- The Washington Times - Friday, September 12, 2003

Atlanta has an NFL tradition like no other.

The Falcons are the only franchise in the league — the second-year Houston Texans aside — never to put together back-to-back winning seasons.

Theirs is a 37-year record of mind-numbing failure interrupted by only the occasional outburst of competence, such as when they advanced to the second round of the playoffs last season.

So when dynamic quarterback Michael Vick broke his right leg in a preseason game on Aug.16, it seemed just another stroke of misfortune for a team perennially down on its luck.

It also raised a question: Can the Falcons win without the NFL’s most compelling player?

It’s not an unreasonable question. Vick, after all, had a hand in producing 67 percent of the Falcons’ yardage last season. His backup, Doug Johnson, had only three starts and 129 passes in three years in the NFL before Sunday’s season-opening victory over the Dallas Cowboys.

“Hopefully, we can handle the loss of Mike. This game has always been about a team more so than any other sport,” coach Dan Reeves said. “Mike didn’t play one down of defense or special teams. But we [supposedly] had no chance to win. Everybody writes you off before the first game.

“It makes you a little bit irritated. Guys respond to that.”

Count Peerless Price among the irritated.

“We got tired of hearing that garbage,” said Price, the Falcons’ new No.1 wide receiver.

Still, residing among “that garbage” are these facts: No Falcon other than Vick and linebacker Keith Brooking has been voted to the Pro Bowl since 1998. The Falcons ranked 23rd in the NFL against the run and 23rd in passing last season. No Falcon receiver caught more than 56 passes.

“So many people say we’re Mike Vick and cast,” defensive end Patrick Kerney said. “There’s a lot of other talent on this team, and it digs under your skin, especially when [players] on other teams have the gall to say it.

“We say, ‘You think we’re all Mike Vick? Watch this.’ This is our chance to prove them wrong.”

After an 0-4 preseason, the Falcons eased some doubts by rallying to beat the favored Cowboys 27-13 in Dallas. It hardly was a dominating performance: The defense surrendered 403 yards, and the offense was impotent for most of the second quarter.

Still, rookie fullback Justin Griffith and tight end Alge Crumpler excelled in their new roles as starters, and Johnson was sharp in the second half, completing 11 of 13 passes for 143 yards and two touchdowns.

“The pressure was on Doug to shine, and he did,” said Bob Whitfield, a 12th-year offensive tackle.

Johnson said he didn’t feel any pressure in replacing Vick. Last season, he subbed for the injured Vick against the New York Giants with the Falcons limping along at 1-3. He connected on 19 of 25 passes for 257 yards, passed for one touchdown and ran for another in a 17-10 victory that ignited Atlanta’s season.

So facing the Cowboys and Redskins didn’t exactly have Johnson quivering.

“I really wasn’t breathing hard,” Johnson said. “You don’t worry about doubters as long as your teammates and your coaching staff have confidence. There are always going to be critics, but we could care less what their opinions are.

“Expectations are high. Our goal isn’t to make the playoffs. Our goal is to go further than last year, to make it to the Super Bowl. That’s what we plan to do no matter who’s playing.”

The schedule is favorable.

After next week’s showdown against the Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the Falcons don’t play another team that posted a winning record last season until November.

By then Vick, who is expected to have the cast removed from his leg this week, should be his old self.

And maybe the Falcons, who added Price and three veteran starters in the secondary during the offseason, finally will end their history of being unable to stand success.

“That was kind of the theme of our whole offseason,” Reeves said. “We did some things last year that we had never done before [including becoming the first visitor to win a playoff game in Green Bay]. That’s a record that we definitely want to get rid of.”

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