Even with Vick, Falcons not a playoff team
The Atlanta Falcons. who play Cincinnati in a preseason game on Monday night, appear ready to put the Michael Vick fiasco behind them, Len Pasquarelli writes.
There seems to be no such doubt for Falcons players, however, about how they will respond now that they officially know that their most high-profile teammate and biggest playmaker won't be rejoining them any time soon and has likely played his last game for the franchise.
"You don't want it to sound [coldhearted] or anything," said cornerback DeAngelo Hall, one of the team's most prominent veterans and, like Vick, a former first-round draft choice from Virginia Tech. "But with him, without him, whatever, you've got to get ready to play football. We can't feel sorry for ourselves. There's no time for that. Trust me, the teams we play aren't going to feel sorry for us. And we don't want them to. It's time to play ball. This is our livelihood."
Even since the earliest days of the Vick fiasco, that has been a common theme among Atlanta's players. And as support for Vick has now morphed more into internal solidarity, and a sense of collective purpose to circle the wagons and soldier on, it is not only a facade.
No matter how many games the Falcons win in 2007 -- or, probably more accurately, how few -- first-year head coach Bobby Petrino has already passed the first critical test in his debut season in the league. He has maintained the integrity of focus in the locker room and, in so doing, earned the respect of his players.
Certainly, the players are neither immune from nor oblivious to the daily barrage of Vick news blaring from every sector of the media here. They go to bed confronted by it on the 11 o'clock news and wake up to the debate the next morning on the city's two sports talk radio outlets. It is, even in the star quarterback's absence -- and maybe even more so because of the unseemly nature of the departure of a player who was polarizing even at his best -- all-Vick, all the time here.
But if the Falcons flop in 2007, as some pundits believe they will, the players aren't apt to use the loss of Vick as a crutch.
It would be natural for those outside the city, or who don't interact with the Falcons regularly, to suggest that the sound bites emanating from the organization amount to little more than lip service. That would be wrong. This team has worked hard, toed the line, and prepared efficiently for the 2007 campaign. And no one has strolled onto the field at the team's Flowery Branch, Ga., complex with his head on a swivel, looking for Vick to charge over the hill like a one-man cavalry brigade arriving to salvage a bad situation.
"On the field," said middle linebacker Keith Brooking, "we do our work. You're not out there worrying about who is or isn't there. You're just playing."
But on the field is where the Falcons seem destined to come up short.
Even with Vick in the lineup, the Falcons, with a new coach and new coordinator and fresh philosophies on both sides of the ball, probably were not a playoff team. Vick, as always, would have provided an X-dimension, a guy capable of enough individual feats to win some games on his own. But this is not a team steeped in talent.
In fact, speaking with league personnel people in the offseason, men who objectively viewed the Atlanta roster, the overriding theme was one of surprise at how sparse the talent base is here. That's in part why the 2007 draft, which appears to have produced several starters, was seen as so crucial to the long-term success of the team. Even with the infusion of some promising young players, though, the Falcons still have a lot of questions.
Quarterback Joey Harrington, playing for his third different franchise in three years, has not been a winner in his previous two stops. At tailback, starter Warrick Dunn is coming off back surgery, and big-play threat Jerious Norwood has been dinged lately. The best wide receiver (Laurent Robinson) and best offensive lineman (Justin Blalock) might be rookies. And the Petrino-designed offense can be a difficult one to quickly assimilate.
Veteran wide receiver Joe Horn, who has already ruffled a few feathers with his outspoken nature, has been steadfast in suggesting that the offensive design is so sophisticated and potentially explosive that it will compensate for the deficiencies. But that appears to be a Pollyannaish view. Talent wins in the NFL and, no matter the brilliance of Petrino's playbook or his play-calling, it won't make up for the fact Atlanta doesn't possess enough top players.
In the seven series in which the Falcons' first-team offense was on the field during the first two preseason games, Atlanta scored once. One other drive ended at the opponent's 1-yard line. Four of the seven drives concluded in three-and-out series or turnovers.
"We've got to finish [drives]," assessed Harrington, who figures to get his most extensive playing time in Monday night's game here against the Cincinnati Bengals. "I think we're demonstrating to people, and to ourselves, that we can move the ball. And there is still a lot of this offense we haven't [revealed] yet. But we have to finish."
Defensively, the progress of the Falcons has been stymied to an extent by the absence of starting tackles Rod Coleman (quadriceps) and Grady Jackson (conditioning). Both are expected to be ready for the start of the season, as is emerging weakside linebacker Demorrio Williams (pectoral).
Veteran defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer is a proven guy and an excellent hire by Petrino. But he must get all his pieces back and find even a few more components in key areas for this to be a representative unit.
It's a lot to ask in a short period and there is, Petrino and his staff acknowledge, plenty of work still to be accomplished. But the first-year coach, who demands precision and strong practice habits, has clearly inculcated those qualities to his team. And Petrino has been very direct with the team in addressing the Vick issue. The "grieving period" that four-time Pro Bowl tight end Alge Crumpler alluded on the opening day of training camp appears to have run its course.
"You would hope the worst is over," Crumpler said last week. But on the field, the worst may be only beginning.
Len Pasquarelli is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
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