Homers and Haters, Atlanta edition

Note: This article was written for the Carolina Huddle fan site, and originally appeared in their forums here.

This week the Panthers head to Atlanta, where they hope to rebound from their home loss to the Houston Texans. In the Falcons, they have an opponent with a lot of familiarity, but which is at the same time a very different team from the one they split with in 2007.

A new coaching staff always brings change to a football team, but the changes in Atlanta go a little above and beyond anyone’s expectations. Start with the loss of both of their primary backup QBs, their starting DE, a starting LB, and half of their receiving corps, and you have what could be called a major shake-up. Then add the coaching change and throw in the Michael Vick circus, and you have the Atlanta off-season.

Bobby Petrino has minimal NFL experience but is well regarded as a creative offensive genious. He’ll be tasked with coaxing a successful performance out of free agent QB Joey Harrington. Among his other challenges will be shaping up a defense that could charitably be called inconsistent in 2006. If he succeeds at both the Falcons could contend for the playoffs. If he fails at either, the Falcons will strong contenders in the Brian Brohm sweepstakes.

Here is what you can expect from the 2007 edition of the Atlanta Falcons.

Quarterback
Now that Vick is gone, the focus is on Joey Harrington, formerly of Detroit and Miami. The third overall pick in 2001, Harrington has been cursed with poor coaching, mediocre protection and just plain bad teams. This is probably Harrington’s last chance to be viewed as a legitimate NFL starter. His lifetime QB rating is 68, although many feel he still has potential to be much better. Through the first two games in 2007 he has raised it to 74.1, despite being sacked 13 times.

Homer: “Joey Harrington hasn’t thrown a touchdown pass since the republicans controlled congress. He’s thrown several interceptions though, so it’s not like he hasn’t made a contribution. Expect Lucas and Gamble to both take advantage Sunday, and look for Jooo-eeeey to get booed by the home crowd no later than the third posession.”

Hater: “Joey Harrington is an accurate passer who’s willing to stand in the pocket and take a hit. He’s not getting the protection he needs right now, but he’s more than capable of making the quick short pass. As Matt Schaub showed last week, that’s the formula for killing the Panther’s defense. He won’t kill you with the long ball, but if he has any game film at all he knows he won’t need to.

Running Backs
It’s interesting to see the effect that the absence of Vick has on the running game. Age is a factor too, as Warrick Dunn is 32 and coming off back surgery this offseason. So far he’s only averaged 3.0 yards per carry, down from 4.0 in 2006. Backing him up is second year pro Jerious Norwood, a quick back who averaged 6.4 yards per carry last season but so far is averaging 4.5 this year. At the fullback spot is one of the biggest acquisitions the Falcons made in the offseason, ex-Raven Ovie Mughelli. Mughelli is a powerful blocker who fits Petrino’s offensive scheme well, and is not expected to carry the ball much.

Homer: “Well, the foul clowns have lost their best running back in Vick, so they’re stuck with Done and Injurious. Neither fit Petrino’s scheme and it shows. Both are capable runners but require these things called holes to run through. Based on the season to date, holes aren’t a part of Petrino’s offense. Still, either can be dangerous catching passes out of the backfield, but as long as Harrington is the QB we won’t need to worry about that.”

Hater: “Last year the same group of backs ran all over this defensive line on opening day. This is the group that also ran through Dan Morgan and knocked him out for the season. The Falcons have started against two of the better defenses in the league. Their running game will get a lot better, and as the line gets more accustomed to Petrino’s schemes those holes will s