NFL 2004: Mora tries to succeed where 11 others failed

ATLANTA -- After buying the Atlanta Falcons, Arthur Blank needed only one season to sell out the Georgia Dome. Turning the Falcons into a perennial winner is going to take longer. The team's long-suffering fan base watched with dismay in 2003 as Atlanta endured a losing season for the 28th time in 38 years. Michael Vick, the dazzling quarterback who led the Falcons to the second round of the playoffs two years ago, broke his leg in the preseason -- all but guaranteeing this team wouldn't be around for another postseason. Exit Dan Reeves. Enter Rich McKay and Jim Mora. Blank, who co-founded Home Depot, used his first season to lower ticket prices, add thousands of parking spots, and drastically improve the atmosphere at home games. Sellout crowds have become the norm for a team that used to lead the league in empty seats. Now, Blank has turned to the football side after a 5-11 season. He got an early start by hiring McKay last December, landing the general manager who built Tampa Bay into a Super Bowl champion by drafting wisely and choosing the right players to sign as free agents. Blank and McKay interviewed six candidates to replace Reeves as coach before giving the job to Mora, San Francisco's defensive coordinator. The new coach brought in several well-known assistants, including offensive coordinator Greg Knapp, offensive line coach Alex Gibbs and defensive coordinator Ed Donatell. "We have so much to be excited about," Blank said. "Our fans are wonderful. We have a young, energetic coaching staff. Our front office is coming off what appears to be a strong draft. We have some fine talent on our team and arguably the NFL's most exciting player in Michael Vick." Indeed, all the pieces seem to be in place for the Falcons to accomplish long-term success. Of course, they've gone nearly four decades without so much as back-to-back winning seasons, a truly remarkable feat of mediocrity. And Mora's first preseason was more troubling than hopeful. Vick struggled in the West Coast offense and was bothered by a hamstring injury. First-round pick DeAngelo Hall, set to start at left cornerback, fractured his hip and could miss up to 10 weeks. Alge Crumpler, Peerless Price, Warrick Dunn and Keith Brooking are bothered by nagging injuries heading into Sunday's opener at San Francisco. Reeves, who had overcome quadruple bypass surgery to lead Atlanta to its only Super Bowl appearance in 1998, couldn't pull off another improbable performance. Without Vick, the Falcons went 2-10 with Doug Johnson and Kurt Kittner filling in at quarterback. The defense didn't help matters, allowing a franchise-worst 6,108 yards. "It wasn't Dan's fault," said Vick, who won two of three starts after returning late in the season. "We just didn't get the job done. The players didn't step up." In Mora, the players have a polar opposite from Reeves. Practices now are conducted at a furious pace. Meetings are intense. At 42, Mora is 18 years younger than Reeves and lacks the generational barrier that hurt his predecessor's connection with players. As he continues to learn on the job, Mora is relying heavily on his assistants. His goal is to spend equal time planning with Knapp, Donatell and special teams coordinator Joe DeCamillis, Reeves' son-in-law and one of seven assistants retained from the former staff. "I know some of the staffs I've been on -- there's only been a couple -- but if the head coach is an offensive guy, the defensive players at some time or another start to resent the fact that he doesn't spend as much time with them, or it was only a good practice if the offense had a good practice," Mora said. "I don't have to micromanage at all because of the unbelievable ability of this coaching staff." Can Mora succeed where 11 other head coaches failed? No one knows yet, but he seems to have one asset the others lacked: a strong front office. Dan Henning, June Jones, Jerry Glanville and Marion Campbell (during his second stint with the team) worked without a GM. Part of Reeves' undoing was an insistence on making his own personnel moves and hiring Harold Richardson, a longtime scout and assistant coach, to manage the salary cap. Together they made some dreadful decisions, using a first-round pick in 1997 on cornerback Michael Booker and giving huge contracts to underperforming players such as Bob Whitfield and Ray Buchanan. Buchanan was let go after last season. Whitfield was cut Sunday. The Falcons, it seems, are still trying to escape their dreadful past.