For 3-11 Falcons, future starts now with hiring Bucs' McKay to rebuild

Conflict with Gruden was factor in departure of GM with deep Tampa roots

NFL Week 15 in review

December 16, 2003|By Ken Murray | Ken Murray,SUN STAFF

In the wake of a 3-11 plunge to the bottom of the NFL, the Atlanta Falcons' defining moments this season are all destined to be off the field.

One day after the team was flogged, 38-7, in Indianapolis, it scored a coup in the NFC South by hiring Tampa Bay's Rich McKay as president and general manager.

This followed by five days the firing of coach Dan Reeves.

With two games left in the regular season and no playoff berth in waiting, Falcons owner and CEO Arthur M. Blank is furiously working on the 2004 season. He beat a noon deadline yesterday to reach an agreement with McKay, who spent most of the past nine seasons as general manager of the Buccaneers.

Surprisingly, the Bucs did not require compensation to allow McKay to defect to a division rival, even though they had to surrender a king's ransom in cash and draft picks to get coach Jon Gruden from the Oakland Raiders in 2002.

"I think it is unusual and I think it is out of deep and abiding respect for what Rich has done for their club, for their franchise and in the tradition of what Rich's dad did as well," Blank said during a news conference.

McKay, the son of the Bucs' first coach, John McKay, helped elevate the team from the dregs of the NFL after he became general manager in 1995. His departure comes only 11 months after the Bucs won the Super Bowl.

Perhaps more to the point, it resolves the philosophical clash between McKay and Gruden, who gained new organizational control by winning the championship last season.

Although both parties tried to play down their differences, McKay acknowledged the conflict when he met Atlanta reporters yesterday. He estimated that it was the middle of the season when he began to consider the option of leaving Tampa and broached the subject with ownership.

Noting Gruden's preferences in running the team, McKay said, "The personnel conflict was such that, in my mind, it was going to be a struggle to marry the two philosophies. All I tried to do was raise it on the radar screen with ownership and say that this is something that I think we need to look at ... "

Both McKay and Blank thanked the Glazers (Bucs owner Malcolm and sons) for their cooperation. McKay got permission to talk to prospective new employers last week, and by Saturday had reached an agreement with Blank on a long-term contract.

Recent reports in Tampa indicate that Gruden had grown increasingly dissatisfied with his roster, which was hit hard by injuries. It was suggested that while McKay wanted to build with younger players, Gruden was more interested in veterans. Among the vets he entertained at one time or another were Emmitt Smith, Junior Seau, Darrell Russell and even Andre Rison, who hasn't played since the 2000 season.

Gruden has chafed at speculation since McKay's departure became inevitable that this was a power grab.

"I don't want to address any of that," Gruden said in his own news conference yesterday when asked who will handle personnel issues until a new general manager is named. "I'm not going to be the general manager. I'm not going to be the interim general manager.

"I'm really tired of answering all these questions, these deep philosophical questions. I wish him well. I think he's outstanding at what he does, and at the same time, we have our own set of challenges we're going to concentrate on now."

Interestingly, McKay goes back to Tampa on Saturday to face his old team and begin to acquaint himself with players on hand.

"The bottom line is, you win football games as a team," McKay said, "but you need core players, you need guys who can make impacts. This team has those players.

"Michael Vick is probably the most talented player to come in the league in an awful long time. It will be incumbent upon us to put a structure around him that helps him succeed."

McKay's first order of business, however, will be to hire a new coach. One possible candidate is St. Louis Rams defensive coordinator Lovie Smith, who worked under Tony Dungy - and McKay - in Tampa.

Best and worst

Highlights and lowlights from Week 15:

Best takeaway:CB Charles Tillman, Bears. Tillman ripped the ball out of Randy Moss' hands on a pass to the end zone for a game-saving interception against the Vikings.

Dumbest celebration:RB T. J. Duckett, Falcons. After scoring a touchdown that cut Atlanta's deficit to 31-7, the clueless Duckett danced in the end zone.

Best weather game:RB Curtis Martin, Jets. Martin punched out 174 yards in the snow against Pittsburgh to go over 1,000 for the season for the ninth straight year.

Most shameless self-promotion:WR Joe Horn, Saints. Planting a cell phone in the goal posts and pulling it out after scoring a touchdown is what wrestlers do.

Best bounce-back:Cowboys. After losing two straight and getting drubbed in Philadelphia, the Cowboys humiliated the Redskins, 27-0, in Landover.

Worst preparation:Wade Phillips, Falcons interim coach. After replacing deposed Dan Reeves, Phillips watched as the Falcons were out-gained, 302-28, in the first half at Indianapolis.

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