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 FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. (AP) -As the Atlanta Falcons trotted on the field for the start of training camp, Michael Vick was hundreds of miles away in a Virginia courtroom.
Not that he didn't have an impact.
Competing groups of protesters jawed at each other in front of the team's complex, arguing over the merits of the dogfighting case against Vick. Dozens of television trucks were parked alongside the road, as if Paris Hilton or Lindsay Lohan might be involved. A small plane flew overhead pulling a sign: ``New team name: Dog Killers.''
It was the sort of the scene that owner Arthur Blank hoped to avoid when he insisted a couple of days earlier, ``This is a football team, not a circus.''
While Vick was pleading innocent to federal charges that have put his football career in limbo and could send him to prison for up to six years, the Falcons tried to get on with the business of preparing for the season.
Good luck with that one. Instead of having one of the league's most dynamic players at quarterback, the Falcons are forced to go with Joey Harrington, whose career has been a huge bust since he was taken third overall in the 2002 draft.
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 history.
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 their most famous player.
Dozens of protesters turned out in front of the Falcons' complex on a stifling summer day, 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 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.''
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