When the Atlanta Falcons take the field, all eyes will be on quarterback Michael Vick. Better there than on the scoreboard. The singular skills of Vick should benefit Atlanta on both sides of the ball, but with an adjustment to a new offense, and a defense for which improvement will mean simply not finishing dead last in the league, it's probably best to chalk this season up to a learning experience.
If there were any doubts as to Vick's value, they were erased last year. Without him, the Falcons went 2-10; when he returned, they went 3-1, including handing Carolina its last defeat before the Super Bowl. However, the good finish -- and even better excuse of not having Vick most of the season -- was not enough to spare the job of coach Dan Reeves.
New coach Jim Mora Jr., 42, brings great enthusiasm and, more significantly, the West Coast offense from his previous stint in San Francisco. Vick, who grew up idolizing another mobile lefty in Steve Young, is happy about it. "A lot of guys enjoy playing in this system," Vick said. "I'm excited about being one of the best quarterbacks in the league, and I'm just trying to get into a system where I can do that."
The hope is that the new offense will enable Vick to make better use of his receivers while still allowing for his wondrous running ability. It would help if Peerless Price emerged as the big-play weapon the Falcons thought they had traded for last year, and if T.J. Duckett would improve his blocking and wrest the starting tailback job from undersized Warrick Dunn.
The defense is changing as well, from a 3-4 to a 4-3 front that should complement the pass-rushing skills of Patrick Kerney (Virginia) and Brady Smith. But the interior lacks a run-stuffer, and losing this year's top draft pick, cornerback DeAngelo Hall, for more than a month with a hip injury will help the secondary remain just that. In other words, this group is going to give a lot of players a chance to fine-tune their end zone celebrations. Of course, Atlanta fans have just two words to say to all that: Michael Vick.
Best Hands: Andre Rison never should have left Atlanta. He averaged 85 catches for 1,127 yards and 11 touchdowns in five seasons, then proceeded to bounce around the league.
Worst Hands: The Falcons batted .500 in the first round of the 1989 draft, taking Deion Sanders with the fifth overall pick, then following that up with Northern Arizona's Shawn Collins (1989). Sanders, great; Collins, not so much.
Grading This Year's WRs: Number one receiver Peerless Price and number two Dez White have yet to prove they can handle their roles, to say nothing of rookie Michael Jenkins.
WRs Grade: B-