Reeves beats owner to the punch

Updated: December 11, 2003, 5:41 PM ET news services

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.

All-time NFL coaching wins
Name Teams Wins
Don Shula Colts, Dolphins 347
George Halas Bears 324
Tom Landry Cowboys 270
Curly Lambeau Packers, Cardinals, Redskins 229
Chuck Noll Steelers 209
Dan Reeves Broncos, Giants, Falcons 201

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.