GREENVILLE, S.C. -- Five observations on the Atlanta Falcons, based on training camp practices of Aug. 1:
1. Even though owner Arthur Blank likes to talk about the West Coast Offense, and the benefits it will mean for quarterback Michael Vick, you don't want to mention the ol' WCO too much to Falcons coaches. Nah, they don't bristle, at least not too much. But the staff, to a man, is quick to point out that the Atlanta offense will not be a pure version of the Bill Walsh-designed model, but rather a homogenization, a spinoff that plays to the nonpareil skills of the NFL's most electrifying performer. "You want to fit the offense to Michael, not the other way around, right?" said first-year head coach Jim Mora. Translation: Don't expect to see Vick, as some have suggested, relegated to being a pocket passer. The statistics, and empirical evidence as well, demonstrate that Vick is a more accurate passer on the move. Go back and take a look at the fourth quarter of the Falcons' tie game at Pittsburgh in 2002, when Vick converts three plays of third-and-20 or longer, all of them on passes where he was throwing on the move. To tell Vick he has to sit in the pocket forever and read would be like cutting off one of his legs. Plus the guy owns just a 52.2 percent career completion mark. The truest West Coast design mandates a completion rate of about 65 percent and Vick might never post that in any season. Vick is never going to have the unerring accuracy of Joe Montana or Steve Young. Then again, neither of those guys ran under 4.3 in the 40. So look for the Falcons to provide Vick some leeway and to not attempt to rein him in too much. There will be some designed rollouts, waggle action, probably a dash series. Atlanta needs Vick to make plays with his arm and his legs and won't subjugate his unique skills too much.
The one thing the staff has tried to reinforce in Vick, who has redefined the art of making chicken salad out of chicken droppings, is to throw the ball away at times and to check down to running backs rather than try to force something vertical. In one weekend practice, Mora said, Vick "threw a couple passes over into the bushes, and I'm not sure they've found the footballs yet." The collective reaction of the staff: To tell Vick, occasionally in loud terms, that he made a good decision. The Falcons want Vick to be a smarter player in 2004, to pay more attention to details and to mechanics, and to understand that not every play has to be a home run. If he does those things, and stays healthy, no one will care what moniker they hang on the offense.
2. This looks to be a team, particularly on the defensive side, that is thinner than Olive Oyl and might not be able to compensate very well for injuries. The annual "retirement" of tackle Ellis Johnson, who quietly led all NFL interior defenders in sacks (eight) in 2003, has left a group of anonymous soldiers (Demetrin Veal, Antwan Lake, fifth-round pick Chad Lavalais) behind starters Ed Jasper and Rod Coleman. It would be a huge boost to get Johnson back but give the Falcons' brass credit for standing its ground on his contract demands, and fining him (probably $5,000 daily) for his absence. As perilous as the situation is at tackle, it isn't much better, and some have suggested it's actually worse, at end. Starters Patrick Kerney and Brady Smith, both relentless and high-energy guys, will be far better served now that the Falcons have switched back to a 4-3 front. They were miscast in the 3-4 alignment former coordinator Wade Phillips deployed the last two seasons. Even in the 4-3, Kerney and Smith could erode physically at some point unless someone steps up and claims the No. 3 spot, and establishes himself enough to give the starting ends a breather. As is the case at tackle, the backup ends are more suspect than prospect at this point.
3. As thin as the Atlanta defensive line looks to be, the biggest worry area might be at safety, where not even the starters are solid. It's probably not fair to evaluate players on two practices, one of which wasn't even in pads, and safety is a difficult position to assess in camp anyway. But free safety Cory Hall and strong safety Bryan Scott simply don't make any plays. The Falcons paid a lot of money last spring to lure Hall away from Cincinnati and, typical of the decisions made by some of the past Atlanta regimes, it was a dubious investment. Scott, the team's second-round pick in 2003, looks like a classic 'tweener. He is neither a corner or a safety, has some physical skills, but just doesn't seem to fit comfortably anywhere. Again, there is a glaring lack of depth and the position is so feebly manned that Atlanta had to claim Travaris Robinson, a player it cut last year, when Tampa Bay released him last week. Don't be surprised, if the safety play remains status quo over the next few weeks, to see the Falcons sign free agent Zack Bronson. The seven-year veteran, cut by the 49ers this spring, played for Mora in San Francisco. The big caveat with Bronson is his lengthy injury history and that remains a viable concern. But since he already knows pretty well the scheme installed by Mora and coordinator Ed Donatell, he could get up to speed quickly from a mental standpoint, provided he is up to speed physically.
On the plus side in the secondary is that the Falcons can't possibly be as bad as they were in 2003, when Tyrone Williams and Ray Buchanan opened the season as the starters. Although he is coming off a knee injury that limited him to only five games and two starts with the 49ers in 2003, Jason Webster is a solid player. First-round pick DeAngelo Hall, who will step right into the starting spot at left cornerback, could be a special player. Mora has a terrific term, "athletic arrogance," to describe the young corner's eye-opening skills. Kevin Mathis, free agent pickup Aaron Beasley and return ace Allen Rossum are all "nickel" candidates, although they've all seen better days. One intriguing young corner is former Dallas draft pick Derek Ross, who started nine games for the Cowboys as a rookie in 2002. Ross was claimed on waivers late in the '03 season and, while he may never reach his full potential, he is a player worth taking a shot on, because there definitely is something there with which to work. One more defensive note, squeezed in here, since we don't want to expand to six observations: Look for Keith Brooking to get more pass rush opportunities, now that he has returned to the weak side after three seasons at "Mike" linebacker, than he's had the past several years. There will be occasions when Brooking looks lost playing in space but, even after three years in the middle when he averaged well over 100 tackles, the weak side is his best position.
4. Assuming that Vick remains healthy, the Atlanta offense could be very productive, because there are some playmakers here. Obviously, it all starts with the trigger man and, under the tutelage of coordinator Greg Knapp, who figures to be a head coach in the NFL some day, Vick won't be as scattershot and his mechanics will be better. The tailback tandem of T.J. Duckett, who seems markedly more mature this season, and Warrick Dunn is a good one. Knapp and his staffers will be more aware of Dunn's workload, to keep him from wearing down in November and December. Said Mora: "I've seen him enough to know that, a fresh Warrick Dunn in December is an explosive Dunn in December." What you won't see is Dunn and Duckett in tandem, in part because it's really not a workable combination, and because the coaches feel second-year fullback Justin Griffith will find the new offense conducive to his progress.
Tight end Alge Crumpler is flat-out a stud, although most fans nationally don't know who he is even though he was named to the Pro Bowl squad last year, and is another player who will find the offense to his liking. Knapp will be creative with Crumpler, using him in motion, flexing him out. The only thing Crumpler needs to do is avoid the untimely drops that have cropped up at times. Wide receiver Peerless Price isn't a superior player, but he's plenty good enough, and he can get up the boundary and run past corners at times. The club needs to either find or develop a blocking tight end to free up Crumpler for other things. The other wideouts are good enough with which to win. The bet here is that the gangly Brian Finneran, another guy who occasionally suffers from the "dropsies," will win the No. 2 job. But the hope is that first-rounder Michael Jenkins, currently nursing a toe problem, develops into a deep threat. Free agent Dez White always looks good until the pads go on and is a bit of a body-catcher. But the former Bears part-time starter should stick and, at least at the start of the year, be the No. 3 wideout.
The biggest area of improvement figures to be on the line, where Atlanta was nothing shy of abysmal in '03. Mora hired the legendary Alex Gibbs and it looks like the line guru will be worth every penny of the $1 million average he will be paid on his three-year deal. Gibbs takes ordinary players and transforms them into a viable unit. He'll do the same here. And the Falcons, especially the backs, will benefit from the notorious cut-block scheme that opposition linemen absolutely detest. How toxic is Gibbs' blocking scheme? In a live, full-contact goal line drill on Sunday morning, Mora pulled his starting defensive front seven off the field, so that none would have to face the cut-blocks.
5. There is no denying that championships are won on the field. But if the Falcons ever claim a Super Bowl title, it will probably be traced back to the organization that owner Arthur Blank has assembled. Nothing against past ownership, or any of the various football regimes that ran the team for the past 38 seasons, but the Falcons now seem to do everything in a more professional manner. Getting Rich McKay as president and general manager was a coup. There are few men in the league as respected as he. Mora looks like a guy who has been plotting for years about how he would run a team if he ever landed a head coaching gig, and has surrounded himself with a top-shelf staff. The personnel department, with Tim Ruskell calling the shots, is very good. While Blank is criticized at times for what is perceived as a hands-on approach, he certainly doesn't meddle in the football decisions, and provides his charges with just about everything they need. The Falcons might not be a playoff team in 2004, largely because the defense will have to turn passion into plays, but the franchise is finally pointed in the right direction.
Senior writer Len Pasquarelli covers the NFL for ESPN.com.