ATLANTA, DEC. 9 -- The uniform of Dexter Manley has changed, but the man remains the same. Today, the newest member of the Phoenix Cardinals was rapidly pacing the sideline minutes before his second NFL career was about to begin. He slapped his helmet. He slapped teammates' helmets. He slapped his helmet during the national anthem.

After the Cardinals' 24-13 victory over the Atlanta Falcons before 36,222 at Fulton County Stadium, Manley said that "born again" are the words that should be used to describe him. This was his first action since being reinstated on Nov. 19 by Commissioner Paul Tagliabue after serving a league-enforced drug suspension since November 1989.

Manley, 32, played 16 downs, and this was hardly a Hall of Fame performance. He didn't have a tackle or a sack. He overran plays, missed a few tackles, and a fumbled ball bounced between his outstretched arms. By his own admission he was rusty.

But there is no mistake about it.

Dexter Manley is back.

"Of course I'm back," he said.

While Manley struggled somewhat, members of both teams agreed that it looks as if Manley could return to prime form. All he needs is time. Meanwhile, Manley is still a player who gets fired up very easily. He said Phoenix is his new home and he doesn't miss the Washington Redskins, who waived him following his reinstatement.

Manley also said that he regrets comments he made this week that were critical of Washington's assistant coaching staff, some of whom he called "zeros."

"I got a lot of hate mail from Washington," Manley said. "I was just excited, that's all."

So what else is new? Remember these vintage Manley traits: the leg kick while in a three-point stance; the trash talkin'; the speed of his first five steps? They are all still there. So are the sideline antics.

"I was just so keyed up and ready to play," he said. "But for me all of that is normal. I did that all the time in Washington. It's normal. I want to stay pumped up, man."

Manley played mostly on third-down and passing situations and only twice on first downs, and he said there were times when the waiting on the bench "took my spirit out. I just wanted to get in there. I have a lot to prove to myself. I didn't get a chance to really cut loose."

It was easy to see that his reflexes have some catching up to do. But not much. On the Cardinals' second defensive series, running back Steve Broussard fumbled the ball while running right on a sweep. Manley was trailing the play and had the ball in front of him for about two seconds. He dove too late and the ball was recovered by Falcons right tackle Chris Hinton.

Another time quarterback Scott Campbell, replacing injured Chris Miller, ran by Manley up the middle for 17 yards. Manley swung at the quarterback's feet but missed.

Campbell was less successful throwing the ball. Cedric Mack set up the Cardinals' go-ahead score with a third-quarter interception (and two laterals) and Marcus Turner returned an interception 47 yards for a touchdown.

Phoenix drove 83 yards for a second-quarter touchdown on Timm Rosenbach's 45-yard pass to Ricky Proehl. The Cardinals also got a 37-yard field goal from Al Del Greco on the final play of the first half, when Atlanta was charged with encroachment, stopping the clock on fourth down with one second to play.

Atlanta cut the deficit to 17-13 when Greg Davis kicked a 24-yard field goal with 9:30 to play, capping a 73-yard drive that started with Campbell's 29-yard pass to Michael Haynes.

Davis also had a 41-yard field goal less than four minutes into the game after Bobby Butler recovered Anthony Thompson's fumble on the Phoenix 48.

Atlanta's touchdown drive in the second quarter required only two plays to cover 57 yards after Deion Sanders returned a kickoff 39 yards.

Surprisingly, the Falcons (3-10) double-teamed Manley about 50 percent of the time, sometimes with a running back helping left tackle Mike Kenn, who has yielded only two sacks this season.

"I felt rusty," Manley said. "I have to say that. But I think over the next few weeks I'm going to work my tail off and become a contributor."

"Dexter was coming hard," Kenn said, "and working and doing everything he needed to do. He might have been a little rusty but I still had my hands full. I had to work real hard to keep him out of our backfield."

"He's a technician," Manley said about Kenn. "I have a lot of respect for him. At times they were {double-teaming} me and that got me really frustrated. It was tough going against a guy of his caliber the first time back. I think they were doubling me because with me being a speed player . . . looking at films he had problems in the past with speed players."

Phoenix Coach Joe Bugel, a former Redskins assistant, said he was happy with Manley's efforts and gave the player a hug after the game. "Nice going, man," Bugel told him, "I'm proud of you."

"I was glad he got a chance to play," said Bugel, also happy that the Cardinals (5-8) have won three straight games and remain in playoff contention, if barely. "He was like a race horse before the game. I'm just glad he played. He feels like he accomplished something."

Said General Manager Larry Wilson: "I thought he did fine. You just don't expect a player to come back after a year and burn up the place. Dexter is adding a lot of excitement to our football team. I thought he did very well considering he has been out of football for so long. And I bet you he is going to do a lot better."

Manley agreed.

"You watch and see," he said.