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Falcons’ owner has had enough, says ‘no Mora’

    FLOWERY BRANCH — Not long after Atlanta owner Arthur Blank fired him as the Falcons’ third-year coach, Jim Mora went to great lengths to list his accomplishments.
    Advancing to the NFC championship game in his first season, however, wasn’t enough to save Mora’s job. The Falcons, who went a combined 4-13 during the final two months of 2005-06, missed the playoffs the last two years.
    ‘‘This is a tough business, and it takes tough people, and if you can’t take it, you don’t belong,’’ Mora said. ‘‘My goal is to be a head coach again and work in the NFL for another 20 years.’’
    Mora’s last two teams fell apart. In 2005, a 6-2 start gave them a share of the conference lead, then the Falcons lost six of their last eight.
    This past year, Atlanta was 5-2, but finished 7-9.
    Entering the final weekend of the regular season, the Falcons had only a slim chance to make the playoffs with a .500 record.
    Those hopes ended Saturday night when the New York Giants won at Washington. Mora’s final game, a 24-17 loss at Philadelphia in which the playoff-bound Eagles rested most of their key playmakers, took place at the same stadium where the Falcons lost the NFC championship.
    ‘‘I’m proud of the many things we accomplished here over the last three years ... although our main goal was to bring a Super Bowl back home to the great fans of Atlanta, and we fell short in that area,’’ Mora said. ‘‘If anything, I think this experience has made me a better coach, although I don’t think circumstances always allow that to be seen.’’
    His teams led the NFL in rushing every year, but quarterback Michael Vick and offensive coordinator Greg Knapp never meshed, and the Falcons struggled badly once the opponent took the lead. Under Mora, Atlanta was 0-17 when entering the fourth quarter with a deficit.
    ‘‘If you get the right breaks, if you make the right decision in terms of personally stay healthy at the right positions, you have a chance to ascend. If you suffer some catastrophic injuries, (and) make some poor decisions in personnel, then you sink into the mediocre range,’’ Mora said.
    Mora, the 45-year-old son of longtime NFL coach Jim Mora, went 26-22 in three seasons, but Blank decided a change was necessary.
    ‘‘It was a quick meeting, a to-the-point meeting,’’ the younger Mora said.
    General manager Rich McKay, who left Tampa Bay to join the Falcons in December 2003, will lead the team’s search for a new coach.
    A former defensive coordinator in San Francisco, Mora was a first-time head coach when he led the Falcons to the NFC South title in his rookie season. The team slumped to 8-8 a year ago, then endured his first losing record.
    Mora was a somewhat surprising choice when Blank hired him in 2004, passing over more prominent assistants such as Lovie Smith, who landed in Chicago and led the Bears to the best record in the NFC this season.
    Mora was the second NFL coach fired Monday, following Arizona’s Dennis Green. The Atlanta defense was weakened by injuries to star ends Patrick Kerney and John Abraham, while the offense had to make do without reliable receiver Brian Finneran, who tore up a knee in training camp.
    But Mora’s tenure also was marked by an odd series of off-field distractions, including the embarrassment he caused himself during a Seattle radio station interview before a crucial game against Dallas last month.
    Mora said his ‘‘dream job’’ was to coach at the University of Washington, his alma mater, and that he’d jump at the chance to take it — even if the Falcons were in the middle of the playoffs. The fact the school already has a coach, Tyrone Willingham, only added to the embarrassment.
    Mora claimed he was only kidding with the radio host, former college teammate and former backup Atlanta quarterback Hugh Millen, but conceded that it didn’t sound that way after listening to a tape of the interview.
    The comments were broadcast nationally, upsetting Falcons fans and angering Blank. The coach was summoned to Blank’s Atlanta office the day before the Dallas game to discuss the issue, then sent out alone before the media to make an apology.
    ‘‘I obviously was very disappointed in those comments,’’ Blank said. ‘‘I spoke to him about it, and he took responsibility for it. He felt badly about it and he apologized to Atlanta. He has a real fondness for the community."
    Mora also endured an awkward situation created by his father. The senior Mora, also speaking on a radio show, agreed with a co-host that Vick was a ‘‘coach killer.’’
    Vick was clearly upset by the comment and left to wonder if the father’s opinion was influenced by private comments from Atlanta’s coach, who worked hard to patch up any rift by saying he would take Vick over anyone in NFL history if he was starting a team.
    On the field, another second-half collapse was too much for Blank to take, though Mora’s tenure was one of the most successful in the Falcons’ mostly dismal history. He joins Leeman Bennett as the only coaches to leave with a winning record.
    But expectations have been ratcheted up since Blank, a co-founder of Home Depot, bought the team three years ago and began spending freely to bolster the club’s roster. Vick received the richest contract in NFL history, and the team gave up a first-round pick to sign Abraham to a lucrative deal.
    Last month, Blank said that a second straight .500 finish would be unacceptable. After a devastating loss to Carolina in the next-to-last game, he reminded reporters about the statement without elaborating.
    With the pressure mounting, Mora defended his record, even though the Panthers started backup quarterback Chris Weinke, who ended a 17-game career losing streak in the Carolina’s 10-3 victory.
    As the losses mounted, even those such as Vick, who had been publicly supportive in the past, seemed to lose faith in the coaching staff.
    ‘‘It’s a question that needs to be answered,’’ Vick said. ‘‘We’re too good to be losing these games. We should be up there among the elite.’’
    On Sunday, Vick said he’s worked well with Mora, but was noncommittal when asked if Blank should fire the coach.

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