By Dave Campbell
MINNEAPOLIS - Finally, the Atlanta Falcons get to have some fun.
Their you-can't-make-this-up offseason, marred by the big trouble Michael Vick found himself in for his role in a dogfighting ring, is over. The Falcons are eager for the regular season to begin.
"I don't think we're distracted at all," new coach Bobby Petrino said. "I think we're focused and we're really looking forward to the upcoming game."
They play at Minnesota, where the Vikings - a franchise familiar with off-field tumult - enjoyed a quiet winter, spring and summer without major controversy or court appearances. In fact, buzz about the team has dipped to the point that today's game was in danger of not selling out and being blacked out on local television for the first time in 10 years.
Atlanta went 7-9 in 2006 while showing several weaknesses and fighting injuries. Coach Jim Mora was fired and replaced by Petrino, who was all set to shape Vick into a stronger passer with his college-style spread offense. Then, that plan was foiled by the feds.
Minnesota went 6-10 in the first season under coach Brad Childress and did little beyond drafting running back Adrian Peterson to inspire external predictions of great improvement. An offense that set team records for fewest first downs and touchdowns passing is one reason for the declining local interest.
But because of the unending attention Vick's guilty plea and indefinite NFL suspension brought to the Falcons, this game turned into more than a meeting of two teams expected by most to be mediocre.
The absence of Vick and the psychological effect, whether negative or positive, on the Falcons makes an intriguing story line - though it's one that means more on the outside than to the players who actually participate in these contests.
"It really hasn't crossed my mind. I doubt it's really crossed anybody else's mind," Vikings cornerback Cedric Griffin said.
In Vick's place is Joey Harrington, the underperforming former third overall draft choice of the Detroit Lions who made a one-year stop in Miami. Harrington never beat Minnesota in four seasons with the Lions, though he threw for 254 yards and one touchdown for the Dolphins in a defense-driven 24-20 victory last year over the Vikings.
He knows his opponent well, which goes both ways. The mystery here is more how Petrino will attack a team that barely missed a modern NFL record for allowing the fewest yards rushing, but didn't generate enough quarterback pressure and tied for the second-worst ranking against the pass.
Warrick Dunn and Jerious Norwood are a reliable pair returning from the top rushing team in the league, but that figure included 1,039 yards by Vick. With the addition of aging but accomplished receiver Joe Horn in free agency, Petrino's background as a passing-game technician and Minnesota's recent struggles against spread-out formations, Atlanta is bound to start the 2007 season throwing more.
"I expect them to throw us curveballs," Childress said. "I expect them to roll personnels. I expect them to be no-huddle. I expect them to be four wides, five wides, if they get an opportunity."
This is quite an opportunity for Harrington.
He's less mobile than Vick, but, well, so is everybody.
"I am not trying to step in and fill Michael's shoes. I am not trying to be Michael. I am not going to replace Mike," Harrington said.
Though it will be impossible to fully escape the shadow of Vick, the Falcons have been proactive about eliminating that "elephant in the room," as Harrington put it.