Falcons invest hopes in rookie quarterback

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There has been little to enthuse fans of the Atlanta Falcons during the franchise's wretched 36-year history. Having been mired in mediocrity for decades, a new direction beckoned in 1998 when the Falcons surprised even themselves by reaching the Super Bowl. Inevitably, it proved a false dawn, Atlanta winning only nine games during the following two years.

With a new season on the horizon it comes as a surprise, therefore, to find the Falcons the most discussed team of the forthcoming campaign: even more so when the focus of that interest is a young quarterback who has yet to play a game as a professional, and who might not even make an appearance during 2001.

Michael Vick is regarded as a future star by those in the know but, like any young player, he represents a risk. In Atlanta's case, a particularly expensive one. The Falcons made him the first player taken in the annual collegiate draft last April, signing him to a six-year contract worth $62m (£42.6m), the biggest deal for a rookie in the history of the game.

The left-handed 21-year-old from Virginia clearly possesses the physical tools needed to excel at this most demanding of positions. His throwing has been compared with the gridiron legend Dan Marino, while his speed (he can run 40 yards in 4.23 seconds) will make him the fastest quarterback ever. It is this combination of power and quickness that has prompted the Falcons to invest so heavily in their future.

He is, however, a relative baby. Most players graduate after a four-year college career: Vick left Virginia Tech after just two, and his second was marred by an injured ankle. His achievements the year before, when he led his college to 11 consecutive victories, were sufficient to alert everyone to his remarkable potential.

Expectations abound in Georgia. The clamour for Vick to start in Sunday's contest against San Francisco is overwhelming, yet the player himself insists he is not ready for the role. "There are still a lot of things to learn," he said. "An NFL playbook is big, and you can't just go out there and play. That's one thing people have to understand." That was a lesson learned by Atlanta's head coach, Dan Reeves, in 1983. Reeves plunged a young quarterback called John Elway into the maelstrom, and while Elway would go on to enjoy a glittering career, his debut season was less than impressive. Reeves will not compound his earlier error.

The need for caution is also stressed by the incumbent quarterback, Chris Chandler. The 35-year-old veteran's caution is not prompted by concerns over job security. "I understand the situation, that there's going to be 20,000 extra people in the stands saying 'we want Vick'," he said. "If you put him in there too early he's going to be uncomfortable about what he's doing, and that could hurt his entire career."

There was evidence of strength and weakness during Atlanta's pre-season games. Vick's running ability was displayed in a 41-yard scamper against Tampa Bay last week but, in an earlier contest against the New York Jets, he also gave up two fumbles.

"He's doing a great job of seeing more things on the field," said Reeves. "You just hope he continues to gain confidence. The thing about Michael is that he will make some errors, but he won't repeat them." He offers compelling evidence that the role of the quarterback has changed beyond recognition in recent years. Gone are the days of the strong-armed passers who stood tall and only ran when circumstances became desperate. Today's passers can beat you with their legs as well as their arms.

Vick belongs in the same category as Philadelphia's Donovan McNabb, Daunte Culpepper in Minnesota and Aaron Brooks of the New Orleans Saints. Each of them possesses the extra dimension that proves difficult to defend.

The Atlanta youngster has the potential to be the best of them, yet fears gnaw at the core of expectation. Three years ago, two quarterbacks came from the college ranks with almost identical expectations. One, Payton Manning, has gone on to fulfil his promise with the Indianapolis Colts. The other, Ryan Leaf, was a disaster in San Diego. The Chargers released him at the end of last season.

His work ethic and humility appear exemplary, and his readiness to accept a learning role has impressed team-mates. "It just can't happen right now," he says of his prospects of supplanting Chandler. "Hopefully at some time this year, if Chris goes down, I can go out there and play at my best. My goal is to be ready to play. I have to continue to study, to believe in myself and my abilities."

Rarely has so much been expected of a player who has done so little and been paid so much. In addition to his gunslinger's arm and sprinter's legs, Michael Vick also boasts broad shoulders. He is going to need them.