FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. - Quarterback Michael Vick's impact on the Atlanta Falcons was felt hours before the football team made him the first pick of the NFL Draft on Saturday afternoon.
Police set up roadblocks and established crowd control in front of the team's headquarters 40 miles north of downtown. Fans flooded the practice facility, requiring team officials to stand guard at doors to off-limit areas.
Coach Dan Reeves even noticed a difference.
"I've never had so many people pass me on the freeway coming in (to work) today and give me the thumbs-up," he said. "Believe me, it's good when the thumb's up."
Vick, a 6-footer from Virginia Tech, is a long way from proving to be the football adrenalin Atlanta needed most. But for now, football fans who have watched the team win just nine games in the two seasons since their Super Bowl appearance are giddy about what's ahead.
"We've been waiting for something to happen around here for a long time," said season-ticket holder Kerry Daniel of Roswell. "Atlanta needed something to happen to its football team."
Near one of the practice fields, Allen Gravitt of Calhoun, Ga., wore his Chris Chandler game jersey as he hugged the team's press guide and yearbook. Like the other thousands who made the unusual pilgrimage to the team's training facility, he was too excited to sit at home and watch the draft on television.
"Now the Falcons aren't a laughing stock," he said. "We're a serious organization. Finally, we're a serious organization."
Things were so upbeat for the Falcons, Reeves and team owner Taylor Smith left the war room shortly after the selection to meet with fans. Thirty minutes later, Reeves was behind closed doors working on the team's second-round pick, North Carolina tight end Alge Crumpler.
DRAFTING VICK MIGHT be the easy part for Atlanta. The Falcons traded away wide receiver/kick returner Tim Dwight and its fifth overall pick, the 67th overall pick and a second-round selection in 2002 to San Diego to move up to the first pick Saturday.
What's ahead is signing the left-handed quarterback with only two years as a college starter. He reported is seeking a $15 million signing bonus.
The Falcons will make it easier for the 20-year-old player to learn the professional game by creating wrinkles in their offense that utilize his strong arm and speed.
Once Atlanta had the pick from San Diego, Vick was the only consideration. In fact, the team had season-ticket commercials on local radio stations promoting Vick as the team's new star hours before they made it official at 12:18 p.m. Saturday.
"It wasn't a shock," Vick said of Friday's trade. "My agent told me Atlanta might trade up. I was all for it. It was a great situation, and I feel blessed."
SEVERAL FALCONS PLAYERS were at the headquarters Saturday to watch the draft, and each said they can't wait for training camp to start July 19.
"All I want to do is win games and sell out the Georgia Dome," running back Jamal Anderson said. "We've proved we're willing to pull deals to get that done. I think it's cool the team was willing to make a deal like this. We needed to bring excitement back to this city.
"This is the first time I've looked forward to training camp. We got a great deal. You have to make that move. In my years here, I don't remember anything like this."
Other players at the training facility Saturday were Bob Christian, Ashley Ambrose, Terance Mathis, Brady Smith, Travis Hall and Chuck Wiley.
Smith might have been the biggest cheerleader.
"There are certain guys who'd pay to go see play. He's one of them," he said. "He's going to bring exciting football, but we picked him because he's going to bring a lot of wins with him."
Unlike most trades in the team's 35-year history, the move to draft Vick energized the team's fan base, players and front office. Reeves likened the deal to the way he traded for quarterback John Elway in 1983.
"This isn't something even three days ago that we thought would happen," the coach said. "A couple of days ago San Diego did get back with us and made us an offer. We knew at that time maybe they were not serious about signing Michael Vick, and we came back and talked with them (Friday). We let them know what we could live with and we were able to work the deal out."
The Chargers' first offer apparently included Atlanta's second-round pick (35th overall) Saturday. Reeves stood firm and by late afternoon, San Diego backed away from the second-round demand, knowing its options were quickly dwindling.
"We weren't going to give away our ability to get better now," Reeves said. "What we had to look at on making this deal was, were we going to get better as a football team? The original deal had us giving up our second- and third-round choices. We could have gotten Michael Vick, but we wouldn't have gotten better as a football team this year. I do now think we now have a chance to be better this year.
"This is a young man who comes along, in my opinion, just every now and then."
TO FIT VICK and the team's other six draft picks inside the league's salary-cap limitations, Reeves said his staff will have to re-work existing contracts and make decisions on other players who create a financial burden. A lot of that will be done in the next couple of weeks, he said.
Reeves said Chandler, a 14-year veteran, would be the team's starting quarterback when they go to camp. He hopes Chandler will spend a season teaching Vick the team's system and the rigors of professional football. Chandler, who took Atlanta to the Super Bowl at the end of the 1998 season, agreed with his new role.
"I think drafting Michael Vick is a great move for the future of the Atlanta Falcons," Chandler said. "I am not going to play football forever. Michael is a talented and exciting football player, and I am looking forward to working with him and helping him develop.
"At the same time, I am going to continue to work hard, play hard and help this team get back to the level that I know that we can play at."
Reeves plans to get Vick involved in the offense next season. The Falcons hope to use Vick's speed - once clocked at 4.23 seconds in the 40-yard dash - in some of their offensive sets.
"I've never seen a quarterback on a football team that has a chance at being the fastest guy on the field," the coach said. "That's scary for the opposition."
VICK SAID HE'S willing to be patient while he learns the system and gains experience. But it's clear he doesn't plan to wait very long.
"I would prefer to sit behind Chris for a year," he said. "If not a year, six or seven games. By that time I should have a good feel for the offense. Hopefully they can base the offense around my game and the way I play."
Vick spent a couple of hours doing interviews from New York after he was selected. Then he went back to the hotel for a nap. He celebrated with family members Saturday night and planned to arrived in Atlanta about noontime today.
"It feels so much better now that this is all over with and I play for an NFL team now," Vick said.
For the Falcons, the party's just getting started.
Reach Don Coble .
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