Originally created 11/29/03

Vick's return gives Falcons some hope



FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- Because he wants to keep the Houston Texans guessing, Michael Vick sidestepped how much he'll play in his season debut Sunday.

Doug Johnson will start at quarterback when the Falcons (2-9) visit Houston (4-7), but Atlanta's primary focus will be on Vick, the budding superstar who broke his right leg and hasn't played since the second week of preseason.

"I just wanted to make it through a week, man," Vick said Friday. "That was my goal. You know, that's what I was able to do. I feel like if I have to play, I'll play."

After 15 excruciating weeks in which the Falcons became the first NFC team eliminated from playoff contention, Vick has finally declared himself ready to return from a broken leg.

Everyone, including Johnson, senses a much-needed dose of levity for a team that's lost two straight and nine of 10. Barring a setback at Houston, Vick will start next week when NFC South leader Carolina visits the Georgia Dome.

"I'm just delighted for the whole organization," Johnson said. "He looked great out there, so hopefully we can get a winning streak going."

Coach Dan Reeves acknowledged that Vick lobbied for more snaps in practice this week and likely will do the same in Houston. Leading receiver Peerless Price, acquired in an offseason trade from Buffalo, can't wait to get Vick in the huddle.

Playing parts of only two preseason games before Baltimore's Adalius Thomas tackled Vick from behind and broke his leg, Price flashed a smile when asked about catching a 70-yard touchdown pass Friday. Price had streaked down the left sideline past cornerback Allen Rossum and caught a high-arcing pass that covered 50 yards.

"That's one of the main reasons I came here was to play with Mike," Price said. "The season hasn't gone the way I wanted it to, but it feels good to be out there catching balls from him right now."

Vick was a first-team Pro Bowl selection in 2002, his first full season as a starter, after setting four NFL records for rushing by a quarterback and throwing for 2,936 yards and 16 touchdowns.

"That's the best thing he's got going for him," rookie receiver Terrence Edwards said. "He's fast and all, but his arm is unbelievable. He can make some throws that it's tough for some people to make, but he can do it effortlessly."

The Falcons entered this season promising to stay competitive while their star healed, but after winning their season opener at Dallas, they lost their next eight games.

Reeves benched Johnson, who had an NFL-high 10 interceptions following a Week 6 blowout loss at St. Louis. Kurt Kittner played even worse, compiling a 0.9 fourth-quarter passer rating and completing only 38.6 percent of his attempts overall.

The defense became the league's worst as it crumbled under the weight of season-ending injuries to linebackers Sam Rogers and Will Overstreet and terrible performances by cornerbacks Tyrone Williams and Ray Buchanan.

Atlanta is 0-5 when leading at halftime and 0-6 at home, but Vick insists his teammates never quit trying. He points to last week's 38-31 loss to Tennessee, a game the Falcons led 21-0 after the first quarter, and an overtime defeat at New Orleans the week before, as proof.

"That got a lot of guys' confidence levels high and that's what we needed - to go into this game with a little bit of confidence and going into this game trying to win," Vick said. "It'll be different being on the sideline, but at the same time I'll do the same thing I've done the last six or seven weeks - cheering my team on. If I have to go out there and play, now I can go out there and play if I have to."