Originally created 01/05/02

Falcons feel winds of change



FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. - The Atlanta Falcons are certain to have a new look next season. Just how far up the ladder the changes go is a question that will haunt the team throughout the off-season.

Wide receiver Tony Martin was sent packing five days before the Falcons close out the regular season at St. Louis, and many more changes are certain to follow.

By releasing Martin on Wednesday, coach Dan Reeves addressed one of the team's biggest problems: lack of speed at wide receiver.

Others up for review include the offensive line, running backs, depth along the defensive line and the coaching staff.

By the time the team assembles for training camp in July, Atlanta will have a new owner in Arthur Blank. One of his first changes will be the uniform.

After that, who knows?

Reeves has operated under a series of one-year contracts. He wants the same for next season, but he has a combined record of 16-31 since the team's Super Bowl appearance in 1998.

The team lacks overall speed and has no true impact player - a fact enforced again late Wednesday when the Falcons failed to get a single player named to the Pro Bowl for the third consecutive year.

Michael Vick, the first overall pick of April's draft, is projected as the team's impact player of the future, but a lot of his practical experience - playing time - has been given to 36-year-old Chris Chandler. Even when Atlanta was eliminated from the playoffs a week ago, Reeves stuck with Chandler.

Vick wound up playing most of the game, but only because Chandler suffered an elbow injury in the second quarter.

After Chandler wasn't able to practice Wednesday or Thursday, Reeves said Vick would be the starter Sunday.

Vick is certain to be the starter next season, especially because there aren't many $60 million players standing on the sidelines in the NFL.

With Martin out of the way, the team has tough decisions to make about other wide receivers. Terance Mathis, the team's all-time leading receiver in receptions, yards and touchdowns, is 34; and Shawn Jefferson, the other starting wide receiver, is 32.

As badly as the Falcons need to add speed to their receiving corps, the situation across the offensive line is worse. Atlanta will use its eighth different starting lineup Sunday, and, so far, none of the combinations has worked well. The front already has given up 60 sacks this year, one short of last season's disastrous performance.

Part of the problem has been at running back. With Jamal Anderson working through his second major re-constructive knee surgery in three years, second-year player Maurice Smith has moved into the starting lineup. While he has had a couple of good efforts running the ball, he's been slow to pick up blitzes on passing downs.

With so many questions facing the Falcons, it remains to be seen whether Reeves will use the final game to audition younger players.

"The big difference mentally is going into the off-season feeling good about yourself, rather than having lost five of the last six," Reeves said. "That's not a good feeling. If you play one of the better teams and beat them, that leaves you a good taste in your mouth going into the off-season."

Equally important, will Sunday's game be an audition of sorts for Reeves and his staff as the new ownership prepares to take office?

"I don't think one game is going to make a difference as far as what my feelings are," he said. "I've just got to sit down and be realistic and see where my heart is and my desires and so forth. That makes a huge difference as to the job that you get done, regardless of the situation - see where exactly we are in the organization, where we are going, what plans the new ownership has as far as this organization is concerned and see if we're all on the same page.

"I just want to do what's best for the franchise. I think we've got a lot of things going in the right direction. We've just hopefully got to make a tremendous amount of progress. I'd like to be part of it. We'll just have to wait and see."

Reach Don Coble at doncoble@bellsouth.net.