GREENVILLE, S.C. -- Pete Mangurian rolled his eyes - a familiar reaction for the Atlanta Falcons offensive line coach.
Yeah, yeah, he knows what everyone is thinking: How can the Falcons expect to turn things around when they've made few changes in the trenches?
Atlanta gave up as many sacks as any team in the NFL a year ago, and the only significant additions in 2002 are free-agent signee Todd Weiner and fourth-round draft pick Martin Bibla.
Even so, Mangurian turns defiant when anyone suggests his group is the team's weak link.
"We'll be a whole lot better just because we've got guys like Michael Vick, Warrick Dunn and T.J. Duckett in the backfield," Mangurian said.
Many coaches will tell you that it all starts up front, but Mangurian takes a different approach. He believes more speed at the so-called skill positions - particularly Vick and Dunn - will make things easier for the offensive line.
"That's always the case," the coach said. "I don't think the offensive line deserves all the credit when things work well, and I don't think they deserve all the blame when things don't work well."
Clearly, things didn't work well for the offensive line in 2001. The Falcons, with slow-footed quarterback Chris Chandler taking most of the snaps, surrendered 64 sacks, tied with Detroit for most in the league.
Left tackle Bob Whitfield was the only player who started all 16 games at the same position. Travis Claridge began the year at right tackle, moved to right guard and finished at left guard. Roberto Garza started at both guard and center. Three different players started at right tackle in the final four weeks of the season. In all, six different combinations shuffled in and out of the lineup, with little success.
Judging from the Falcons' draft history, the lack of stability on the line is hardly surprising. They have more seventh-rounders (Kynan Forney and Todd McClure) than first-rounders (Whitfield) among the players who might start this season, yet this group will be protecting three of their biggest investments: Vick, who will start at quarterback, and running backs Dunn and Duckett.
"It all starts with us," Bibla said, sounding a different theme than his position coach. "We've got to keep the defense off the ball, and we've got to keep them off Vick. That's where you set the standard."
Whitfield is the only member of the line with significant experience, an 11th-year player who got an $8 million bonus when he signed a new contract after the 2000 season.
Clearly, Whitfield didn't live up to expectations last year, admitting he was distracted by a new marriage and a fledgling record label.
"I was not able to maintain my focus from week to week," he said. "I was playing down to the level of everyone else and sort of got lulled to sleep."
Whitfield has dumped his record label and feels more comfortable at home.
"I'm putting things in their proper perspective," he said. "I used to be worried about so many things, it was hard to maintain good concentration."
Like Mangurian, Whitfield believes the line will look better just by having Vick, Dunn and Duckett in the backfield. The Falcons also signed Willie Jackson, who had more than 1,000 yards receiving for the New Orleans Saints last season.
"If the receivers are doing better things and the running backs are going better things, the beast of burden is going to be lessened for us," Whitfield said. "Vick is a mobile quarterback, too. What were sacks before are not going to be sacks anymore."
The Falcons are expecting big things from the 26-year-old Weiner, who started a career-high 13 games for the Seahawks last season. However, it must be noted that he moved into the lineup only after Chris McIntosh was injured.
Weiner, who has been praised for sound fundamentals and a diligent work ethic, will serve as the main backside blocker for Vick, who is left-handed.
No pressure there. Vick is merely the cornerstone of the entire franchise, a player whose success or failure will determine the Falcons' fate.
"It doesn't matter where he's facing, you don't want him to get hit," Weiner said with a shrug. "Sure, you don't want him to get hit from behind, but you don't want him to get hit from the front, either."
The Falcons are expecting younger players such as Forney, McClure and Claridge to be more effective simply because they've gotten another year of experience, another year to mesh as a unit.
It's a major gamble, considering the tens of millions of dollars that have been spent on Vick, Dunn and Duckett.
"You want to face someone with your head up," Weiner said. "You want to feel like this is a good group of guys. We're working hard to improve on what happened last year."
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