- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 16, 2003

Atlanta and New Orleans both finished above .500 in 2002 for the second time in their 34 years as division rivals, giving plenty of hope that 2003 could be a special season for either or both.

Now those hopes have been shattered like so many peanut shells. Atlanta’s season was ruined when marvelous quarterback Michael Vick broke his right leg in a preseason game two months ago. Vick had hoped to be back for Monday’s game in St. Louis but now his return for the Nov.2 playoff rematch in Philadelphia looks doubtful because he has yet to run hard.

Monday night’s 36-0 drubbing by the St. Louis Rams prompted coach Dan Reeves to bench Vick’s replacement, Doug Johnson, in favor of the raw Kurt Kittner for Sunday’s game against the Saints.

“We’ve been struggling, and I just feel like we need to make a change,” said Reeves, who has been stuck on 199 career victories for five weeks. “Kurt deserves [a chance] to see what he can do. We need a spark, and he may be able to provide that.”

The 1-5 Falcons also have not gotten a good return on their investment in free agents Peerless Price, Tyrone Williams, Cory Hall, MarTay Jenkins, Tod McBride and Keith Newman. They rank 28th in offense and last in defense.

“Once it starts rolling downhill, if you don’t do something to stop it, it just keeps rolling,” defensive tackle Ed Jasper said of the five-game slide. “It keeps getting bigger. Right now, we’ve got a ball as big as Atlanta itself rolling down Mount Everest.”

The Saints (2-4) are in slightly better shape, especially with the woebegone Falcons up next, but New Orleans has beaten only hapless Chicago and Houston. The Saints have been pounded by Seattle, Tennessee, Indianapolis and Carolina even with linchpins Aaron Brooks, Deuce McAlister and Joe Horn in the lineup.

New Orleans has lost seven of nine dating back to last December’s collapse, which repeated a similar disaster of 2001. Since the playoffs expanded to 12 teams in 1990, only four teams that started 1-4 — as the Saints did — recovered to make the playoffs.

“Everybody, including the fans, players and coaches, is frustrated,” fourth-year coach Jim Haslett said before the Saints edged the Bears. “That’s something winning will cure.”

With the Bucs (twice), Panthers, Eagles, Redskins, Cowboys and Giants on his schedule and the Titans, Eagles, Giants, Bucs, Panthers and Colts on Atlanta’s slate, there doesn’t seem to be much of a cure on the way in either Southern city.

An MVP curse? — None of the last six players to be named NFL MVP is enjoying the 2003 season.

Last year’s winner, Oakland quarterback Rich Gannon, has fallen off as disastrously as his underachieving 2-4 team. St. Louis quarterback Kurt Warner, the MVP in 1999 and 2001, suffered a concussion during an embarrassing Week1 loss to the New York Giants and has yet to reclaim his job from Marc Bulger. Rams halfback Marshall Faulk, the 2000 MVP, was off to a slow start when he was sidelined with a broken hand and an ailing knee.

Denver running back Terrell Davis, the 1998 MVP, all but officially retired after being released by the Broncos in July following the better part of four years on the sideline with leg injuries. And Detroit halfback Barry Sanders, the 1997 MVP, stunned the NFL by quitting two summers later at 31 because he longer enjoyed the game.

Now that’s a workout — Seattle offensive tackle Walter Jones has a unique offseason training regimen: The 6-foot-5, 315-pound Jones pushes his Cadillac Escalade around with his brother-in-law behind the wheel. Jones moves the 7,000-pound SUV up to nine times in a 90-minute session in short bursts on a flat street in his native Huntsville, Ala.

“Once you get it going, it goes pretty good,” said Jones, who said he requires similar strength to push massive defensive tackle Norman Hand around during practice.

Not always so sweet — The late Walter Payton was nicknamed “Sweetness” for his smooth running style, but Chicago’s Hall of Fame halfback also was a nice guy. Usually. During a speech last month, Hall of Fame receiver Steve Largent recalled an incident from Payton’s final game in 1987 at Soldier Field.

Overrated Seahawks linebacker Brian Bosworth was assigned to shadow Payton and was struggling mightily with the assignment when he finally got a free shot at the Bears’ superstar. Bosworth smacked Payton to the ground so hard that pieces of his helmet flew off. But Payton quickly popped to his feet and smiled at Bosworth.

“If you run that play again,” Bosworth growled, “I’ll bite your head off.”

Payton didn’t miss a beat.

“Bosworth,” he said, “if you do that, you’ll have more brains in your stomach than you ever had in your head.”

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