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'Confused' Falcons know greater challenges are ahead

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- The Atlanta Falcons are hurt and
confused. They're struggling to comprehend how the guy they knew as
a star on the field and a friend in the locker room could have
gotten himself into this much trouble.

At least the uncertainty is gone. The players who once lined up
with Michael Vick know he's gone -- and probably never coming back.

"He's not on the team," running back Warrick Dunn said
Tuesday. "That pretty much makes him an ex-teammate."

The Falcons have no choice but to move on, though Vick's
decision Monday to plead guilty to federal dogfighting charges will
have long-range ramifications.

Instead of having one of the NFL's most dynamic players, Atlanta
must turn over the quarterback position to former No. 3 overall
pick Joey Harrington, a flop in both Detroit and Miami.

Down the road, there will be major salary cap issues to address
as the Falcons deal with the leftovers of Vick's $130 million
contract.

Veterans such as Dunn, offensive tackle Wayne Gandy and
linebacker Keith Brooking, all in their 30s and eager to play with
a contender, suddenly find themselves on a team that everyone is
picking to be one of the worst in the league.


"This is unprecedented," Brooking said. "It's never happened
before. For us to sit here and try to reconcile that or put it all
in perspective, it's very confusing."

The Falcons practiced for just under two hours Tuesday, trying
to carry on as if it was business as usual.

Coach Bobby Petrino addressed the situation with his team,
gauging their feelings and trying to get a handle on how they
wanted to express it.

Some players wanted to talk with the media. Some didn't.

"They've got me under a gag order," said outspoken cornerback
DeAngelo Hall, a teammate of Vick's at both Virginia Tech and with
the Falcons.

Petrino said any gag orders were self-imposed.

"I told them there would be a number of guys today that spoke
with the media," the first-year coach said. "Some guys didn't
feel like they wanted to. That's fine. I have no problem with
that."

Tight end Alge Crumpler seemed most passionate about Vick's
predicament. They came into the league the same year and Crumpler
quickly emerged as Vick's favorite receiver. Now, it looks as
though they'll never hook up on other passing play again.

Vick is likely to be sentenced to at least a year in prison --
and probably longer -- after he enters his guilty plea Monday morning. He
also faces certain punishment from NFL commissioner Roger Goodell
under a tougher personal conduct policy that went into effect this
year. Vick is likely to miss at least two seasons before he can
even think about a comeback.

"Michael is a human being," Crumpler said. "People have been
trying to dehumanize him. But he's hurting. I know that. Believe
me, he's hurting."

Vick is only 27 and likely to miss some of his best years, but
his young age leaves open the possibility that he'll be able to
resume his career, even if it's with another team.

His one-time teammates hope he'll learn from his egregious
mistakes and come back a stronger, better person.

"Michael is loyal to a fault," Crumpler said. "I think that
really hurt him in this situation."

The Falcons won't be making an immediate decision on Vick's
future, having been asked by the NFL to hold off until the league
gets a report from its own investigator.

That hasn't stopped some players from trying to reach out to
Vick, offering support as he faces the possibility of a lengthy
prison term. Gandy and Crumpler have both been sending frequent
text messages, trying to let the quarterback know that he's not
alone.

"It's kind of hard," Gandy conceded. "You don't really know
what to say."

"I try to send him a positive note every day," Crumpler added.
"I want to make sure he keeps his head up."

Still, there's no getting away from the lurid allegations in the
indictment: dogs being electrocuted and drowned when they didn't
show enough fighting spirit, some of them reportedly killed by Vick
himself.

"It's disturbing, obviously," Dunn said. "That someone of his
caliber would be associated with that is the troubling part."