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Gone to the dogs: Falcons in disarray
2007 will be a tough season for Harrington and crew
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    ATLANTA — The Atlanta Falcons have endured plenty of misery in their 41-year history. This is a franchise that has yet to put together two straight winning seasons.

    This is a franchise that once fired a coach in the 1970s, then brought him back in ’80s because no one else wanted the job. This is a franchise that had its proudest moment — its one and only trip to the Super Bowl — ruined by the arrest of a highly respected player the night before the big game.

    But this might be a new low, even for the Falcons.

    Michael Vick, who filled the seats and left defenders grasping at air, has been charged with running a grisly dogfighting operation. The allegations are horrific. And the impact on the Falcons could take years to overcome.

    ‘‘Things happen. This just happened to be something major,’’ Pro Bowl cornerback DeAngelo Hall said. ‘‘It’s affecting our city and our franchise right now.’’

    Like a fighter who’s already taken too many blows, the Falcons are staggering into the season with retread Joey Harrington at quarterback. Quite a change from Vick, who led the Falcons to the NFC championship game during the 2004 season and last year became the first QB in league history to rush for 1,000 yards.

    Vick, who was reportedly discussing a plea deal with prosecutors that likely would involve jail time, is expected to miss at least one entire season and maybe more. While the Falcons are in limbo over his status with the team, it’s hard to envision any scenario in which image-conscious owner Arthur Blank would allow No. 7 to come back.

    Blank already has endured animal-rights groups picketing in front of the team complex — one of them dressed as ‘‘Cruella de Vick’’ — and a plane flying overhead on the first day of training camp lugging a sign that said: ‘‘New team name? Dog Killers?’’

    From all indications, the Falcons are preparing to move on without the very face of their franchise, the one player who seemed capable of unlocking the shackles of their despairing past.

    Who knows if another will ever come along? ‘‘It’s going to be a big bump in the road,’’ safety Lawyer Milloy said.

    ‘‘Everyone recognizes that.’’

    With no other choice, the Falcons turned to Harrington as their starting quarterback. The third overall pick in the 2002 draft has been a bust in the NFL, throwing more touchdowns than interceptions only once in five seasons. The Detroit Lions gave up on him, and he lost the starting job in Miami last year after a game in which his passer rating was 0.0.

    Harrington signed with the Falcons hoping to revive his career as Vick’s backup. Now, he’s thrust into a starting role that his battered psyche may not be quite ready to tackle. ‘

    ‘I don’t need to fill Michael Vick’s shoes,’’ Harrington said. ‘‘I’m not trying to be Michael Vick. I’m trying to be myself. If I can play like myself, people will believe in me. People will begin to see I can lead this team.’’

    Petrino tinkered with the offense, hoping to give Harrington a better chance at success. But he’ll have to be the next coming of Tom Landry to compensate for the loss of Vick, who could beat teams just as easily with his legs as he did with his arm.

    ‘‘We really haven’t changed anything, but we are just utilizing different parts of the offense,’’ Petrino said. ‘‘There are different parts that Michael was very good at, and we are still trying to improve on some things, but we are really just trying to improve on what Joey does best.’’

    The Falcons are dealing with issues on the other side of the line, as well.

    The front line looks thin, especially with the uncertain status of tackles Rod Coleman and Grady Jackson.

    But all those problems pale in comparison to Vick’s legal troubles.

    Yep, this might be a new low, even for the Falcons.

    Defendants point fingers at Vick

    It’s up to Michael Vick now. His last two co-defendants pleaded guilty Friday and implicated Vick in bankrolling gambling on dogfights. One of them said the Atlanta Falcons quarterback helped drown or hang dogs that didn’t do well.

    With his NFL career in jeopardy and a superseding indictment adding more charges in the works, that left Vick with a hard choice: Cutting his own deal to hold jail time under a year or go to trial and sit through detailed descriptions of the ghastly operation known as ‘‘Bad Newz Kennels.’’

    Quanis Phillips of Atlanta and Purnell Peace of Virginia Beach entered plea agreements and agreed to testify against Vick. A third member of the dogfighting ring, Tony Taylor, struck a similar deal last month.

    Vick’s lawyers have been negotiating with prosecutors. One of Vick’s attorneys, Lawrence Woodward, attended the plea hearings but declined to answer questions about the progress of the negotiations as he left the courthouse.

    ‘‘Did you conspire with these folks to sponsor a dogfighting venture?’’ U.S. District Judge Henry Hudson asked Peace.

    ‘‘Yes, sir,’’ he replied.

    As part of his plea agreement, Phillips signed a statement that said Vick joined in executing at least eight dogs that didn’t do well in test fights by various methods, including hanging and drowning.

    Falcons 13, Bills 10

    ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. — Bills quarterback J.P. Losman was given every opportunity to produce a scoring drive, but came up empty. Atlanta’s Joey Harrington wasn’t much better.

    Sloppiness and inconsistency again held back a pair of teams scrambling to find an offensive identity two weeks into the preseason.

    The Falcons (1-1) pulled out a 13-10 win Friday night when backup quarterback Chris Redman — filling in for injured third-stringer D.J. Shockley — hit George Cooper for a 1-yard touchdown pass with 2:38 remaining.

    Redman was forced back into the game when Shockley was carted off after hurting his left leg. Shockley was finishing a 10-yard run up the left side when his left foot got caught in the turf. He fell awkwardly as linebacker Josh Stamer tackled him.

    The lone touchdown for the Bills (1-1) came from third-stringer Trent Edwards, who hit Roscoe Parrish for a 10-yard pass in the third quarter. That score was set up two plays earlier when Anthony Hargrove intercepted Redman’s pass deep in the Falcons’ end.

    Otherwise, squandered opportunities were the common denominator for both first-string units.

    ‘‘We need to work a little bit on finishing drives,’’ said Harrington, sounding like Losman. ‘‘We’ve had a couple come up short these first two preseason games.’’