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Reeves beats owner to the punch

12/11/2003 - Atlanta Falcons

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- Dan Reeves was fired abruptly by the Atlanta Falcons on Wednesday with three games left in a
disappointing season.

Defensive coordinator Wade Phillips will take over as head coach
for the rest of the season.

Falcons owner Arthur Blank told Reeves -- the sixth-winningest
coach in NFL history -- that he would be fired at the end of the
season, but asked him to coach the final three games. Reeves asked
to be let go immediately.

"When Arthur told me he had made the decision about the end of
the year, I knew it had to come to a fullness today," Reeves said.
"I'm an eternal optimist, so yeah, it was a surprise. But I'm also
realistic enough about coaching to understand this is how it is in
the NFL."

Reeves, 59, is in his 23rd consecutive season as an NFL head
coach, by far the longest tenure in the league, and he had one year
left on his contract. Reeves led the Denver Broncos to three Super
Bowls, losing each time.

As Blank answered questions from reporters in one of the team's
meeting rooms Wednesday, Reeves stood outside in the hall and
exchanged handshakes and hugs with some of the players, including
quarterback Michael Vick.

"Dan is a sweet guy, very sweet," Vick said. "He's a guy that
really cares about his players. I think he went the extra mile for
us, and a lot of guys are going to miss him.''

The Falcons fell from the playoffs a year ago to one of the
worst teams in the league after Vick was hurt in the preseason.

But Reeves was let go after the Falcons (3-10) defeated Carolina
20-14 in overtime in Vick's first start of the season.

"I want to be clear that this decision is not being made based
on our performance this season -- we're looking forward, not back," Blank said. "This is purely about the future of the
organization."

Reeves, who wielded great power over personnel decisions, also
has to take the blame for failing to stockpile adequate depth at
key positions.

In 1999, a year after the Falcons won their first NFC
championship, star running back Jamal Anderson tore up a knee and
was replaced by Ken Oxendine, last seen in the XFL. This season,
backup quarterbacks Doug Johnson and Kurt Kittner played poorly
after Vick went down with a broken right leg and needed 3½ months to recover.

In addition, Reeves has only two winning seasons in the last
nine years.

While saying Phillips would be considered for the job, Blank is
likely to set his sights higher.

Blank said he doesn't expect to hire a new coach until after the
regular season. Phillips, a former head coach in Denver and
Buffalo, isn't thought to be a serious candidate.

Among the possible candidates: former Minnesota coach Dennis Green, Rams defensive coordinator Lovie Smith, and college coaches Bob Stoops of Oklahoma, Nick Saban of LSU, and Kirk Ferentz of Iowa. Green's former agent is Ray Anderson, the Falcons' executive vice president.

"We want to begin the process of searching for a new head coach
in a thorough and honest manner," Blank said. "In order to do so,
and as Dan and I previously discussed, I wanted to let him know of
our decision first."

Blank also plans to hire a new general manager, having gone
through his first two years as owner without anyone in that post.
Tampa Bay's Rich McKay is thought to be the Falcons' top choice.

Blank said the new GM will have control over personnel, making it clear that he wouldn't concentrate all the power in one person.

"We're not going to have that type of head coach," he said.
"I believe in checks and balances."

Reeves began the season with his 199th career victory, a 27-13
win at Dallas. Atlanta then lost seven in a row before Reeves
finally got his 200th win at New York against the Giants on Nov. 9.

Vick's injury exposed the Falcons
as a one-man team. Initially expected to be out six to 10 weeks,
the third-year quarterback's rehabilitation dragged on.

At one point, there appeared to be a rift between player and
coach. Reeves said Vick needed to get back on the field; Vick
responded that he wouldn't play until he was fully recovered.

Vick played the final two series in a Nov. 30 loss to Houston,
then finally made his first start last weekend. He rushed for 141
yards -- the third-highest total by a quarterback in NFL history --
and finally brought a little hope to a dismal season.

But Reeves won't be around for the rest of it. He leaves with a
career record of 201-174-2, including the playoffs.

Linebacker Keith Brooking, one of Reeves' staunchest supporters,
didn't blame the coach for asking to be let go now.

"You've got to respect that decision," Brooking said. "It
would have been tough to come in here and give it everything,
knowing your job was ending at the end of the year."

Only Don Shula, George Halas, Tom Landry, Curly Lambeau and
Chuck Noll won more NFL games.

"Dan's record in the NFL speaks for itself," Blank said. "He
has had a long and successful NFL career as a head coach, assistant
coach and player, and his Hall-of-Fame-caliber accomplishments will
have a place in the NFL record and history books for years to
come."

Blank had hoped to use the final home game on Dec. 28 to honor
Reeves.

Now, it may not happen.

"I'm still hoping in some form or fashion to say thank you for
what he's done in the NFL for almost 40 years," Blank said. "His
career should be honored."

Reeves, a protege of Landry, began his head coaching career with
the Broncos. After swinging a trade for John Elway, Reeves guided
the Broncos to three AFC championships.

Reeves was fired after the 1992 season, a move that was linked
to a feud with Elway. The quarterback accused Reeves of stifling
the offense; the coach countered that Elway had secretly drawn up
plays with former offensive coordinator Mike Shanahan.

Reeves then landed in New York with the Giants. They made the
second round of the playoffs in 1993 and had a winning record the
following season, but Reeves was fired again after the Giants went
5-11 in 1995 and 6-10 in '96.

Then, it was back home with the Falcons. Reeves is a native of
Rome, just north of Atlanta, and grew up in the Georgia town of
Americus.

After going 7-9 his first season, Reeves took Atlanta to the
greatest season in franchise history. The Falcons went 14-2 in
1998, going on to capture their first NFC championship with a
thrilling overtime victory in Minnesota.

Adding to the drama of the season, Reeves underwent heart bypass
surgery late in the season but managed to return to the sideline
for the playoffs. Then, he got to face Elway, Shanahan and the
Broncos in the Super Bowl. Denver won 34-19.

Atlanta then struggled through three straight losing seasons,
with a combined record of 16-32. But a trade on the eve of the 2001
draft brought Vick to the Falcons, a precursor of brighter times.

When Blank bought the Falcons before the 2002 season, he gave
Reeves a new three-year contract.

Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.