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Things couldn’t possibly get any worse for the Atlanta Falcons.
After finding out their former star quarterback was sentenced to nearly two years in prison, the Falcons were soundly beaten on national television and then had their first-year coach abruptly resign to return to a college team.
In January, Bobby Petrino left as coach at Louisville to take over the Falcons (3-10), agreeing to a five-year, $24 million contract handed out by a team that felt he could help quarterback Michael Vick reach his full potential.
Petrino’s stint in Atlanta, though, ended when he stunningly resigned Tuesday to take over as coach at Arkansas, a day after watching his team lose 34-14 at home to New Orleans. That defeat came just hours after Vick was sentenced to 23 months in prison for his role in an illegal dogfighting operation.
“It’s been a very difficult year,” Falcons owner Arthur Blank said. “It’s maybe the most difficult year in the history of the NFL for any team.”
Petrino’s bizarre exit from the Falcons did not sit well with the players.
“When we saw him doing his press conference at Arkansas, that’s what I think brought up the anger to have him talk about family, about team and about commitment, and then to come in here and have a form letter at your locker,” Falcons quarterback Joey Harrington said. “That’s not how a man acts. That’s how a coward acts.”
The Falcons promoted assistant Emmitt Thomas to interim coach for the final three regular season games. He becomes the team’s first black head coach.
“I respect Emmitt the utmost,” Falcons center Todd McClure said. “He’s been a player. He has a ton of experience. I know he’s going to lead us in the right direction. I think everybody in this locker room is looking forward to playing for him.”
Thomas, a 64-year-old assistant with the Falcons since 2002, has no previous head coaching experience, but has 28 years in coaching. Thomas has worked under head coaches Dan Reeves, Jim Mora and Petrino in Atlanta.
“I’m honored and excited and nervous and happy to have the opportunity,” Thomas said. “It’s an opportunity for myself and the other coaches and coordinators to try to rally these guys and get them going to play competitive football the rest of the season.”
He’ll try to help the Falcons end a four-game losing streak, during which they have been outscored by an average of 18.5 points. The slide started with a 31-7 loss to Tampa Bay (8-5) on Nov. 18.
Bucs quarterback Jeff Garcia threw two touchdown passes in that contest, but hurt his back in the following game, a 19-13 win over Washington. Tampa Bay could get a big lift when he returns to the lineup Sunday after missing two games, looking to guide his team to a victory that would secure Tampa’s second division title in three years.
“A lot of guys can play hurt. Jeff clearly could have played,” Buccaneers coach Jon Gruden said. “It was our decision as an organization to hold him for two games.”
Garcia has completed 64.5 percent of his passes for 2,135 yards, 11 touchdowns and three interceptions.
If Garcia struggles due to the injury, Gruden feels comfortable using Luke McCown, who was outstanding Dec. 2 in his first game in place of Garcia. He completed his first 15 passes and finished 29-for-37 with two TDs and one INT in a 27-23 win at New Orleans.
McCown did struggled at times last week, though, going 25-for-38 for 266 yards in a 28-14 loss at Houston.
“Clearly there were seven or eight plays in the game that weren’t as good as the others, but I’m really pleased with what he’s done,” Gruden said. “There’s still plenty of room to grow, but I think what we all see is a big, athletic guy that has promise and potential to be outstanding.”
Garcia, however, will get first opportunity to take advantage of Atlanta’s struggling defense, which is allowing an average of 388.0 yards from scrimmage during the losing streak.
The Falcons’ quarterback situation has been in flux ever since Vick was arrested in the offseason. The team has used Harrington, Byron Leftwich and now Chris Redman to lead an offense that ranks 30th with 14.2 points per game.
They are expected to go with Redman again after he was 23-for-40 for a career-high 298 yards, two touchdowns and one interception against the Saints in his first start in more than five years.
Redman, out of football for three seasons and selling insurance a year ago, was largely ineffective in his only career start against the Buccaneers on Sept. 15, 2002. He completed 16 of 38 passes for 141 yards and one interception in a 25-0 loss for Baltimore.
The Bucs will be without tight end Jerramy Stevens, who was suspended without pay for one game Tuesday for violating the NFL’s substance-abuse policy.
Stevens, signed with the Bucs in April after being released by Seattle, was convicted in September of driving under the influence of alcohol in Scottsdale, Ariz. The charge stemmed from an arrest while he was with the Seahawks.