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The Atlanta Falcons, still yet to run a play, are already mired in what could be one of the most forgettable seasons in team history.
With the face of the franchise facing a prison sentence and a new coach guiding the team, the Falcons open 2007 on the road against the Minnesota Vikings on Sunday.
Atlanta finished 7-9 in 2006, and things have continued to get worse for the Falcons, who are looking for their first winning season since going 11-5 and reaching the NFC championship game in 2004.
For the first time since 2003, star Michael Vick will not open the season as Atlanta’s quarterback after being suspended indefinitely by the NFL for pleading guilty to his role in a dogfighting operation.
Vick, who last season became the first quarterback in league history to rush for more than 1,000 yards with 1,039, while passing for 2,474 with 20 touchdowns and 13 interceptions, is likely to face jail time and at least two years away from the NFL.
“I need to grow up,” Vick said.
As he attempts to do that, the Falcons will try to move on with the underachieving Joey Harrington at quarterback.
“I don’t need to fill Michael Vick’s shoes,” said Harrington, who has thrown five more interceptions than touchdowns in his previous five years with Detroit and Miami. “I’m not trying to be Michael Vick. I’m trying to be myself. If I can play like myself, people will believe in me.”
While Vick’s situation has cast a dark cloud over the franchise, things began to crumble in January when the club fired coach Jim Mora.
He was replaced with Bobby Petrino, who was hired from Louisville to help turn Vick into a more complete quarterback. With Vick’s impending problems unknown at the time, Atlanta also traded capable backup Matt Schaub to Houston a month before the draft. The team then lost third-stringer D.J. Shockley to a season-ending knee injury during a preseason game.
That leaves Harrington, who last season threw for 2,236 yards with 12 touchdowns and 15 interceptions while posting a meager 68.2 passer rating for Miami. He started 11 games after Daunte Culpepper was injured.
“We really haven’t changed anything, but we are just utilizing different parts of the offense,” said Petrino, who will try to boost the Falcons’ league-worst 148.2 passing yards per game from last year. “We are really just trying to improve on what Joey does best.”
Harrington has struggled against the Vikings, going 1-6 with eight touchdowns and 14 interceptions. He went 26-for-42 for 254 yards with a touchdown and an interception in Miami’s 24-20 win over Minnesota on Nov. 19.
Chris Redman, who hasn’t played in the NFL since 2003, will back up Harrington.
Tight end Alge Crumpler remains the team’s top receiving threat after posting a team-leading 56 receptions and eight TDs in 2006. Veteran receiver Joe Horn was signed to add depth to a group that includes former first-round picks Michael Jenkins and Roddy White, who combined for 69 catches and seven touchdowns - all from Jenkins - last season.
Linebacker Keith Brooking finished third in the NFC with 138 tackles for Atlanta, which wouldn’t mind a repeat of the defensive performance it had in a 30-10 victory over Minnesota on Oct. 2, 2005 in the most recent meeting. The Falcons recorded nine sacks and three turnovers in that contest.
Minnesota, known for its off-field problems over the past seasons, isn’t dealing with any going into this season. The team’s biggest uncertainty is how second-year quarterback Tarvaris Jackson will handle the starter’s role.
Jackson was 47-for-81 for 475 yards with two touchdowns and four interceptions in the final four games - two as a starter - for the Vikings, who struggled to find consistent quarterback play during a 6-10 season.
Minnesota set club records for fewest touchdown passes (13) and first downs (272).
“We have to throw the football to win, or everybody’s going to stack up in the box,” said Jackson, who will be backed up by veteran Kelly Holcomb and Brooks Bollinger. “We proved last year we can run the football, so me and our receivers, we’re going to have to make some plays here and there.”
While recently signed veteran Robert Ferguson and second-round pick Sidney Rice highlight a less-than-stellar receiving corps, the passing game may benefit from what could be a formidable ground attack. Backs Chester Taylor and first-round pick Adrian Peterson will run behind a solid offensive line anchored by center Matt Birk and left guard Steve Hutchinson.
Taylor rushed for a career-best 1,216 yards on 303 carries in 2006. Peterson, a former Heisman Trophy candidate, ran for 4,306 yards and 41 touchdowns in 31 games at Oklahoma.
“I really don’t think much about last year,” Birk said. “Obviously we need to play better. I’m just kind of focused on this year. Last year is kind of in the bag. It’s buried.”
Atlanta has won two of the last three meetings with Minnesota since losing five in a row. The Falcons took the last Metrodome matchup 30-24 on Dec. 1, 2002.