Michael Vick inspires hyperbole on the field, but he also inspires it while wearing a cast on his right leg. The Atlanta Falcons quarterback, who suffered a broken fibula in a preseason game, has kept an even strain, at least in public. Not so the city of Atlanta, which has undergone a paroxysm of disbelief and anguish not seen since serial killer Wayne Williams terrorized the city in the early '80s. One local sports radio host compared the Vick injury, in its psychic effect, to the assassination of John F. Kennedy. A columnist in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution gave counsel to Falcon fans based on Elisabeth Kubler-Ross' five stages of dealing with death. Rumors have it that even the über-popular video game Madden 2004 has seen its sales dip, as superstitious types hold the "Madden Curse," which brings injury and poor play to the game's cover boys, responsible for Vick's felling.
The hue and cry needs to be put in context—the Falcons have gone 37 mostly moribund seasons without consecutive winning campaigns. This was going to be the year that dreary record was put to rest. Last season's memorable playoff win at Green Bay amid the snow and ghosts of Lambeau Field made a 2003 run to the title seem imminently possible, and the team spent the offseason as the trendy pick to win the Super Bowl. The buzz reached unheard-of proportions, greater by far than the post-Super season of 1998, which was properly written off as a fluke. For the first time in franchise history, every game ticket has been sold before the season started. The hubbub around Vick even managed to do the impossible in these parts: surpass preseason furor over the Georgia Bulldogs, usually the most popular sports team in the state. To suffer such a staggering blow before the fun even begins is an epic bummer for fans who remained loyal despite the trading of Brett Favre, the playoff choke against Dallas in 1980, Deion Sanders skipping town, and Jerry Glanville.
An overlooked aspect to the disappointment is that Vick is the first African-American sports superstar that the self-declared "capital of black America" could call its own since Dominique Wilkins was assembling his highlight reel. Black folks who wouldn't have been caught dead in a Falcons jersey three years ago now sport the No. 7 with pride. Vick's presence is a unifying force in a place where many blacks regard Southern college football (more accurately, its good-ol'-boy trappings) with suspicion. While the reaction among the white fan base is essentially "typical Falcons," to the African-American community, Vick's injury was a body blow, unsought proof of the fallibility of an icon comparable to Michael Jordan. (It should be remembered that MJ broke a bone in his foot early in his career and returned later that season to drop 63 on the Celtics in the playoffs.)
Into the NFL's consciousness steps Doug "Sling" Johnson, who hopes to play the role Earl Morrall and Kurt Warner, among others, played to perfection. While Johnson cannot begin to duplicate Vick's wondrous physical abilities, he is more than serviceable as a replacement. In fact, Dan Reeves' disco-era approach to offense suits Johnson's no-mistakes style. When Bill Parcells looks out at his quarterbacks before the Cowboys' season opener at the Georgia Dome, he'll likely consider his team at a disadvantage at the position. The same could be said for Atlanta's matchups against Washington in Week 2 and Carolina in Week 4.
Atlanta also has weapons like running back Warrick Dunn, unheralded stud tight end Alge Crumpler, and new wideout import Peerless Price, who if nothing else will command double teams and make life easier for the rest of the offense. More important, the Falcons field the league's best special teams. Kicker Jay Feely led the NFC in scoring in 2002 (forgotten in the Vick worship is that the offense frequently settled for field goals last year) while punter Chris Mohr led the entire league in net average, which speaks to the effectiveness of the coverage led by "gunners" Travis Jervey and Artie Ulmer. Field position will be at a premium with Vick out, and returner Allen Rossum will be under pressure to keep the offense's driving distance short.
Also squarely on the spot is the team's maligned but promising defense. The unit ranked nearer the bottom than the top in the league's total defense stats, which are based on yards allowed. But Atlanta tied for seventh in the NFL in a far more meaningful statistic, points allowed, giving up just under 20 points per game. The players are highly motivated to prove the Falcons aren't a one-man gang, a rallying point even before Vick went down, thanks to harsh comments to that effect by linebacker-turned-ESPN-know-it-all Bryan Cox. Professional athletes tend to look at adversity with a different eye than fans do: As Atlanta defensive end Patrick Kerney put it, "a lot of guys in the NFL have gotten where they are by proving people wrong."
That sort of thinking has, surprisingly, permitted an optimistic slant to gain traction. Conventional wisdom in the Dirty South now has Vick back for the Week 5 encounter against Minnesota, meaning a mere six-week recovery. Recent history suggests otherwise: Donovan McNabb missed eight weeks last season after a similar break. The schedule gets significantly more difficult after the Viking game (at St. Louis, New Orleans, Philadelphia, at the Giants, at New Orleans, Tennessee), and the thought of encountering that murderous stretch without Superman at the helm is just too much for the fan base's fragile psyche. But in between the Saints and Eagles games lies an all-important bye week, and cooler heads will admit that the smart move in the long term is to let Vick sit until after the week off.
Until then, Falcons fans desperate for a Vick fix can look north, where Michael's younger brother Marcus just made his debut at quarterback for Virginia Tech. He's currently second on the depth chart behind Bryan Randall, but as the football world has learned, the home folks get a little crazy when a Vick is off the field.