Without Vick, strength of Petrino's system will be tested

Bobby Petrino's offense could thrive without Michael Vick, but only if Atlanta's lower-profile offensive players rise to the occasion, writes Len Pasquarelli.

Originally Published: July 27, 2007
By Len Pasquarelli | ESPN.com

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- Atlanta Falcons veterans filed into the interview room Thursday afternoon like a parade of defense witnesses, aiming to deliver their collectively well-practiced testimony to a jury of media skeptics.

The message the group offered, that the Falcons have not folded their tents just because their dynamic ringmaster is off defending himself against a federal indictment on dogfighting charges, seemed to possess twofold intent. It was as much meant to convince the players themselves, it appeared, as it was to persuade their audience, that hope for a successful 2007 season has not been abandoned altogether.

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Whether the players and coaches actually have bought into their own rosy rhetoric remains to be seen. But at least one common theme, which resonated through sessions that included nearly all of Atlanta's acknowledged team leaders, rang true: Even had quarterback Michael Vick been in the huddle for the team's first training camp practice, instead of squirming in a Richmond, Va., courtroom, the Atlanta offense still would need to uncover more playmakers than just No. 7 alone.

"No one guy can win the game [himself]," said four-time Pro Bowl tight end Alge Crumpler.

True enough. For all Vick's individual heroics, Atlanta was just 15-17 over the past two seasons, a stretch in which he started all but one contest. And in the four seasons in which Vick started double-digit games, the Atlanta offense statistically rated among the top 10 in the league only once.

For three straight seasons, Atlanta has led the NFL in rushing, but has averaged a passing game rating of 30th in that period. Part of the reason, of course, was Vick's ongoing lack of marksmanship. It is difficult to fathom Vick, with an anemic career completion rate of 53.8 percent, fully flourishing in a system for which first-year coach Bobby Petrino expects that the standard will be 65 percent. And part, several Falcons players conceded on Thursday, was the failure of other skill-position players to step up and deliver.

"It's kind of like being on a team with Kobe [Bryant] or [Allen] Iverson," said fourth-year wide receiver Michael Jenkins. "Subconsciously or not, you can get into a habit of standing around and waiting for your big guy to make the play. You know, to bail you out, instead of making the play yourself. But whether Michael was here or not, we needed to have more guys making plays this year. The fact he's not here, it doesn't change things in that regard."

For years, the presence of Vick in the Atlanta lineup not only provided the Falcons a kind of X-dimension on offense, but also overshadowed all else. Now his absence, probably for the entire season and quite possibly for good, pervades the team. There is an X, all right, in the spot where Vick used to be.

But with or without Vick in the lineup, there was still a desperate need for diversity, and that distribution of the playmaking workload is just as imperative now, likely more so, with Joey Harrington set as the fill-in starter.

Make no mistake, the loss of Vick could be catastrophic, and will be daunting from which to recover. The offense designed by Petrino, a well-rounded and explosive one at the college level, precipitated a ripple of excitement in the Falcons during the spring. But not even the coaching equivalent of Einstein, or the greatest offensive paradigm ever conjured, could make up for the loss of Vick.

There is no playbook that magical or mystical. And no slight toward Petrino, who is said to be remarkably adroit at setting plays and creating advantageous matchups, there is no playcaller that singularly masterful.

One of the reasons Petrino accepted the Atlanta job was the specter of how a player of Vick's ilk might expand the coach's brainchild. And how the offense would enhance the quarterback's skill set, too. That expansion will have to come from other sources now.

"If there are plays there for us to make, we have to make them," said second-year tailback Jerious Norwood, who had touchdown bursts of 69 and 78 yards in 2006. "We can't look to someone else to make them for us. It's on all of us now."

Harrington, who is working for a third different franchise in three seasons, certainly doesn't possess the raw athleticism or improvisational bent of the man he is replacing. The longest run of Harrington's five-year career is 26 yards. That ranks as his only rush for more than 20 yards. Vick authored 11 rushes of 20 yards or more in 2006 alone and has 44 such runs in six seasons.

"But my job is to win games, not try to fill somebody else's shoes," said Harrington, whose presence in the lineup likely will require some alterations, although Petrino and his staff already had installed some different wrinkles in the pass protection scheme for when someone other than Vick was playing. "That's the best way I can help."

For the often-maligned Atlanta wide receiver corps, the best way to help is to bail out their quarterback once in awhile. And that would have been true even if Vick was throwing the ball to them.

The Falcons invested first-round picks in Jenkins (2004) and Roddy White (2005), and at least one of them has to raise his game. At 35, and coming off an injury-marred year in New Orleans, where he posted his worst numbers since 1999, veteran free agent Joe Horn will have to demonstrate that he's more than just a good talker at this late juncture of his career. If those veterans can't answer the call, one of the younger wideouts -- Fred Gibson, Adam Jennings or rookie Laurent Robinson -- will have to make plays.

"I believe that we still have a chance to do something special … [because] I believe in the system," Horn said.

But whether the system is indeed strong enough to survive the devastating loss of Vick and whether Atlanta has enough offensive playmakers onboard to make the system work are the questions this team must answer.

Len Pasquarelli is a senior writer with ESPN.com.

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