Bitter Falcons feel betrayed by Petrino


Arthur Blank looked at the sign on the wall, the one that Bobby Petrino put up in the team meeting room after he was hired to coach the Atlanta Falcons.

It lists the traits Petrino wanted out of his players, wrapping up with a most telling word:


"I don't think quitting after 13 games is equal to the word 'Finish,'" Blank said, not even bothering to hide his sarcasm.

The owner of the Falcons wasn't the only one who felt betrayed after Petrino skipped town with three games left in his first season as an NFL head coach.

The guys who were playing for Petrino less than 48 hours earlier arrived at the Falcons' suburban training complex Wednesday to find an 86-word farewell from their ex-leader, who bailed on a 3-10 season to take the coaching job at Arkansas.

That was it. No face-to-face meeting. No phone calls. Just a short letter that had all the warmth of a credit-card solicitation.

"I feel like I've been sleeping with the enemy," safety Lawyer Milloy griped.

The Falcons watched Petrino on television the previous day, yukking it up at a giddy, late-night news conference in Arkansas, then unloaded on him for the way he abandoned the team. Words like "quitter" and "coward" flowed easily off everyone's lips, from outspoken players such as DeAngelo Hall to the mild-mannered ones like Warrick Dunn.

While the aloof Petrino made few friends in the locker room &

and there was actually a sense of relief he was gone &

no one expected him to leave before the season was done. All he left behind was that letter.

"Atlanta Falcons Players," it began.

"Out of my respect for you, I am letting you know that, with a heavy heart, I resigned today as the Head Coach of the Atlanta Falcons. This decision was not easy but was made in the best interest of me and my family. While my desire would have been to finish out what has been a difficult season for us all, circumstances did not allow me to do so. I appreciate your hard work and wish you the best.

"Sincerely, Bobby Petrino."

Blank sounded as though he had just been stabbed in the back. He got a call late last week from Dallas owner Jerry Jones, an Arkansas alumnus, to say the school was interested in talking to Petrino about its coaching vacancy.

Blank said he told Jones the Falcons had no intention of letting the Razorbacks speak with their coach, and general manager Rich McKay confirmed that position in his own talks with Jones.

That was followed by a series of meetings over the weekend in which Petrino laid out some areas of concern, and the Falcons thought they had addressed them all. In fact, Blank said he met again with the coach on Monday, just hours before Atlanta's 34-14 loss to the New Orleans Saints, to make sure he wasn't planning to leave.

"He stood up, we shook hands and he said, 'You have a head coach,'" Blank said.

Twenty-four hours later, Petrino submitted his resignation, hopped on a plane to Arkansas and signed a deal as Razorbacks coach for less money than his five-year, $24 million deal with the Falcons.

"The best way to describe the way we feel," Blank said, "is betrayed."

The Falcons hastily chose secondary coach Emmitt Thomas to run the team on an interim basis for the final three games; he becomes the first black head coach in team history.

Blank said he has no reason to believe that Jones was involved in Petrino's sudden resignation, and McKay said NFL tampering rules don't apply to college jobs anyway.

During his final days with the Falcons, Petrino expressed to both Blank and McKay his concerns about dealing with pro athletes. There were plenty of warning signs he wasn't coping well with players who weren't afraid to speak their minds or question the coaching staff.

"This league is not for everybody," Milloy said. "This league is for real men. I think he realized he didn't belong here."

A couple of Pro Bowlers, Hall and Alge Crumpler, had openly criticized Petrino's domineering tactics before he left. Plenty of others expressed their frustration in private.

Dunn said Petrino's rules ranged from a ban on televisions in the locker room at the team's training complex to frowning on any loud talking at team dinners when the Falcons were on the road.

"It got to the point where I never went down to team dinners to eat because I was not going to sit there in silence," said Dunn, a 32-year-old, 11-year veteran. "You tell kindergartners things like that."

Around the league, others took note of Petrino's shocking departure.

"It just shows his true color, like a coward with a yellow stripe down his back," said defensive tackle Grady Jackson, who was cut by Petrino during the bye week and now plays with the Jacksonville Jaguars.

"He snuck out in the middle of the night like the Baltimore Colts did," said Kansas City Chiefs running back Kolby Smith, who played for Petrino at Louisville.

Even some of Petrino's fellow coaches were dismayed by his tactics.

"I'm always very disappointed when things like this happen," Baltimore's Brian Billick said. "This profession needs to handle itself better at times."

The Falcons were particularly upset about Petrino's jovial demeanor at his first news conference in Arkansas, where he even participated in the school's "calling the hogs" cheer. It was the first time any of the players could remember him smiling.

"The slap in the face was ultimately when he showed up at a 11 o'clock, or whatever time it was in Arkansas, doing the 'pig sooey' hog call," Milloy said. "It seemed like was right in rhythm with the beat. He had been practicing."

As for Petrino's letter, Milloy had a copy of it taped above his locker, with a red "X" through Petrino's words and the player's own assessment written in: "Coward." Center Todd McClure didn't even bother keeping his.

"I think it's already in the trash," he said bitterly.

Defensive end Jamaal Anderson, the Falcons' first-round pick from Arkansas, was asked what he would tell his alma mater about its new coach.

"One word: Disloyal," Anderson replied.


Associated Press Writer George Henry in Flowery Branch; Mark Long in Jacksonville, Fla.; Steven Wine in Miami; and Doug Tucker in Kansas City, Mo., contributed to this report.

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