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Exits are cause for alarm

Atlanta gets fired up, while fire's out in NY

Charles Dickens was no sportswriter but he had it about right when it came to New York and Atlanta this year when he wrote in "A Tale of Two Cities," "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way." When the days were still long and hope filled the air, the New York Giants and Atlanta Falcons were touted as Super Bowl contenders.


Today, everything is different. Coaches Jim Fassel of the Giants and Dan Reeves of the Falcons have paid the price for their teams' failures.

The way both went out said much about each. Reeves left with gentle dignity, refusing to serve as a lame duck after owner Arthur Blank fired him less than 24 hours after the return of quarterback Michael Vick to the starting lineup for the first time this season. That the Falcons upset the NFC South-leading Carolina Panthers on national television that night put the fear of God into Blank that somehow Reeves and Vick might rally the Falcons and finish with the kind of rush that would preclude him from letting go the most successful coach in franchise history.

Having already been convinced Reeves had to go despite Vick's injury, Blank cut Reeves's legs out from under him, and Reeves did what he has done so often in the past. He stood up and said if they didn't want him to coach next year, he didn't want to coach next week. He walked away with his dignity intact.

Fassel took the opposite approach. With his team losing six straight by a combined score of 163-51, including a 45-7 drubbing by New Orleans last week in which the Giants quit on him, he turned his firing into a soap opera. It has long been obvious Fassel had lost control of the team, so he forced the issue in a 15-minute meeting with team president John Mara and owners Wellington Mara and Bob Tisch Tuesday. When he was told he would not be retained, Fassel asked to be allowed to coach the final two games of the year.

That was fine, but Fassel then informed the team of the decision the next day before attending a teary press conference during which he admitted, "They need a change. I need a change."

So why stay? To complete the job? The job has not been completed, Jim. In fact, John Mara described the situation best last week when he said, "We're a franchise in trouble now."

Fassel dodged a bullet in two other seasons, rallying his team just when it seemed finished. But this time he could not get the Giants to reverse their field. Several weeks earlier, Fassel had an odd meeting with the team, during which he made clear he would be fired if their play did not improve. His plea had the opposite effect. The Giants got worse.

While there was only muted expressions of regret for his firing from the players after seven years as coach in which he led them to one Super Bowl and three playoff appearances, the Falcons were irate at what happened to Reeves.

Giants 12-year veteran Keith Hamilton said of Fassel, "This isn't a tragedy. He's going to find another job. Someone will want him. It's sad to see him go. Everyone wants to be here forever, but it doesn't work that way."

Tight end Jeremy Shockey added, "It's going to be hard playing for someone else, but, like he said, maybe change is good."

Compare that with the support Reeves received from Vick, linebacker Keith Brooking, and left tackle Bob Whitfield, among others. Whitfield was so agitated he cost himself his weekly "What's up, Bob?" radio show when he erupted into a torrent of profanity the day after the firing, leading the station to shut off his microphone and later in the week pull the plug on the show.

On the move?

No one knows when or if an NFL team will finally return to Los Angeles, but if one does, don't be shocked if it's the Indianapolis Colts. The Colts and San Diego Chargers have long been rumored to be the franchises most likely to make such a shift, and both took recent steps worth watching. The Chargers filed a suit against the city of San Diego that would, if successful, let Chargers owner Alex Spanos talk to other cities about a move. More subtly, Colts owner Jim Irsay just bought a membership at Riviera Country Club, one of LA's most exclusive. That's a long way to fly for a round of golf . . . Ex-Boston College product William Green's struggles continued last week when he quietly entered a Boston-area alcohol rehab program, a source inside the Browns organization said. Green agreed to enter the program after meeting with league officials and learning he could face a season-long suspension next year if he refused. Green first entered rehab last offseason and appeared to be doing well this year until personal problems beset him. He was arrested and charged with drunken driving Oct. 27 outside of Cleveland, and was put on immediate suspension. Since then there has been a much-publicized incident with his live-in girlfriend, who is accused of stabbing Green in the back. Although the Browns have been supportive of their former No. 1 draft choice, they had indicated to Green they would release him if he did not take action to get his off-field problems under control . . . Denver center and Foxborough product Tom Nalen has always been his own harshest critic, but this time it cost him. Nalen got into a debate with his agent, Brad Blank, last week over whether he would be named to the Pro Bowl for the fifth time. Nalen claimed there were eight or nine centers playing better, which would have meant half or more of his counterparts in the AFC. Blank finally tired of the argument and bet $20 Nalen would make the team. Thursday Nalen was gladly $20 lighter. Nalen had not been selected since 2000. He is coming off major knee surgery that cut his season short last year . . . You've got to hand it to the NFL. It's an equal opportunity suppressor. Joe Horn was slapped with a $30,000 fine for hiding a cellphone in the goal post and then dialing up his friends after scoring a touchdown, and Cincinnati's Chad Johnson was hit with a $10,000 fine for holding up a sign asking not be fined again for his wild celebrations. But Bengals quarterback Jon Kitna came up $5,000 lighter for a far different violation. He wore a Christian ball cap with a cross and a Bible verse on it to a postgame press conference. Kitna makes the hats himself, but the league claims you cannot wear non-NFL apparel in interviews after a game. Kitna was philosophical about it and, of course, had a scripture passage to back himself up. "That's what happens when you don't follow the rules," Kitna said. "I won't wear it anymore. The Bible says submit to the authorities placed above you. The authorities say that's the rule. So you have to follow the rules. I thought it just applied to competitors' products."

Penny pincher

When the season ends, the Oakland Raiders will have 19 March 1 free agents on their roster, including, most notably, cornerback Charles Woodson. Woodson earned $2.4125 million in base salary this season and says he wants to remain a Raider, but he also made clear last week he has a larger priority. "I want every penny," Woodson said, meaning he wants full market value for being among the game's best corners. The Raiders have to make some tough choices, including what to do with 38-year-old quarterback Rich Gannon, who is due to make $7 million next season, but deciding whether to slap the franchise tag on Woodson may be among the most difficult. They could do it and then pay him the average of the top five corners in the league for one year, around $7 million, but the outspoken Woodson has already said he is violently opposed to such a move. "Forget the average," Woodson said. "I want to be the top." He may be, but maybe not next season . . . Anyone wondering what's happened to Ricky Williams need only look to see he's on pace to become the fourth running back in history to carry 400 times in a season. Williams came into this week averaging 24.5 carries a game. If he hits his average, he will finish with 392, but he could easily eclipse that if the Dolphins believe that is the way to win. Williams had 54 carries in 96 hours earlier this season, carrying 23 times against Washington Nov. 23 and 31 times four days later against Dallas. Williams had been averaging 4.5 yards a carry earlier this year but he's sunk to 3.5, piling up 1,188 yards. If he becomes the fourth back to hit 400, it will not be a welcome milestone. The all-time leader is Jamal Anderson, who rushed 410 times in 1998 and was never the same. He averaged 4.5 yards a carry that year, injured his knee the next season, and never ecliped 3.6 per rush after that. Still, Williams accepts his fate. "This is what I do," he said. "I take a pounding." He also runs for 100 yards. Williams has done it 16 times in two years with the Dolphins, breaking the club record held by Larry Csonka. It took Csonka 106 games to set that mark. It took Williams 29 to break it . . . Of the nine coaches who have full control over personnel decisions, four have their teams leading their divisions. Of the 32 NFL teams, 16 have a clear line between the personnel department and the head coach . . . Despite a 5-9 record, Steelers quarterback Tommy Maddox has quietly rewritten Pittsburgh's single-season passing records. He has already set the club record for completions and would break the record for attempts with 13 more. He has thrown for 3,146 yards, trailing only Terry Bradshaw's 3,724 in 1979. In two years Maddox also has the season completion record (62.1 percent), most 300-yard passing games in a season, most passing yards in a game, and most attempts in a game . . . Cleveland defensive tackle Gerard Warren is willing to rework a contract that has hit several escalator clauses for next season. Warren's salary would go from $1.165 million to $5.8 million, a figure that would make him the second highest-paid defensive tackle in the league behind Warren Sapp and the third highest-paid player on the Browns.

Father figure

Shockey did rush to the defense of former Patriots assistant Mike Pope, his position coach. "He's like a father to me," Shockey said of the 61-year-old Pope. "I'm going to be heartbroken if he leaves me." Shockey attributed much of his success in the NFL to Pope, even going so far as to say, "If I didn't have a coach like Coach Pope, I would just be a normal guy, a normal tight end in this league, and I'm not just saying that." Pope is among 16 assistants with the Giants who will be let go with a year left on their contracts. In typical classy fashion, the Maras have decided to send the entire staff to the Senior Bowl, which is the sporting world's biggest job mart, and have told them they will be free to continue using their offices at Giants Stadium as they look for work. No security guards coming to stand by them as they clean out their desk. Redskins owner Daniel Snyder could learn something from the Mara family . . . Don't be surprised if Rams defensive coordinator Lovie Smith lands the Falcons' head coaching job even though many think Dennis Green has the inside track because of his ties to club president Ray Anderson. Anderson was Green's agent when Green was the Vikings coach, but he reportedly will recuse himself from the decision, leaving it to Arthur Blank and new general manager Rich McKay. That being the case, look for Smith, who coached in Tampa for five years while McKay was there, as the first choice . . . If the Seattle Seahawks don't make the playoffs, they may very well clean house, with not only coach Mike Holmgren in jeopardy but also GM Bob Ferguson. Ferguson was brought in a year ago when Holmgren agreed to relinquish power over personnel decisions, but industry insiders say nothing has changed. They claim Ferguson is merely a figurehead. If that head is lopped off, the Seahawks would be wise to give strong consideration to Chiefs pro personnel director Bill Kuharich. Kuharich was a finalist for the Seattle job a year ago but didn't get it because he was not willing to allow Holmgren to have the final say. Kuharich is former president and general manager of the Saints. Much of the team that went to the playoffs the first year Jim Haslett replaced Mike Ditka and Randy Mueller replaced Kuharich in New Orleans had actually been put in place by Kuharich, before he was fired following a season in which Williams was limping all year . . . There are many who believe Lions president Matt Millen's latest outburst could cost him his job, but don't count on that because it would cost William Clay Ford $6 million to get rid of him. That's what Millen is owed for the final two years of his contract.

Material from personal interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.

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Patriots 13 2 0 .867 317 238
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