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Rushing the NFL's Silly Season...By Nelson Lardner

Bowing to the double-barreled pressures of catering to corporate fatcats while sliding its premier event into television's ratings-anxious February "sweeps" period, the NFL cheapens the Super Bowl. Two weeks isn't like Ohio State waiting 51 days to play in the BCS Championship Game, but it still sands some of the edge off, takes players out of their habitual rhythm, and nullifies a bit of the juice which can make a representative underdog surprisingly feisty in the Ultimate Game.

So we have a weekend without football. Not that we won't eventually have to get used to that (damn it) . . . but must we rush it so? We'll be happy to fill the space by exposing some of the outrageous distortions that can make sustained NFL observation such a knee-slapper.

Exhibit A: Terrell Owens. He loves the spotlight . . . craves it . . . can't live without it. Bill Parcells' abrupt departure from the Cowboy head-coaching position with a year left on his contract set off Dallas' Mouth That Roared, as Owens proceeded to spout fantasies straight out of Terrell in Wonderland.

After mouthing his share of empty, boilerplate tributes to the dear departed, Owens proceeded to kick dirt on the coffin, playing the old school/new school card . . . a recent refuge of me-first players who act as if coaches are superfluous whenever the me-firster in question doesn't repeatedly get his way. According to TO, Parcells was "stuck in (his) old-school ways", claiming a lack of clarity in offensive philosophy. You might project that Parcells wasn't eager to go to the mat with owner Jerry Jones in a he-goes-or-I-do debate, and took the line of least resistance, which figures to result in horseplayers seeing a good deal of Tuna in Saratoga Springs this summer.

Owens claimed he was underutilized in the Cowboy offense. That's hysterical gibberish. In all, 152 passes were directed his way - tops on Dallas, of course, and fifth in the league. Despite hand injuries which hampered his game this season, TO managed to catch 85 of those tosses - a league-leading 13 of 'em for touchdowns. Of Course, he also dropped 18 throws (those damn hands, again), tops in the league, in that category of dishonor.

By training camp, Owens will be 33 years old - creaky, for a wideout. His contract calls for a roster bonus of $3 million, payable in June. But with owner Jones having already snatched Jason Garrett from the Dolphins to fill a position to be named later (offensive coordinator, worst case, if he doesn't wind up with the head job), without a new head coach firmly in place it doesn't appear as if any new coach will wield a great deal of power if he can't name his own OC. And that bodes well for Owens. Jones and Owens, happy together . . much like Danny Snyder and Deion Sanders. No new championships for youuuuu, in the immediate future . . .

Enough of wide receivers. Let's talk quarterbacks - if that's what Michael Vick really and truly is, and that's a matter for further debate. The recent luring of Bobby Petrino from Louisville to assume the Falcons' head coaching position made no earthly sense at first blush, given that Petrino's college successes were largely based on maximizing the ability of QB Jeff Brohm, a pro-style passer in a pro-style offense. When the hiring was announced, it couldn't have looked worse for Petrino's near-term prospects for success. Much verbiage was tossed around about making Michael Vick the best he can be - which leaves precious little room for improvement, as his (considerable) scrambling talents are a lousy fit for a legitimate NFL offense, with minimal upside. Your quarterback shouldn't be your leading rusher. Your quarterback needs to facilitate the success of those surrounding him - notably his receivers. And other than TE Alge Crumpler, Vick has been an abject failure in this area since he entered the league.

Vick is the established golden child of Falcon owner Arthur Blank, though recent events may have altered the established paradigm just enough to offer a glimmer of hope for the long-suffering Atlanta faithful. The widely-publicized incident of a week ago at Miami International Airport, relating to Vick and a Aquafina water bottle featuring a secret compartment containing a suspicious substance. More lousy Vick judgment, at best. Tests of the contents came back negative over the weekend and charges were dropped, but your eyebrows rise and your eyes roll at the news that the airport security tape containing the incident was erased, in clear violation of standard statutes and practices.

Given that Vick's only two years through his ten-year, $130-million contract, the Falcons are stuck, but good. With the airport incident coming on the heels of Vick giving fans the middle-finger salute at the conclusion of Vick's stinking up the joint versus the Saints in Week 12, you can be certain that the meeting a week ago Thursday between Vick, Petrino, team president Rich McKay, and (via phone) Blank, was a stressful one, for all involved.

What further flavors the stew is the second Falcon QB on the depth chart, Matt Schaub, a far more conventional pro-style quarterback, and one who's shown considerable promise in limited game action. Schaub's a year away from free agency, and a number of other teams would love to have him, without question.

After mouthing the usual "unfortunate" and "time to move on" apologies regarding the airport incident, Petrino well knows what the deal is. 2007 will be the acid test for Vick in Atlanta under a new system. Barring a draft miracle, there are no wide-receivers at hand which are likely to bail Vick out this time around. Given the likelihood of what we expect out of the '07 Falcons - nothing extraordinary - hard decisions will have to be made, none of them pretty -- as Vick's style makes it hard to expect appreciable improvement, and the salary- cap hit involved in moving Vick would be savage. Lotsa luck, guys.

Nelson Lardner

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