SUWANEE, Ga. -- An 0-2 start became an afterthought for the NFC champion Atlanta Falcons, who received the devastating news Tuesday that All-Pro running back Jamal Anderson is out for the season with a knee injury.
Anderson tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee Monday night in a 24-7 loss to the Dallas Cowboys, going down without being touched on his third carry of the game.
"I'm extremely upset and saddened by this turn of fate," Anderson said. "I will do everything in my power to return better than I was before, as quickly as I can."
He won't be returning this season. The personable 26-year-old, whose "Dirty Bird" dance became a symbol of the Falcons' improbable run to the Super Bowl, is expected to undergo surgery in about two weeks.
Under the best of circumstances, he would be recovered in time for the start of training camp next year.
Anderson rushed for a franchise-record 1,846 yards and set an NFL mark with 410 carries last season. His punishing style and remarkable durability set the tone for a ball-control offense that helped the Falcons reach the Super Bowl for the first time in their 34-year history.
Now, Atlanta will hand the ball to third-year back Byron Hanspard, who missed last season with an injured knee after rushing for 335 yards as a rookie.
"It is one of those deals that it happens, and you hate it, but you can't dwell on it," coach Dan Reeves said. "We have got to move forward and try to get the job done."
This season, Anderson missed two weeks of training camp in a contract dispute, finally reporting two days before the first exhibition game after receiving a five-year, $32 million contract -- including a $7.5 million signing bonus.
Anderson was held to 50 yards on 16 carries in a season-opening loss to Minnesota, and managed only nine yards against the Cowboys before his season came to an end.
Reeves was asked if the holdout might have contributed to Anderson's injury.
"Everybody has got their opinions and so forth, but you don't know and you never will know," the coach replied. "It is just unfortunate that it happened. It happens a lot. It seems like when a guy holds out, he comes back in and has injuries. That is the tough part."
Against the Cowboys, Atlanta already was missing quarterback Chris Chandler, who strained a hamstring against the Vikings.
Without their two best offensive players, the Falcons failed to move inside the Dallas 30 until the fourth quarter. They avoided their first shutout since 1993 when third-string quarterback Danny Kanell threw a 45-yard touchdown pass to Tim Dwight with four minutes remaining.
Chandler is questionable for Sunday against St. Louis.
"That is the way life is," Reeves said. "You are not going to get a lot of sympathy from anybody. People aren't really interested in anything other than results."
Anderson was injured on a seemingly harmless play, raising more questions about the effects of playing on artificial turf. After taking a handoff, he attempted to cut to the left while still in the backfield. He crumpled to the ground in obvious pain with no one around him.
At first, the injury was diagnosed as merely a sprain. A more extensive examination revealed the Falcons' worst fears: Anderson tore his ACL.
"It is one of those deals that you could possibly not do anything and he possibly could play two or three of the last games of the season," Reeves said. "But that would jeopardize his career, and we don't want to do that. We will get the thing fixed and hopefully have it so that in the future it will be a good, sound knee."
Anderson, an obscure seventh-round pick from Utah in 1994, developed into one of the Falcons' most dynamic players, rushing for more than 1,000 yards in each of the last three seasons.
That streak effectively came to an end when he joined a growing list of players already out for this season.
Browns linebacker Chris Spielman retired after a neck injury, while Jets quarterback Vinny Testaverde and Chiefs running back Kimble Anders went down with torn Achilles' tendons. Denver linebacker John Mobley, St. Louis quarterback Trent Green and Jets running back-kick returner Leon Johnson all suffered torn knee ligaments.