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Michael who? Falcons open camp, don't mention Vick

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. (AP) -Michael who?

With no mention of former quarterback-turned-federal inmate Michael Vick, the Atlanta Falcons got off to an upbeat start to training camp Saturday, even with the reality of a massive rebuilding job threatening to dampen all the smiles and giddiness.

"I'm not going to talk about last year, but I'll talk about right now," said linebacker Keith Brooking, one of the few veterans left after the Falcons cleaned house during the offseason. "On the drive up here yesterday morning, I was so happy, so excited. I called about 20 people on the way up to tell 'em how fired up I was about coming to training camp."

Brooking's excitement is understandable after what happened a year ago, one of the grimmest seasons yet for a franchise that already had endured plenty of heartache.

Vick, the most famous player in Falcons history, admitted to running a dogfighting ring and was sent to prison for a nearly two-year sentence. New coach Bobby Petrino lasted all of 13 games before abandoning the team to take a college job at Arkansas. After winning only four games, Atlanta was left with no other choice except to start over.

Rich McKay was booted upstairs to make way for a new general manager, Thomas Dimitroff, who claims to be 42 but looks much younger. Mike Smith, the defensive coordinator in Jacksonville, was handed his first head coaching job. But the biggest changes came on the field.

Alge Crumpler, Warrick Dunn and Rod Coleman were let go to free up salary-cap space. Outspoken cornerback DeAngelo Hall was dealt to Oakland. The Falcons signed Michael Turner, the top running back in the free agent market, and drafted quarterback Matt Ryan - Vick's eventual successor - with the No. 3 overall pick.

While Turner and Ryan are the cornerstones of the new Falcons, the team is probably another offseason or two away from filling out a playoff-contending roster.

"It's always like that when you start over, draft a lot of young guys and come into camp without a veteran team," said receiver Roddy White, one of the few bright spots last season. "But it's all there for our young guys. They're going to have to step up and make the best of the situation. I'm actually kind of happy. We get to sneak up on some people and hopefully get some wins."

The Falcons sure won't mind flying under the radar a bit after reporting for camp a year ago in a circus-like environment.

Dueling groups of protesters worked the front gate, angrily debating the merits of the case against Vick. While the team went through its first practice, someone hired a plane to fly over the field pulling a banner that said, "New Team Name? Dog Killers?"

"I guess there is probably a little less media coverage this year from what I understand," Ryan said, letting slip a wry smile. "I think the message from the top down through the organization has been to focus on the future. We haven't talked much about last year. It's all about a fresh start and getting ready for 2008."

Talk about a fresh start. The Falcons have the look of an expansion team with 18 rookies, eight others who have yet to play in the NFL, and 15 more entering just their second season in the league. That leaves fewer than half those on the 80-man camp roster with more than one year of pro experience.

No wonder Smith talks about every job being up for grabs.

"This is an open camp. It's doesn't matter what position you play or who you are," he said. "Most clubs are in a different place. Some teams may know as many as 45 of the 53 players they'll keep. Obviously, this situation is much different.

"But," he quickly added, "we're excited about the opportunity to evaluate these guys and put a team together. The situation is going to be evolving - not only through camp, but probably throughout the season."

At least the Falcons had everyone in camp, reaching deals Friday with their last two unsigned draftees. Offensive tackle Sam Baker, the second of their first-round picks, and linebacker Curtis Lofton, a second-round choice, were both on the field for the opening practice, ready to compete for starting jobs.

"It was huge to get it done so all I've got to worry about is football now," said Baker, the son of outgoing Arena Football League commissioner David Baker. "You miss a day during training camp, it's like a week. You really can't afford to miss any time."

While much of the attention in camp will undoubtedly be directed toward Ryan, the No. 1 quarterback for now is Chris Redman. He finished strongly last season after becoming the third guy to get a crack at the starting job, and he's not ready to give it up to some hotshot rookie just yet.

"I think I earned my respect around here," Redman said. "I had an opportunity last year to get in there and I took full advantage of it. I want to keep it going."

The players sure welcomed holding their first practice under overcast skies, the temperatures rather mild for a July in Georgia.

Then again, this franchise can't wait for the sun to come out again.

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