Petrino's offense has Falcons optimistic

Bobby Petrino unveiled his high-flying offense at the Falcons' mandatory minicamp to rave reviews, Len Pasquarelli writes.

Originally Published: May 14, 2007
By Len Pasquarelli | ESPN.com

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- In his 11 previous NFL seasons, Joe Horn has worked with four head coaches, six offensive coordinators and five wide receivers aides.

From MartyBall in Kansas City to (Mike) McCarthyism in New Orleans, that's a lot of offensive nomenclature to assimilate, thousands of plays to have recalled, an encyclopedia's worth of X's-and-O's knowledge to have committed to memory, a veritable smorgasbord of styles and schemes in which to have performed.

So when Horn terms an offense "the most exciting" that he has seen on a practice field, as he did here Friday following the initial mandatory minicamp session in which the Falcons operated under rookie head coach and noted offensive tinkerer Bobby Petrino, the words take on a little gravitas.

Signed by the Falcons as a free agent after the New Orleans Saints unceremoniously released him early in the spring, Horn has seen just about everything under the NFL sun. But the Petrino-designed offense, or BobbyBall as a few players have privately dubbed it, might represent the dawning of a new day. This is significant for an Atlanta team that has lacked the kind of balance that Petrino-coached offenses have demonstrated at the college level.

Michael Vick (7)
Todd Kirkland/Icon SMIMichael Vick completed just 52.6 percent of his passes last season.
"Really, if you scrape away all of the motion and the formation changes and things like that, it's more basic than people might think," said the always talkative Horn, who was brought here to provide leadership on and off the field for a young wide receivers corps. "But the beauty is that you can do the same things so many different ways. There are ways to pound away at [defenses] with the run, or to go over the top of them with the pass, and there's just a lot of big-play potential, because you're confusing the defense and creating matchups for your playmakers. It seems like, in this offense, you're always attacking or setting up some way to attack people. I'll tell you this: It's a pretty complete package."

Despite possessing one of the league's most elite athletes in quarterback Michael Vick, complete is something the Falcons' offense has not been accused of being lately. In fact, partly because of Vick's lack of development as a passer, balance has been bereft in recent seasons. Under former head coach Jim Mora and coordinator Greg Knapp, the Falcons led the NFL in rushing in each of the past three seasons, but never finished higher than No. 27 in passing offense.

Most important, the one-dimensional Falcons enjoyed just one winning season in that three-year stretch, and after advancing to the NFC Championship Game in 2004, were just 15-17 over the past two seasons, prompting Mora's dismissal.

Last season represented the ultimate in offensive polarization, as Atlanta ranked first in rushing again, but was statistically last in passing offense. That certainly shouldn't be the case in 2007.

It is difficult to pin a catchy handle on Petrino's offensive brainchild, a conglomeration of ideas and concepts gleaned from his own doodling and borrowed from other systems he admired, but the hallmarks certainly appear to be diversity, multiplicity, precision and flexibility. Petrino insists that, unlike a lot of pass-oriented offenses, his demands a power-based running attack. But his passing game also has displayed solid distributive properties and quick-strike abilities up the field as well.

There is considerable shifting, motion and formation diversity. Plays that are run from a three-wide receiver set one week might be designed for a two-tight end formation the next. But the key, Petrino has reiterated time and again since taking the Falcons job, is to get the ball to the right people and at the right times.

"One constant, I think, everywhere we've been, is that we've always gotten the football to our playmakers," Petrino said. "It doesn't matter what you call it, or how you do it, as long as you go out and do it. Get people into the matchups where they've got an advantage over [the defender] and then take advantage of that edge."

There is scant empirical evidence of how the Petrino offense might function at the NFL level. In his only season as an offensive coordinator in the league, the Jacksonville Jaguars ranked 20th in 2001, but it would be unfair to make assumptions based on that short body of work. Still, the Falcons' passing game, by definition, can only improve. How significant an advance it makes will, of course, be tied to Vick's progress as a passer.

Blessed with an incredibly strong arm, but defined in the past by poor marksmanship, Vick has completed only 53.7 percent of his career attempts. In his most accurate season, Vick completed only 56.4 percent of his passes, and he has never thrown more than 20 touchdown passes in a season. Petrino has set the bar high, noting that a 65-percent completion rate is the standard for his quarterbacks, and he sounds convincing when he argues Vick is capable of such a mark despite what he has done in the past.

That remains to be seen, but it should be noted that Petrino's quarterbacks over the past eight seasons have been remarkably consistent in their accuracy. In stints as the quarterbacks coach (1999-2000) and offensive coordinator (2001) at Jacksonville, the offensive coordinator at Auburn (2002) and then head coach at Louisville (2003-2006), his quarterbacks completed an aggregate 63.0 percent of their attempts.

Only twice, in 1999 and 2002, did Petrino-tutored quarterbacks register a completion mark of under 60 percent. In his four seasons at Louisville, the rate was 65.1 percent.

"A lot of it is just timing, throwing the ball to the right spot, because, believe me, people are going to be open," said Falcons' backup quarterback Chris Redman, who played under Petrino at Louisville. "And you work so much on that stuff in practice, where [Petrino] can be pretty demanding, that it becomes second nature."

Vick's first nature, of course, is to pull the ball down and run with it when things in the pocket break down. Petrino has told Vick that busting out of the pocket on one of his trademark scrambles should be a last resort, instead of his second option.

Only time will tell just how well that sits with Vick, who in the past has indicated he understands the importance of the passing game, but typically reverts to what he knows best when under pressure. What clearly has excited Vick in his otherwise tumultuous offseason is the ability to change plays at the line of scrimmage, a limited freedom under the former coaching staff.

To a man, team officials, coaches and teammates agree that Vick has been markedly more diligent in his work ethic this offseason. He has been a more pronounced presence at the team's complex and Petrino has lauded his quarterback's acuity in picking up what is the most ambitious offensive package ever presented to him.

Said Vick: "It gives us a lot of options when we come to the line of scrimmage. It gives us the ability to get out of a bad play [at the line of scrimmage], and get into a good play. It is something I have wanted to do for a long time, and I'm excited I finally have the opportunity to do it."

Still, while Vick is the centerpiece for the offensive overhaul, he is hardly the only key component for Petrino and his staff.

The offensive line, stocked with a lot of the 280- and 290-pound blockers preferred by former assistant Alex Gibbs for his zone-blocking scheme, has to be reshaped, literally. Petrino wants bigger linemen to enable him to run the ball at defenses with power. Neither of the top two tailbacks, Warrick Dunn or Jerious Norwood, is the kind of wrecking ball Petrino likes at the position. Dunn will be asked to catch the ball more, however, in this offense, a onetime strength of Dunn that was subjugated recently. And Norwood, who has tremendous long-strike speed, has gained some weight and is five pounds stouter than a year ago.

No matter how accurate Vick is, he's got to have receivers who consistently catch the ball, and that remains a question. Indeed, the most reliable pass-catcher on the team, and the player in whom Vick has the most confidence, remains four-time Pro Bowl tight end Alge Crumpler. The Petrino offense does accentuate the tight end position and Crumpler, if possible, might be even better in the new system. But the offense needs plays from the outside receivers, too, and therein lies the uncertainty.

Neither of the team's former first-round wide receivers, Michael Jenkins (2004) or Roddy White (2005), has caught more than 40 passes in a season. White in particular seemed to struggle in the Falcons' weekend minicamp. Brian Finneran, the angular possession receiver, missed all of 2006 with a torn anterior cruciate ligament suffered in camp, and still isn't full-speed. And Horn is 35 years old and coming off an injury-plagued campaign in which he had his poorest numbers since 1999. Even when Horn was healthy late last season, Saints coach Sean Payton used him sparingly, preferring to play youngsters instead. The Falcons' brass is hopeful that Horn still plays as good a game as he talks.

Then again, the veteran wideout isn't the only one offering positive words about the team's new offense, the difference they expect Petrino to make, and the quantum leap they feel the unit will make in 2007. If nothing else, Petrino has done a good job selling optimism to this point.

"It's the kind of offense that sets a hectic tempo," Jenkins said. "It's wide-open all the way, a lot different from what we've had the last few years, and it's going to be explosive."

Len Pasquarelli is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

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