Protesters, supporters turn out as Falcons open training camp without Vick

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. (AP) -The Atlanta Falcons already had enough to worry about. The first training camp with a new coach. A blistering hot day. And, oh yeah, the open-ended absence of their star quarterback, who was tending to serious business in a Virginia courtroom.

Then the players looked up.

A small plane kept circling over the practice field Thursday, pulling that annoying banner: "New team name? Dog Killers?"

"I was wondering when it was going to run out of gas," tight end Alge Crumpler said scornfully.

At virtually the same time Michael Vick was pleading not guilty to federal dogfighting charges in Richmond, Va., the Falcons opened training camp in the Atlanta suburbs with all sorts of distractions.

Protesters out front. That plane flying overhead. And Joey Harrington at quarterback instead of No. 7.

Crumpler called it "a bump in the road" - only to be corrected by teammate Lawyer Milloy.

"It's going to be a big bump in the road," the veteran safety said. "Everybody recognizes that."

But the Falcons called it the first day of moving on without their most dynamic and visible player. They held a morning meeting to let everyone air their feelings about the ugly charges against Vick, any bitterness they might feel toward him for getting into this mess, and the very real possibility that he won't play for Atlanta this season, if ever again.

Then it was time to get down to business. There's just over six weeks to go until the Sept. 9 opener at Minnesota.

"I'm not trying to fill anyone's shoes," said Harrington, who signed with the Falcons expecting to be Vick's backup. "Mike is one of if not the most talented player ever to play this game. There's no getting around that. He's an athletic phenomenon. My job is not to try to fill his shoes. My job is to win games."

Outside the gates of the team complex, competing groups of protesters jawed at each other, arguing over the merits of the case against Vick. Dozens of television trucks were parked alongside the road, as if Paris Hilton or Lindsay Lohan might be on the premises. The plane was merely the capper on the sort of scene that owner Arthur Blank hoped to avoid when he insisted a couple of days earlier - "This is a football team, not a circus."

"It was hard not to notice it," Milloy said glumly.

The change at quarterback is pretty noticeable, too. Instead of having one of the league's most dynamic players at that crucial position, the Falcons are forced to go with Harrington, whose career has been a huge bust since he was taken third overall in the 2002 draft.

His career record as a starter is 23-43, and he's already lost the No. 1 job in both Detroit and Miami.

"We're going to rally behind Joey," linebacker Keith Brooking vowed. "We're going to give him our full support and let him know we're there for him."

Harrington emerged from the locker room wearing No. 13 - downright appropriate in light of what the Falcons endured over the offseason and, really, through most of their existence.

This is a franchise that has never had consecutive winning seasons since joining the NFL 41 years ago. This is a franchise that had its only Super Bowl appearance (a loss, of course) tarnished by the arrest of a top defensive player the night before the title game. And now this, ugly accusations that could scuttle the career of the most famous player in team history.

Dozens of protesters turned out in front of the Falcons' complex, holding up signs that proclaimed "Bad Newz Vick Shames Atlanta" or played off the letters in his last name, "Vicious, Inhumane, Cruel, Kills animals." They brought along a megaphone to chant out slogans such as "Vick is sick!" and "Role model to parole model!" Many passing cars honked their horns in support.

But Vick had his backers, too. Plenty who turned out to watch the first day of camp made a point to wear their No. 7 jerseys. They responded to the animal-right activists with signs of their own, including "PETA go home" - a reference to People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, which has been leading the protests against Vick.

"I'm sick and tired of people rushing to judgment in this country," said Doug Weiss, who wore the quarterback's jersey and carried a sign that implored, "Let Vick Play."

"I love warm puppies as much as anyone else," he added. "But this becomes a perfect play for PETA. Who's going to argue with them? No one is going to say, 'We support the killing of dogs."'

Weiss also spoke for many Falcons fans who fretted about what kind of season the team might have without Vick at quarterback.

"He's an incredible player," Weiss said. "It's been proven. Just about every time he doesn't play, we lose."

The players, of course, have a different outlook. They hope the furor will die down a bit in the days and weeks to come, so they can get back to talking about football instead of their quarterback's legal problems.

"Let us play football, and we'll try our best to win games," Brooking pleaded. "Those are some serious allegations. It's very disappointing for us. I'm not going to say we're not going to think about it. At the same time, our main objective is to win football games."

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