Harrington's hope

Twice-rejected QB steps in for Falcons in Vick's absence

Posted: August 20, 2007

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. - Here in this leafy, upscale Atlanta suburb that the Falcons call home, Michael Vick is gone but hardly forgotten.

Guilty or innocent, he was the face of this franchise for the past 6 years, and you don't wipe away that face overnight. Guilty or innocent, he was a teammate, which is a bond only slightly below that of brothers.

"When you've been with a guy and have been in battle with him, it tends not to just be about football," running back Warrick Dunn said. "It's about life, too. Right now, we're going through a healing process.

"It's like dealing with a death. You grieve for a while and then you move on. Right now, that's what we're trying to do. We're trying to get to a point where we can try to keep moving forward."

The media circus long ago left town, and the training-camp crowds that have bothered making the trek to the Falcons' facility 45 miles from downtown Atlanta have been a fraction of the size they were before Vick's indictment on dogfighting charges. The PETA protesters have moved on. An airplane flew over the Falcons' practice fields the other day towing a sign that said: "New Team Name: Dog Killers." But other than that, it's been relatively quiet here.

"For us, the worst day was the first day of camp," Dunn said. "So much was happening and swirling. Since then, guys have focused [on football]. Part of it is we're just too tired to worry about other things. When you're out there running under that hot sun trying to prepare for a season, it's mentally draining. You're trying to concentrate on your craft.

"I'm sure guys think about [Vick], and wish and hope for the best. But at the same time, we have to get ready for the season and prepare to improve from 7-9."

That won't be easy. Not so much because of the distractions from the Vick mess, but because, well, this just isn't a very good football team.

The main reason Bobby Petrino blew that popsicle stand in Louisville last January to take the Falcons job, aside from the $24 million he'll receive over the next 5 years, was for the opportunity to coach Vick and build an offense around his unique talents.

So much for that. Instead, he has to make do with Joey Harrington, a guy with a 68.1 career passer rating who already has been told to take a hike by two organizations.

Starting wide receivers Michael Jenkins and Roddy White both are underachieving first-round picks who combined for just 69 receptions and seven touchdowns (all by Jenkins) last year. Their best receiver, tight end Alge Crumpler, is making a turtle-slow recovery from a knee injury and has yet to practice.

The defense, which finished 22nd in the league last season and 29th against the pass, lost its best pass rusher, Patrick Kerney, to free agency (Seattle). Two other key defensive players - tackle Rod Coleman (ruptured quad) and linebacker Demorrio Williams (torn pectoral muscle) - have missed all of training camp, though both are expected to be ready for the start of the season.

Petrino made it clear to his players at the first team meeting of training camp that they needed to have a move-on mentality with regard to Vick.

"He said this is no different than an injury or anything else," veteran linebacker Keith Brooking said. "He said you need to face it and then move on. That's not to take away from [Vick]. But that's the mentality you have to have."

Brooking, who is beginning his 10th season with the Falcons, feels it's up to veterans like himself to lead the team through the Vick storm.

"I know we have the [kind of] leaders on our football team to overcome a situation like this," he said. "I know it's not going to be easy. It's going to be tough. But shoot, man. Anything worth having always is. I believe that with all my heart."

It will be a lot easier to put Vick in their rearview mirror if Harrington plays well. But that's a big if. He has had a rocky career since the Detroit Lions made him the third overall pick in the 2002 draft. He has a 23-43 record as an NFL starter and has managed to throw more touchdowns than interceptions only once in five seasons.

After being released by Miami in the offseason, he signed with the Falcons in April to be Vick's backup. But that all changed last month when Vick was indicted.

Harrington's game is nothing like Vick's. He's a stay-in-the-pocket passer who has just one run of 20-plus yards in six seasons. But Petrino said he really hasn't had to change anything in the offense for Harrington.

"We're just utilizing different parts of it," he said. "We're trying to pick out what Joey does best and try to utilize that. There were different parts of it that Michael was really good at. As we get closer to the beginning of the season, we'll start catering to what Joey does best."

Harrington played well in the Falcons' first preseason game against the New York Jets (6-for-9, 88 yards). Didn't play nearly so well in Friday night's 13-10 win over Buffalo, completing four of seven passes for just 31 yards and throwing an interception.

"I like where he's at," Petrino said. "He's starting to really understand [the offense]. He has more right reasons [for his decisions] after every play in practice. He's seeing things that he needs to see. His confidence level is up. He just needs to continue to work every day and keep learning."

Harrington is determined to make the most of his unexpected starting opportunity with the Falcons. He said his confidence level is "miles beyond" where it was in Detroit and Miami.

"I had to learn how to deal with the adversity of being in the NFL," he said. "I learned how to do that and I've learned more about myself and how to make myself happy. Which in turn has boosted my confidence."

As for replacing Vick, he insists he doesn't think about it much. He's just trying to do his job.

"I don't feel his shadow," he said. "I'm at a point in my life where I've learned to disregard all of that. I have a job to do. If I let that other stuff distract me, I'm doing a disservice to myself and my teammates."

Said Dunn: "Joey just needs to go out and be Joey. He just needs to go out and manage the game and put us in the right formations and plays and manage the game.

"We're not asking him to go out and throw for 400 yards. If he can manage the game and make some plays, other guys will make some plays for him. If we go out and run the football and catch the football, well, Joey should be all right." *

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