FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. (AP) -On that giddy day nine months ago, which now seems more like nine years, Bobby Petrino bragged he was getting one of the best coaching jobs in the NFL.
At the time, it didn't sound so far-fetched.
The money was great: $24 million over five years. The team had potential. Heck, the Atlanta Falcons were only two years removed from playing in the NFC championship game. Best of all, Michael Vick would be running the offense.
Petrino, like most everyone else, had no idea what Vick was doing away from the field. The dream job quickly became a nightmare, and the rookie coach has yet to wake up.
``It's difficult, because you're not seeing the hard work of the players, all the preparation, pay off with wins,'' Petrino said. ``We've been in a lot of games. We've been right there. We just haven't gotten over the hump yet. That's hard.''
Vick, of course, should get most of the blame for putting Petrino and the Falcons in this miserable predicament.
The quarterback was operating a gruesome dogfighting operation in his spare time, breeding animals to become ferocious killing machines, executing the ones that didn't show enough fighting spirit, and funding the whole sordid affair with his NFL riches.
Once those revelations came to light, Vick was done - at least in Atlanta. And so was the Falcons' season, before it even got started.
``Anytime you're without of the best athletes in the National Football League, it's going to be tough,'' said Pro Bowl cornerback DeAngelo Hall, whose relationship with Petrino has been severely strained. ``Take Peyton Manning from the Colts, and they'll go through a little slump.''
Instead of Vick, Petrino had to make do with Joey Harrington, already a two-time loser when it comes to holding a starting job. That lasted all of six games before Petrino switched to Byron Leftwich, a former starter in Jacksonville, but plagued by gimpy ankles. Leftwich barely made it to the second half of his first start before going down again, handing the job back to Harrington for at least a few more weeks.
Not that it matters much. The Falcons (1-6) appear headed for one of the worst seasons in their already miserable history, certainly a far cry from what the 46-year-old Petrino left behind.
``There's no question this situation is hard on everybody,'' he said. ``It's hard on me, it's hard on the staff and it's certainly hard on the players. We've just got to keep working, keep a positive attitude, and work on improvement.''
In four years as Louisville's coach, Petrino produced a 41-9 record and some of the highest-scoring teams in the country. The Falcons, on the other hand, are a mess offensively, unable to run, pass or block with much success.
Given the extenuating circumstances, it's unfair to judge at this point whether the Falcons made the right call in giving Petrino all that money. Plenty of more accomplished college coaches have failed making the adjustment to the NFL, though.
There are some signs Petrino, like Steve Spurrier and Nick Saban before him, may not be up to the task of coaching an NFL team, which is comprised of 53 disparate, independent and sometimes outspoken personalities.
Unlike college, where coaches are able to establish a cult of personality and unquestioned authority, the pro game requires a more delicate handling of touchy issues. Especially for someone who's never been a head coach at this level.
``He has to make sure he's got his hands on this team so he doesn't lose it,'' running back Warrick Dunn said. ``He has to be involved in guys' lives.''
So far, Petrino doesn't seem at all interested in a friendly relationship with his players, unlike his predecessor, Jim Mora. That aloofness wouldn't be a problem if the Falcons were winning; after all, how many times has Bill Belichick gone out for a beer with his players? But a first-year coach finds himself getting stared down by plenty of skeptical eyes when the losses are piling up.
``He's a little bit more standoffish,'' Hall said. ``He's not as - I'm not going to say people-friendly, because he's a pretty friendly guy - but I guess coach Mora was really concerned what other people thought about him. Coach Petrino don't care about that. He's going to go out and do what he's got to do. He could care less whether you love him or hate him, but you're going to respect him.''
Hall has been Petrino's most audacious critic. Their relationship took a turn for the worse when they got into a sideline confrontation during Week 3 after the cornerback was called for three major penalties on one possession, essentially costing the Falcons the game.
Petrino acted quickly, doling out a $100,000 fine (which is under appeal) and benching Hall for the first half of the next game. But it's clear nothing is going to shut up Hall.
This past week, he went off on Petrino and the front office over the shocking decision to cut 35-year-old Grady Jackson, one of the team's best defensive linemen. Hall said it appeared the team had given up on this season and was trying to break in younger, less-accomplished players.
Given his penchant for running off at the mouth, Hall's tirade shouldn't have come as a surprise. But it was clear that he was speaking for most of the players in the locker room, especially the veterans who are beginning to feel their days in Atlanta might be numbered.
``Losing a guy who has that experience, a guy who's making plays, to me that's the hardest part,'' said Dunn, who has rushed for more than 1,000 yards the last three seasons, but has only 292 yards this year. ``You find yourself asking, 'Why? What's going on here? What's the next move?'''
Hall and Dunn aren't the only ones questioning the direction of the team. Another prominent player, Pro Bowl tight end Alge Crumpler, let his frustration boil over after an especially frustrating loss at Tennessee. He said the Falcons' offense was the worst in the league inside the 50-yard line, knowing full well that Petrino is calling the plays. Crumpler also accused the coach of phasing out the veterans so he can put his own stamp on the team with younger players, a charge that seemed especially valid after Jackson's release.
``People are going to grumble when you lose,'' Harrington said. ``When you win, everything is great. When you lose, people are going to have issues. That's the bottom line.''
Petrino was clearly put off by Crumpler's bold criticism, saying he would have preferred it be delivered in the privacy of the coach's office rather than a media-filled locker room. The two met privately and claim to have smoothed things over.
The team itself is in need of major renovation. Petrino may have blundered by trying to drastically change the blocking style of the incumbent offensive line, but injuries to both starting tackles and one of their replacements have largely rendered that a moot point. The remaining linemen are seriously overmatched no matter what technique they're using.
Without Vick, the first quarterback in NFL history to rush for 1,000 yards in a season, the once-powerful running game has gone flat. The Falcons, who led the league all three years under Mora, are 23rd this season. The passing game isn't much better at 21st.
How much of the blame goes to Vick? How much falls on Petrino's offensive scheme?
``I feel like we had enough time to prepare without Mike,'' Hall said. ``I feel like we shouldn't be 1-6 right now.''
Petrino has simplified things. Instead of looking at the big picture, he's trying to win the smaller battles: turnovers, time of possession, third-down conversions. He's also shown a willingness to switch around the practice routine.
Early in the Vick saga, Petrino's stoic nature helped the players cope with losing the face of the franchise and the ensuing media barrage. After all, how many coaches have to deal with a plane flying overhead on the first day of training camp, lugging a sign that says, ``New team name? Dog Killers?''
``He did a great job of keeping us together with all the turmoil,'' Dunn said. ``With anything, you have to learn. He's learning. In time, he'll get this ship turned around.''
Recently, Dunn has noticed signs Petrino is trying to break down the icy relationship between coach and players.
``He's real low-key, but he's starting to reach out and try to learn more about us,'' the running back said. ``He's learning that this is more than just a game. It's not just about football. It's about life.''

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