- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 28, 2002

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. The Georgia Dome had all the zest of a flat Coke last year.

The Atlanta Falcons had the NFC's worst defense. Only seven NFL offenses scored fewer points. And they finished 7-9, completing a three-year stretch in which they went 16-32.

No wonder there were more than 17,000 empty seats for every game last year in a 71,228-seat stadium. After all, this is a franchise that has yet to record consecutive winning seasons since joining the NFL as an expansion team in 1966.

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"It's tough because Atlanta's a transplant city, so we have to win everyone over," defensive end Patrick Kerney said. "College football is big here, and for the first month or two, we're competing with the Braves, who are always in the playoffs. I got angry last year when we were playing New Orleans and the dome went wild when they scored. The same thing happened with Chicago and New England. We didn't have too many true home games the last couple of years."

Enter Arthur Blank, who paid $545million in February for the dreary Falcons and set about remaking them in the mold of Home Depot, the customer-focused company he co-founded in 1978. Blank slashed season ticket prices on 10,000 upper deck seats from $370 to $100. He contracted with the owners of parking lots near the dome to provide $80 season parking for 20,000 fans, compared to last year, when only 2,000 ticket-holders had spots at $120 per.

Blank created Falcons Landing, a venue adjacent to the dome with music, food, face painting and a mini-NFL Experience. The dome's video boards were upgraded, music now thumps between plays and the once-bare walls around the field were covered with red and black Falcons bunting. The Pointer Sisters, James Brown and the Atlanta Symphony are among the acts who will perform at halftime and after games. The Falcons averaged more than 55,000 for their preseason games in the dome.

"The fans were doing the wave and making lots of noise, and for an instant I was like, 'This can't be Atlanta Falcons football,'" cornerback Ray Buchanan said of the atmosphere for the preseason-opening victory over Jacksonville.

Said former Washington and San Diego general manager Bobby Beathard, whom Blank lured out of retirement to be his senior advisor for this season: "Arthur is a high-energy guy who'll make things happen. The players and coaches know he's committed to winning, and he has the resources."

Blank surprised many NFL observers by giving scatback Warrick Dunn who averaged 1,300 yards of offense but just five touchdowns in five years with Tampa Bay a six-year, $28million contract and nondescript Seattle offensive tackle Todd Weiner a five-year, $17.5million deal. The Falcons' other top signee was ex-Saints receiver Willie Jackson, who came in the cheaper post-June1 market. Blank also extended Dan Reeves' contract through 2004 despite four losing seasons in the coach's first five years in Atlanta and hired longtime player agent Ray Anderson as the team's executive vice president.

"All the changes that Arthur has made have given us a new vibe," said offensive tackle Bob Whitfield, one of five Falcons left from the surprise 1998 NFC champions. "When you lose, everything becomes lackluster. It's easier to lose because no one cares. Things like the [new, spacious] players' lounge [inside the Falcons' practice facility] and the excitement in the dome don't win games, but they create a different aura."

Other than replacing oft-injured halfback Jamal Anderson with the tandem of Dunn and burly No.1 pick T.J. Duckett and promoting 22-year-old Michael Vick to the starting quarterback job, the biggest on-field change has been the addition of former Denver and Buffalo coach Wade Phillips as defensive coordinator. Phillips switched from the usual 4-3 scheme to a 3-4 to take advantage of the Falcons' relative depth at linebacker.

"I like the aggressiveness of the 3-4," said inside linebacker Keith Brooking, whose 2001 Pro Bowl selection made him the only Falcon so honored since 1998. "We get after the quarterback, but we're also preventing the big plays that killed us last year. Coach Phillips utilizes our strengths. We don't have the beefier guys up front, but we're quick."

Only three other teams none in the NFC use the 3-4 as their base defense.

"The 3-4 will make us better because it's confusing," Kerney said. "During the [Jacksonville] game, [Jaguars offensive tackle] Maurice Williams told me, 'I hate your defense.' I said, 'You can't figure it out, can you?' He said, 'Man, I have no idea.'"

Despite preseason victories over the Jaguars, New York Giants and Dallas and playing in an easier division (powers St. Louis and San Francisco were replaced by Tampa Bay), Reeves really has no idea what to expect from a team with nine new starters. That includes Vick, the first selection overall in the 2000 draft who's more athlete than quarterback at this point. Vick passed for just 140 yards and ran for 37 more in the three preseason games.

"It's so difficult to tell these days how good you're going to be, but if we can stay healthy, we'll get better as we go along because we have a young quarterback," Reeves said. "We were already on the right track last year, but any time you have new energy and new enthusiasm, it certainly doesn't hurt."

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