I used to be a big NFL fan. Now? Not so much. I'm not sure what changed. I think the game got a little too sanitized. Too many games in climate-controlled domes, not enough in the rain, sleet and snow. Then again, it may have just been one too many Peter Gent books.
I used to watch anything and everything that involved a football. Now I stick to the college game (mainly the SEC) and the local pro teams. Here, in the Chattanooga metro area, we're halfway between two teams -- the Atlanta Falcons and the Tennessee Titans. I follow the Titans and try to keep up with what's going on there, but they've never really been my team. That's Houston's team. The owner, Bud Adams, tried to extort all he could get from the people of Houston. Then, when they weren't ready to give him anything and everything, bolted for the greener pastures in Tennessee. Not exactly a rousing tradition to get behind. I've always been a Falcons fan and it's mostly been just like following the Braves. Both teams have long histories of losing and under-achievement with momentary flashes of greatness. The Falcons made it to the one Super Bowl (XXXIII - where they lost to the Denver Broncos 34-19.) Other than that, it's been pretty bad. After several mediocre and sometimes miserable decades, the Braves finally got their act together and put together a record-breaking string of division championships, but they only have the one championship (in 1995) to show for it all. I guess that's the mark of a true fan -- one that will follow a team throughout an excruciating history in the hope that better days will one day come.
That's where things stand with the Falcons now. Monday and Tuesday were the darkness. I can only hope that the future is so bright I've gotta wear shades. It certainly can't get any worse. Can it? Early Monday we learned the fate of Michael Vick, who looked for a brief moment like the shining star that was finally going to lead the Falcons to the promised land. 23 months in jail. Incarcerated until at least the summer of 2009. And he certainly deserves it too. The very next day, Bobby Petrino, the Falcons coach who was brought in from the University of Louisville to fine tune Vick's quarterbacking skills, bolted the sinking ship thirteen games into a sixteen-game season. He's headed to the University of Arkansas, leaving the 3-10 Vick-less Falcons in the lurch.
I can only hope Vick uses the time in prison to reflect on the promise lost and begins the long effort to turn his life around. He can be a success story on and off the field, but he's got a long row to hoe. It's certainly going to take a lot to convince the general public that he's a changed man. Some people won't be convinced no matter what. He'll be 30 years old in 2009. That's approaching old age in the NFL. He'll be down to his last shot. It probably won't happen with the Falcons and might not happen at the quarterback position.
Bobby Petrino, like a lot of other great college coaches (think Spurrier), was out of his element in the pro game. He never got control of the team and the sniping from the bench has been going on all season. His loudest critic has been cornerback DeAngelo Hall, a teammate of Vick's at Virginia Tech. Their feud got off to a good start in the third game of the season. The Falcons were leading Carolina 17-10, when Hall drew a pass interference penalty, then an unnecessary roughness penalty to keep a Carolina drive alive. The Falcons finally got a sack to end the drive, but Hall and Carolina wide receiver Steve Smith were mouthing off as the teams were heading off the field. Hall drew the penalty for unsportsmanlike conduct and the drive continued anew. Carolina, thanks to the three penalties, scored a touchdown to tie the game. It was the turning point; Carolina won 27-20 and the Falcons were 0-3 at that point. That was bad enough, but the TV audience and the fans at the stadium also got to see a shouting match on the sideline between Hall and Petrino and another coach. Hall had to be restrained by three other players and was fined $100,000 later that week. Later in the season, it got so bad that the Falcons couldn't sell out their home games and avoid the TV blackouts. And that was counting all the season tickets that were sold before the s--t hit the fan. Tuesday was the final nail in the coffin.
So where do we go from here? Assistant coach Emmitt Thomas, who's been in the league for 41 years as a player and a coach, has been named the interim head coach. He'll bail like crazy and try to keep the ship afloat over the final three games. Then owner Arthur Blank needs to do what Ted Turner once did for the Braves -- find the best coach available (Bill Cowher?) and give him a dump truck full of money or whatever it takes to get him to Atlanta, then get out of the way and let the football people run the team.
They say that it's darkest before the dawn. It's pretty damned dark in Atlanta these days.