Bitter Falcons feel betrayed after Petrino bolts for Arkansas

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- Coward. Quitter. Hypocrite. And those were some of the nicer things the Atlanta Falcons had to say about their former coach on Wednesday.

Bobby Petrino left behind a bitter team and a boss who felt betrayed, skipping town to return to the college ranks with not so much as a face-to-face meeting with his players.

The Falcons watched him on television the previous night, yukking it up at a giddy, late-night news conference in Arkansas, then showed up at their lockers to find a 78-word letter from their ex-coach, whose tenure in the NFL lasted all of 13 games.

"Atlanta Falcons Players," it began.

"Out of my respect for you, I am letting you know that, with a heavy heart, I resigned today as the Head Coach of the Atlanta Falcons. This decision was not easy but was made in the best interest of me and my family. While my desire would have been to finish out what has been a difficult season for us all, circumstances did not allow me to do so. I appreciate your hard work and wish you the best.

"Sincerely, Bobby Petrino."

While the aloof Petrino had few friends in the locker room, and there was actually a sense of relief he was gone, the Falcons (3-10) felt totally abandoned in a season where so much already has gone wrong.

First, Michael Vick.

Now, this.

"It got to the point where guys really didn't care if he left or not," running back Warrick Dunn said. "But the way he decided to leave, to me, was just not right."

Falcons owner Arthur Blank sounded as though he had just been stabbed in the back. He got a call late last week from Dallas owner Jerry Jones, an Arkansas alumnus, to say the school was interested in talking to Petrino about its coaching vacancy.

Blank said he told Jones the Falcons had no intention of letting the Razorbacks speak with their coach, and general manager Rich McKay confirmed that position in follow-up calls with Jones.

That was followed by a series of meetings over the weekend in which Petrino laid out some areas of concern, and the Falcons thought they had addressed them all. In fact, Blank said he met again with the coach on Monday, just hours before Atlanta's 34-14 loss to the New Orleans Saints, to make sure he wasn't planning to leave.

"He stood up, we shook hands and he said, 'You have a head coach,' " Blank said.

Twenty-four hours later, Petrino submitted his resignation, hopped on a plane to Arkansas and signed a deal as Razorbacks coach.

"The best way to describe the way we feel," Blank said, "is betrayed."

The Falcons hastily chose secondary coach Emmitt Thomas to run the team on an interim basis for the final three games; he becomes the first black head coach in team history.

McKay said he would get to work Wednesday night going over the list of potential candidates for the permanent job, a task he never expected to be doing just 11 months after hiring the last coach.

Blank said he has no reason to believe that Jones was involved in Petrino's sudden resignation, and McKay said NFL tampering rules don't apply to college jobs anyway. NFL spokesman Greg Aiello said the league didn't have enough information to comment.

During his final days with the Falcons, Petrino expressed to both Blank and McKay his concerns about dealing with pro athletes. There were plenty of warning signs he wasn't coping well with players who weren't afraid to speak their minds or question the coaching staff.

"This league is not for everybody," safety Lawyer Milloy said. "This league is for real men. I think he realized he didn't belong here."

A couple of Pro Bowlers, DeAngelo Hall and Alge Crumpler, had openly criticized Petrino's domineering tactics. Plenty of others expressed their frustration in private.

"We're not college kids," said Dunn, a 32-year-old, 11-year veteran. "I'm a professional, grown man. Look at me eye to eye. Talk to me. But Bobby wasn't like that."

Dunn said Petrino's rules ranged from a ban on televisions in the locker room at the team's suburban training complex to frowning on any loud talking at team dinners when the Falcons were on the road.

"It got to the point where I never went down to team dinners to eat because I was not going to sit there in silence," Dunn said. "It's a joke. You tell kindergartners things like that."

The first sign of trouble was Hall's sideline confrontation with Petrino in Week 3, which led to the cornerback being fined $100,000 and held out for the first half of the next game.

A couple of weeks later, Crumpler complained about Petrino's offense and said the veterans felt they were being phased out. Those concerns came to a head when 35-year-old Grady Jackson, one of the team's most effective interior linemen, was surprisingly cut during the bye week.

Now playing with the Jacksonville Jaguars, Jackson didn't sound surprised about Petrino's sudden departure.

"It just shows his true color, like a coward with a yellow stripe down his back," Jackson said.

Around the league, others took note of Petrino's shocking departure.

"He snuck out in the middle of the night like the Baltimore Colts did," Kansas City Chiefs running back Kolby Smith said. Smith played for Petrino at Louisville.

Even some of Petrino's fellow coaches were dismayed by his tactics.

"For my profession, I'm always very disappointed when things like this happen," Baltimore's Brian Billick said. "Kind of leave it at that. This profession needs to handle itself better at times."

The Falcons were particularly upset about Petrino's jovial demeanor at his first news conference in Arkansas, where he even participated in the school's "calling the hogs" cheer. It was the first time any of the players could remember him smiling.

"The slap in the face was ultimately when he showed up at a 11 o'clock, or whatever time it was in Arkansas, doing the 'pig sooey' hog call," Milloy said. "It seemed like was right in rhythm with the beat. He had been practicing."

All Petrino left on his way out the door was that letter.

Milloy had a copy of it taped above his locker, with a red "X" through Petrino's words and the player's own assessment written in: "Coward."

"I feel like I've been sleeping with the enemy the past eight months," Milloy said.

Center Todd McClure had no intention of keeping his copy.

"I think it's already in the trash," he said bitterly.

Defensive end Jamaal Anderson, the Falcons' first-round pick from Arkansas, was asked what he would tell his alma mater about its new coach.

"One word: Disloyal," Anderson replied.

Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press

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