SUWANEE, Ga. -- Jamal Anderson hobbled into the Atlanta Falcons' training complex Wednesday, dragging a wounded right leg and the hopes for a season that has gone terribly wrong.
"Well, I guess I'm not Superman," he said, managing a weak smile.
For the winless Falcons, it was time to face the harsh reality of life without their All-Pro running back, who injured his knee during Monday night's loss to the Dallas Cowboys and is through for the season.
Gone is the guy who set an NFL record with 410 carries. Gone is the guy who set a franchise mark with 1,846 yards rushing. Gone is the guy whose engaging smile and "Dirty Bird" dance were trademarks of an improbable run to the Super Bowl.
"It's upsetting, particularly with the way things are going for us as a team this season," Anderson said, referring to an 0-2 start after the first NFC championship in team history. "To go down like I did was terrible."
On a day of gloom in Suwanee, there was a glimmer of promise: quarterback Chris Chandler, who didn't play against the Cowboys because of a strained hamstring, returned to practice. He looked a little stiff but hopes to return for Sunday's game at St. Louis.
"It feels a lot better than it felt last week," Chandler said. "I'm very optimistic that if it continues to improve, I'll be good enough to play."
With Anderson finished because of a torn anterior cruciate ligament, there is even more impetus for Chandler to return.
No. 2 quarterback Tony Graziani has yet to make it through an entire game during his three years in the NFL, getting pulled early in the third quarter against the Cowboys.
"Anytime you miss a game, there's always pressure to get back in there," Chandler said. "But, yeah, it's a little more important now to get back on the field."
The Falcons talked bravely about carrying on without the player who defined their ball-control offense.
Anderson carried an inordinate amount of the load last season, allowing Atlanta to lead the NFL in time of possession and keep its defense well rested. Counting 27 pass receptions, he had a direct hand in 44 percent of the Falcons' 993 plays.
"People are going to say what they want," center Robbie Tobeck said. "But we're not going to throw our hands in the air. It's a long season, a long race."
The spotlight shifts to Byron Hanspard, a former 2,000-yard rusher at Texas Tech who missed all of last season with a knee injury. He'll be supported by Ken Oxendine, a seventh-round draft pick in 1998 who has rushed for 50 yards in his career.
"Everybody needs an opportunity to see what they can do when a starter goes down," coach Dan Reeves said. "I have tremendous confidence in Byron. I have tremendous confidence in Ken. Are they Jamal Anderson? No. But can they run certain plays well? Yes. ... It is a test now, seeing if we have some depth at that position."
After Anderson went down on his third carry of the game against the Cowboys, Hanspard ran a career-high 19 times for 76 yards. He says his knee is fine.
"There's always room for it to get stronger, but I've not had any setbacks," he said.
Anderson is expected to undergo surgery in a couple of weeks and plans to be fully recovered by the start of offseason workouts in December.
In the meantime, the Falcons will have to play with a weakened hand. They placed Anderson on injured reserve and signed 5-foot-7 Winslow Oliver, who was waived by Carolina at the end of training camp and won't be mistaken by anyone for the player he's replacing.
"These are the kind of things that cause the true character of your team to come out," defensive tackle Travis Hall said. "When you lose one player, is that your team? I think we can rebound."
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