agent signee on defense,
cornerback Tyrone Williams, was suspended for the Minnesota game
after loudly voicing his displeasure with the team's scheme to
coaches. Williams was then benched during the loss to the Saints
after he was beaten by wideout Donte' Stallworth and then
appeared to give up on the play, a 69-yard touchdown reception.

It seemed whenever the Falcons got into a tight spot last year,
particularly during a 7-0-1 stretch in the middle of the season,
Vick would direct a thrilling escape. Apparently, chief among the
beneficiaries of the quarterback's cunning was Reeves. "We all
know Arthur had Dan on the bubble last year, and Mike's magic
basically saved his job," one Falcon says. "This year Arthur's
going around the locker room telling guys, 'Hang in there;
everything's going to be fine.' We take it as a hint that if we
can hold on until after the season, he'll make a move. There are
a lot of rumors going around the facility, with names like Jimmy
Johnson and Denny Green popping up."

Blank, who signed Reeves to a three-year extension worth a
reported $9 million after the 2001 season, says he has been "torn
up" by his team's recent failures. "Our players and fans have
confidence that I will do what I need to do to ensure that this
club doesn't continue to experience this," Blank says, "and
they're right--I will. The players and coaches are embarrassed
and frustrated by what's gone on. So is the owner." In the last
two weeks Blank has written a letter of apology to ABC for his
team's meek effort on Monday Night Football and taken out a
full-page ad in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution assuring fans
that things will improve.

No wonder Reeves says he's having trouble sleeping at night. "I
don't know whether we're good enough to win games right now," the
coach says, "but I'd like to see us play to our ability."

However Reeves's future plays out, Vick insists that he'll be
back with a vengeance. "Bet your bottom dollar, I'll be even
better," the quarterback says. "This isn't the end of the world;
there's always next year. I've still got the heart and the
confidence, and we still have a great ball club. And I'm still
the best--I just can't show it right now."

Listen to Vick talk, and it's impossible not to feel that same
sense of anticipation that permeated the NFL world before Aug.
16. Yet take a hard look at the team whose luster he'll try to
restore, and the promise of his triumphant return sounds like
folly. "It's very frustrating," Blank says, "because Mike Vick is
not the answer to all of our problems. The man doesn't walk on
water."

But while they wait for his leg to heal, the Falcons are drowning.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY BRAD SCHLOSS WAITING GAME Once expected back in mid-October, Vick is hoping to return on Nov. 23, but that may be optimistic. COLOR PHOTO: BILL FRAKES (VICK) EXTREMES After a preseason of great promise, Vick was injured and Blank (pushing wheelchair) felt compelled to apologize to fans. COLOR PHOTO: DONNA MCWILLIAM/AP (BLANK) [See caption above] COLOR PHOTO: COURTESY OF THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION [See caption above] COLOR PHOTO: AL TIELEMANS UNHAPPY CAMPERS First Vick went down, then Price (81) and Dunn questioned the way they were being used.

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"What's the difference?" One Falcon says of Vick's return. "We're
so bad that I don't know if anyone can save us."

"The players and coaches are embarrassed and frustrated by what's
gone on," says Blank. "So is the owner."

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