Jim Mora knows Philadelphia well. The rookie head coach of the Atlanta Falcons says he loves the city. But he knows that Philadelphia won't be loving him back this weekend.
In fact, Mora offered his players a midweek warning to pass on to their friends and family members planning to be in the stands at Lincoln Financial Field when the Falcons play the Eagles in the NFC championship game Sunday.
"I said, 'Listen, guys, if your parents or girlfriends or brothers or friends are going, tell them to wear green. Don't wear black and red because they'll get the [stuffing] beat out of them,' " Mora said this week.
Mora chuckled and said it with admiration, almost affection. He wasn't trashing the town or the people who fill the stands in its football stadium, like so many other NFL visitors to Philadelphia do. The fervor of the city's fans, he said, is something that the Falcons would like to see emulated by their followers to intimidate opponents. Mora doesn't seem to dread playing in front of one of the league's roughest crowds. He sounds like he can't wait, and he attempted to pass that sense of anticipation on to his players during his midweek address.
"I said, 'You know what, it's going to be awesome. They might be throwing batteries at us. They might be dumping dog [excrement] on us. They might be throwing snowballs at us. They'll be spitting on us, throwing beers at us,'" Mora said during a conference call. "I said, 'Man, guys, you've got to love it. It's exactly what you want. It's the perfect environment to go into because you can't recreate it in any other walk of life.' "I want them to enjoy it. It's a passionate place to play. If you go in there and have some type of success, then you should feel good about yourself because you're not only playing the Eagles. You're playing the 70,000 people that are there cheering for them."
Mora has a history with the city. His father, also Jim, coached the Philadelphia Stars of the defunct United States Football League in 1983 and '84 before following the franchise to Baltimore for the league's final season in '85. The elder Mora led the Stars to two league championships, one while the club was in Philadelphia. And Jim, who was in college at the University of Washington at the time, spent two summers living with his family in South Jersey and working for the team in Philadelphia. He spent one summer in the ticket office at the old Veterans Stadium and one summer helping out in the club's personnel department.
"That was my favorite team of all-time," the younger Mora said, adding that he'd received an e-mail in recent days from former Stars safety Mike Lush. "I loved going to the Vet . . . . I loved those games. There's a certain passion in that city that I don't think you find in a lot of other places . . . . Those people just live for their sports."
After the USFL's final season in 1985, Mora Sr. was in demand in the NFL and was pursued by the Eagles and New Orleans Saints. He chose the Saints -- over his son's objection -- and the Eagles ended up with Buddy Ryan as their coach for the '86 season.
"I wanted him to take that [Eagles] job," the younger Mora said. "You know, he's talking about New Orleans and I'm saying, 'New Orleans? Where's that? I want to be here in Philly.' But it just didn't work out."
Mora said his father plans to be at Sunday's game, rooting for the Falcons.
"He's coming," Mora said. " . . . I said, 'Hey, Dad, I'm going to put you up in the press box or down on the field.' He said, 'No, no, no, I'm sitting in the stands.' And I said, 'There's no way you're sitting in the stands. Number one, they know who you are, and they're going to kill you.' He said, 'No, no, no, they love me in Philadelphia.' I said, 'Oh . . . Dad, they might love you. But they don't love me and the Falcons.' "
'It Made Sense'
The biggest reason for the Falcons' turnaround, from a 5-11 record in the 2003 season that got Dan Reeves fired as their coach to an 11-5 mark and the No. 2 seed in the NFC playoffs this season, is the health of quarterback Michael Vick.
With a healthy Vick, the Falcons went 9-6-1 and reached the playoffs in the 2002 season, winning a first-round game at Green Bay before losing at Philadelphia, 20-6, in an NFC semifinal. After Vick suffered a broken leg in an exhibition game prior to last season, they lost 10 of their first 12 games. They won three of the four games started by Vick at the end of the season, but that wasn't enough for Reeves to keep his job. Told by Falcons owner Arthur Blank that he would be fired at the end of the season, he opted to leave immediately and was replaced by defensive coordinator Wade Phillips.
This season, Vick was healthy again, and the Falcons were winners. But that wasn't the only reason for their success. At least some of the credit must go to their first-year coach, Mora. He has forged a strong bond with his franchise player, Vick, who said this week that the 43-year-old coach has brought enthusiasm and an attitude of toughness to the team.
"A lot of guys bought into that," Vick said during a news conference. "And a lot of guys believe it and his philosophy, and that's going out and playing and giving it everything that you've got."
Mora didn't rise through the coaching ranks by trading off the name of his father, the former head coach of the Indianapolis Colts as well as the Saints. He did it with relentlessness.
He'd been around football and around coaches all his life, so his career choice was clear to him after his college playing career as a defensive back and linebacker at Washington ended. He started as a graduate assistant at Washington. He had an offer to move on to be a grad assistant at the University of Southern California, but he wanted to give the pro ranks a shot.
So he wrote letters to the head coaches and general managers of 14 NFL teams. He got back 28 form-letter rejections. He wrote back, thanking the coaches and GMs for their replies and asking them to keep him in mind if something came along. He got nothing back. So he wrote yet another round of letters, and ended up with an entry-level job with the San Diego Chargers in 1985.
"It was a foot in the door, and that was all I was looking for," Mora said. "I put Cokes in the refrigerator. I put paper in the copy machines. I got the coaches' dinners."
He worked from 5:30 a.m. until after midnight most days. He worked the Chargers' personnel board. He hauled around materials for Chargers defensive coordinator Tom Bass, and stood by Bass on the practice field. He learned every nook and cranny of the organization. "I would horde information to make myself valuable," Mora said.
When Bass got fired during the season, the only person available to relay the defensive signals to the players on the field during games was the ambitious youngster.
"So now I'm a 22-year-old, snot-nosed kid on the sideline giving the signals in the NFL, thinking I'm big-time," Mora said. "I was still putting Cokes in the refrigerator, though. But I thought I was big-time."
He parlayed that into a full-time job with the Chargers as assistant defensive backs coach the following season, then earned a promotion to defensive backs coach in '89. Three years later, he became his father's secondary coach in New Orleans and oversaw the league's top-ranked pass defense in each of his first two seasons with the Saints. After his father resigned in New Orleans, he moved on to San Francisco in 1997 and spent seven seasons with the 49ers, two as the defensive backs coach and five as the defensive coordinator.
The 49ers' legendary former coach, Bill Walsh, endorsed Mora for the club's head-coaching job after the team ousted Steve Mariucci following the 2002 season. The 49ers instead made the ill-fated hiring of Dennis Erickson.
Mora certainly was not the favorite when the Falcons interviewed him last winter. Blank spoke to his friend, Joe Gibbs, about the job, but knew as soon as the Washington Redskins' coaching job became available that Gibbs would return to his former team. The Falcons also interviewed St. Louis Rams defensive coordinator Lovie Smith, who ended up as the Chicago Bears' head coach, and New England Patriots defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel, who is likely to become the Cleveland Browns' head coach in the coming weeks. The team approached LSU Coach Nick Saban about leaving the college ranks but was rebuffed.
Blank and new Falcons general manager Rich McKay were impressed by what they saw and heard in two interviews with Mora, however, and signed him to a five-year, $7.5 million contract. "It just fit," Mora said. "It made sense. It just felt right from the get-go."
The hire didn't seem to overwhelm Falcons fans, who apparently would have preferred Saban or Smith. But Mora went about things the right way, assembling a coaching staff that blended old and new, experience and youth. He was deferential to Reeves, even retaining Reeves's son-in-law, Joe DaCamillis, as the Falcons' special teams coordinator. Mora and Reeves, who still lives in Atlanta, remain friendly, and still speak occasionally.
Mora brought along 49ers offensive coordinator Greg Knapp, another rising coaching star in his early 40s, to run his offense in Atlanta. He lured one of the game's most experienced and widely respected offensive line coaches, Alex Gibbs, from the Denver Broncos. He hired Ed Donatell, who once had coached Mora in college at Washington, to be his defensive coordinator. Donatell was ousted in Green Bay following last season's overtime playoff loss in Philadelphia in which the Packers defense allowed the Eagles to convert a fourth-and-26 play en route to a game-tying field goal in regulation.
The Falcons signed defensive tackle Rod Coleman and cornerback Jason Webster as free agents and used the eighth overall choice in the draft on cornerback DeAngelo Hall, trying to upgrade a unit that ranked last in the NFL last season. They succeeded. The Falcons moved up to 14th in the league in total defense this season, with Coleman and end Patrick Kerney combining for 24-1/2 sacks. Vick teamed with tailbacks Warrick Dunn and T.J. Duckett to give the Falcons the league's top rushing offense, and Atlanta became the successor to last season's Carolina Panthers as the NFC's leading success story. Vick, Dunn and Duckett combined for 327 rushing yards in last weekend's 47-17 triumph over the Rams at the Georgia Dome in an NFC semifinal.
"We brought in a very experienced coaching staff, and our players have faith in our system," Mora said. "I hate to use the term 'bought into it' because it sounds like you're selling them something. I just think that they have faith in what we're telling them. Then the fact that we had some early-season success just further enhanced their feeling that we're doing it the right way . . . . It's nothing magical. A big part of it is that the guy that takes the snap every time, he helps us win a little bit."
Mora said he wasn't all that familiar with Vick's game before the Falcons hired him, and was amazed initially at what his new quarterback could do. Vick has struggled at times with the precise timing and throws required in Knapp's West Coast offensive system. But Mora says he believes that Vick will become a more accurate passer as he matures as a player and gets more comfortable with the nuances of the offense, comparing Vick as a thrower to a young Steve Young or Donovan McNabb.
"You look at Donovan McNabb and you say, 'That's what Mike Vick is going to be some day,' " Mora said.
Reeves said this week he's happy about what the Falcons are accomplishing, and proud of the contributions that he made in laying the foundation for this season's run.
"We made the playoffs the year before with [Vick] healthy," Reeves said in a telephone interview. "I definitely felt like we were heading the right direction. We just lost him [last season]. You don't like to say you're depending on one player so much because it is a team sport, but there are some players who change so much. He makes the other players on your offense better because defenses have to adjust so much to him. He makes your defense better because they're not on the field so much. He's definitely one of those guys who changes the game.
"The one thing about it is, when you have a year like [last season], it gives you an opportunity to evaluate your team, who you can depend on and who you can't. You get a high draft pick. They added some players in the draft and in free agency who have made a difference. They've done a good job of that. There's such a small difference between winning and losing, if you can just change a few plays a game, you can turn things around. You put all of that together, and it hasn't really surprised me at all what they've done." . . . McNabb tried to maintain early in the week that the pressure this weekend is on the Falcons, not on the Eagles. It was an odd contention, given that McNabb and the Eagles are attempting to avoid losing an unprecedented fourth straight conference title game.
"I think it puts a little bit of pressure on them," Kerney said during a conference call this week. "This is a must-win just for the [Eagles] organization."
Vick said: "Regardless of who the pressure's on, we've got to come out and play . . . . This is our first chance. I don't know who the pressure's on. But I know the pressure's not on us."
Mora has talked about the Falcons playing with "house money" now, perhaps attempting to keep his team loose. But Kerney said the notion that the Falcons have nothing to lose this weekend is erroneous.
"I think a chance to be in the Super Bowl is a lot to lose," Kerney said. " . . . We've had these expectations for ourselves all year, even though the outside expectations were not there. We started this thing back in March of last year -- the expectations of going to the Super Bowl and winning it. So not much has been added to our psyche since the season." . . .
Only two Falcons players, linebacker Keith Brooking and backup defensive end Travis Hall, remain on the roster from the team that Reeves led to the Super Bowl in the 1998 season. ...
Cornerback Kevin Mathis and right tackle Todd Weiner sat out Atlanta's practice Thursday because of ankle injuries. Travis Hall was sidelined by a chest injury. All three could play Sunday, but Webster probably will start ahead of Mathis at the cornerback spot opposite DeAngelo Hall . . . .
Eagles right tackle Jon Runyan participated in Philadelphia's practice Thursday and is to start Sunday. He sat out Wednesday's practice because of the sprained medial collateral ligament in his right knee that he suffered late in last weekend's triumph over the Minnesota Vikings. Runyan, who has made 142 consecutive starts (including 14 in the postseason), must try to block Kerney on Sunday. Runyan will be playing in his fifth conference title game in six years, one with the Tennessee Titans and four with the Eagles.
No T.O. -- Yet
Injured Eagles wide receiver Terrell Owens created a bit of a stir early in the week when he called his friend, Falcons wideout Jimmy Farris, and said that maybe, just maybe, he'd be playing this weekend, and to pass that on to Mora. Farris was a member of the 49ers' practice squad when Owens played in San Francisco and Mora coached there.
The Falcons knew that Owens probably was kidding. His doctor and Eagles officials have said that Owens's severe ankle sprain, which required surgery, will keep him sidelined at least until Super Bowl Sunday. But they couldn't be certain, and Mora said early in the week that perhaps Owens would trot out there and play this weekend.
But Eagles Coach Andy Reid wasn't playing along, listing Owens as "out" on the club's official injury report. Owens said publicly that he only had been joking with Farris. But Owens added that he won't be joking about playing in the Feb. 6 Super Bowl if the Eagles advance. Eagles officials have said since Owens got hurt on Dec. 19 that he'd have an outside chance of playing in some capacity in the Super Bowl if team reaches the game . . . .
Patriots linebacker Ted Johnson sat out Thursday's practice because of the flu but is expected to play in Sunday's AFC title game at Pittsburgh. The status of New England fullback Patrick Pass is unclear because of an ankle injury. The Patriots probably will be without defensive end Richard Seymour because of the knee injury he suffered late in the regular season -- apparently a sprained MCL -- but he perhaps would be available for the Super Bowl . . . .
Injured Patriots cornerback Ty Law is to watch Sunday's game from a box at Heinz Field. He's been told that it's too dangerous for him to be on the sideline after undergoing surgery for the foot injury that ended his season . . . .
The Patriots changed their plans to travel to Pittsburgh today instead of Saturday because of the snow in the forecast . . . . All of the players on the Steelers' 53-man roster were healthy enough to practice Thursday . . . .
Former New York Giants linebacker Harry Carson, frustrated with the selection process for the Pro Football Hall of Fame after 11 years of being passed over, has informed Hall officials by letter that he doesn't want to be considered for enshrinement in Canton, Ohio, in the summer and will pass up the Aug. 7 induction ceremony if he's elected.
But Hall of Fame officials say there's no mechanism in the selection process to remove a player from consideration. Several of the media members who serve as electors for the Hall of Fame say that Carson's request will have no bearing on their deliberations during their Feb. 5 meeting in Jacksonville in which they will select this year's inductees. Carson has made the list of 15 finalists for a sixth year in a row . . . .
The Seattle Seahawks might begin restocking their front office next week after the recent exits of team president Bob Whitsitt, who lost a power struggle with Coach Mike Holmgren and was fired by owner Paul Allen, and vice president of football operations Ted Thompson, who became the Packers' general manager. The club's list of candidates apparently includes Randy Mueller and Mike Reinfeldt, both former Seahawks executives, and former Titans and Vikings executive Jeff Diamond.
Titans To Pursue Chow?
There is some talk that the Titans, after losing offensive coordinator Mike Heimerdinger to the New York Jets, might make a run at USC offensive coordinator Norm Chow. Titans Coach Jeff Fisher is a USC alum, and Tennessee quarterback Billy Volek already has endorsed Chow publicly. When Heimerdinger left Wednesday, Fisher said that the Titans already had begun to put some contingency plans in place when Heimerdinger interviewed for the 49ers' head-coaching job last week.
The Titans have two internal offensive-coordinator candidates, assistant head coach George Henshaw and offensive line coach Mike Munchak . . . .
Titans defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz could be a defensive-coordinator candidate in Miami and, assuming that Crennel gets Cleveland's head-coaching job, New England. Schwartz's contract in Tennessee is expiring, as Heimerdinger's was. Titans owner Bud Adams approved Fisher's request to extend the contracts of Heimerdinger and Schwartz. But the Titans failed to complete the extensions, and the Jets swooped in and got Heimerdinger by offering him a substantial raise, from $400,000 per season to $1 million. Schwartz also interviewed for the 49ers' head-coaching job . . . .
Buccaneers defensive backs coach Mike Tomlin interviewed for Miami's defensive-coordinator job Thursday . . . . The Dolphins appear poised to pursue San Diego's respected offensive line coach, Hudson Houck, next week. . . . Saban, the new coach of the Dolphins, says he will keep Miami's current front office intact at least through the NFL draft in April. Saban likely will hire a new front-office chief after that, and current general manager Rick Spielman could be dismissed or reassigned. . . .
Paul Hackett, who resigned under pressure Wednesday as the Jets' offensive coordinator, was in Tampa on Thursday to interview for a spot on the Buccaneers' offensive staff. He could become the club's quarterbacks coach. The contract of current quarterbacks coach John Shoop is expiring, and he's trying to land an offensive-coordinator job with another team.
Tampa Bay hired Aaron Kromer, Oakland's offensive line coach the last three seasons, as a senior offensive assistant Thursday. He perhaps will be groomed as an eventual successor to veteran offensive line coach Bill Muir, who also has the team's offensive-coordinator title. . . .
The Bears passed over Leslie Frazier, the former Chicago cornerback ousted recently as Cincinnati's defensive coordinator, for their secondary-coach job. Smith hired former Rams defensive backs coach Perry Fewell. The two worked together in St. Louis. . . .
There again is talk that the Vikings could be sold to Arizona real-estate developer Reggie Fowler or Minnesota Timberwolves owner Glen Taylor. But the $600 million asking price of Vikings owner Red McCombs has kept the on-again, off-again discussions from resulting in a deal with either party. Taylor has, at least so far, rejected Fowler's invitation to make a combined bid. There also have been reports that Gateway Computer founder Ted Waitt could be interested in buying the franchise. He also has, to this point, declined to join forces with Fowler. . . .
The Colts gave their quarterbacks coach, Jim Caldwell, the title of assistant head coach. . . . Green Bay reportedly dismissed Kurt Schottenheimer as defensive backs coach. . . . Kansas City hired former radio executive Bill Newman as senior vice president of administration. . . .
New 49ers coach Mike Nolan began interviewing members of Erickson's coaching staff Thursday, his first full day on the job. He also lined up interviews with Baltimore inside linebackers coach Mike Singletary and Miami wide receivers coach Jerry Sullivan. Singletary, who worked for Nolan in Baltimore, was in the Bay Area on Thursday and could become the 49ers' assistant head coach and linebackers coach.