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

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. (AP) -The Atlanta Falcons are trying to pull off a difficult balancing act. They support troubled teammate Michael Vick and want him back, yet they're determined to show they can get by without him.

At an extraordinary first day of training camp, the Falcons dealt with all sorts of distractions: sign-wielding protesters, a plane overhead pulling a scornful banner, Joey Harrington at quarterback instead of No. 7.

"I saw a sign or two," Harrington said. "I saw the plane circling the facility for God knows how long. You see it, you acknowledge it, you process it. It is what it is. Then you move on."

The Falcons opened training camp at virtually the same time Vick was pleading not guilty to federal dogfighting charges in Richmond, Va. His trial was set for Nov. 26 - the Falcons will have played 11 games at that point - and it seems highly unlikely he'll suit up for Atlanta this season, if ever again.

Tight end Alge 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."

As if they needed a reminder, the Falcons couldn't help but notice the small plane that circled the practice field pulling a banner that read: "New team name? Dog Killers?"

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

Knowing what his team faced, new coach Bobby Petrino called a morning meeting to let everyone air their feelings about the gruesome charges against Vick, express any bitterness they might feel toward him for getting into this mess, and stress the need to start focusing on the Sept. 9 opener at Minnesota.

Petrino also reminded his players that other teams have gotten by just fine when their starting quarterback went down. Ever heard of a guy named Tom Brady? He took over in New England when Drew Bledsoe was injured and so far has led the Patriots to three Super Bowl championships.

The Falcons would gladly settle for Harrington living up to some of the potential he showed as the third overall pick 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.

"I'm not trying to fill anyone's shoes," Harrington said. "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.

If anyone within the locker room is angry is Vick, they didn't show it publicly.

"No one is immune to the trials and tribulations of life," receiver Joe Horn said. "My heart and prayers go out to Michael. And I know Mike understands how we feel about him."

The protesters held up signs that proclaimed "Bad Newz Vick Shames Atlanta" or played off the letters in his last name, "Vicious, Inhumane, Cruel, Kills animals." Many of them brought along their own dogs. Passing cars honked in support.

But Vick has 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 will 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," linebacker Keith 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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