Falcons opt to cut their losses, fire Reeves with team at 3-10

Phillips is interim coach

Friedgen denies interest

Pro Football

December 11, 2003|By Ken Murray | Ken Murray,SUN STAFF

A season that started badly for Dan Reeves ended prematurely yesterday when the Atlanta Falcons fired the 59-year-old coach and named defensive coordinator Wade Phillips his interim replacement.

Reeves, who won 201 games in a 23-year NFL coaching career, declined an invitation from Falcons owner and CEO Arthur M. Blank to finish the season.

"It's like calling a player in and saying, `I'm going to release you, but I want you to play three more games until I find somebody to replace you,'" Reeves said at a morning news conference.

Dissatisfied with the direction in which the 3-10 team was headed, Blank said he hopes to pick a successor soon after the regular season ends Dec. 28, but perhaps not before he appoints a general manager.

Among the coaching names that already have surfaced in Atlanta is Maryland's Ralph Friedgen, who has a home in the Atlanta area and served as offensive coordinator at Georgia Tech.

But yesterday, Friedgen said he is not interested. "The only way I'm leaving here is if we decide we don't want to be the best or if they stop listening to what I want to do," he said. "Right now I'm here for the duration."

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution is speculating that should the Falcons hire Rich McKay of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers as their general manager, he might have an interest in Friedgen.

Blank interviewed McKay last winter when he was searching for a general manager, a position that was never filled. McKay, the general manager of the Bucs, looked at Friedgen as Tony Dungy's successor following the 2001 season in Tampa.

Friedgen removed his name from consideration shortly after news broke of the interview, though, and the Bucs eventually hired Jon Gruden.

Maryland athletic director Debbie Yow said she had not been contacted by anyone from the Falcons seeking permission to speak with Friedgen, and that she feels Friedgen remains committed to staying at Maryland.

Friedgen signed a 10-year contract extension in December 2001, after going 10-1 during the regular season in his first year with the Terps.

The Falcons are struggling one year after handing the Green Bay Packers their first home playoff loss in history. Atlanta's high expectations were quickly dashed when quarterback Michael Vick broke his right fibula in a preseason game against the Ravens. That triggered a calamitous fall from grace for the Falcons, who won their opener but lost their next seven games.

Vick's replacement, Doug Johnson, played poorly, the defense collapsed and there were internal problems.

There was also a point in the season when Reeves appeared to be urging Vick to return to the field. Vick said he wouldn't play before he was healthy.

Vick missed 11 games and returned as the starter Sunday.

He declined to say whether he agreed with Reeves' dismissal, but showed compassion for his former boss.

"Dan is a sweet guy, very sweet," Vick said. "He's a guy that I think really cares about his players. I think he went the extra mile for us and a lot of guys are going to miss him."

Reeves has a career record of 201-174-2 during stints coaching the Denver Broncos, New York Giants and Falcons. He took the Broncos to three Super Bowls with John Elway, and guided the Falcons to the Super Bowl after the 1998 season, losing all four games. He was 52-61-1 in Atlanta with five losing seasons.

Blank was not specific about when he made the decision to fire Reeves, saying only that it was a "long-term decision and it was reached recently."

He said the decision was not based on this season, but on his vision of the team's future.

The founder of Home Depot, Blank informed Reeves on Tuesday of his plans. He tried to persuade Reeves to coach the last three games and make the announcement before the end of the season.

"I was not comfortable waiting until Dec. 29, the day after our last regular-season game," Blank said. "I felt we needed to get started early for ... all the due diligence that needs to be done."

Reeves preferred to leave now and did not rule out a possible return to coaching.

Blank said Phillips would be considered, but he's not believed to be a serious candidate. In addition to Friedgen, others that might be on the Falcons' short list include former Minnesota Vikings coach Dennis Green, Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops and LSU coach Nick Saban.

Sun staff writer Kevin Van Valkenburg contributed to this article.

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