FLOWERY BRANCH - One man's words have legitimized the Falcons as a Super Bowl contender.
Lawyer Milloy's words, not Michael Vick's.
Not to disparage what Vick said last Thursday. His admission that he, as Atlanta's veteran quarterback and most high-profile player, feels a personal obligation for the success or failure of the team is refreshing. His statements showed maturity and perspective.
But Milloy's words echoed across the practice field, not an interview room. The chatter from the veteran Pro Bowler, signed as a free agent in the offseason, is constant, whether he is participating in the drill or not.
No, talk doesn't produce any more tackles. Not does it force any more turnovers. But attitude does. And Atlanta's defense is a different unit with the addition of Milloy and fellow free agent signees Chris Crocker and John Abraham.
"He's going to encourage, he's going to chide, he's going to get after it," said head coach Jim Mora of Milloy. "That's what makes him the best and the others around him. Every team needs to have that."
The Falcons lacked a Milloy-type for much of last season. Middle linebacker Ed Hartwell suffered a season-ending injury five games in, forcing Mora's staff to shift personnel around. The shuffling hurt the continuity, but not as much as injuries later in the season would.
Veteran defensive end Brady Smith went down with a dislocated toe. Defensive back Kevin Mathis blew out his knee. Other members of the secondary suffered various scrapes, sprains and strains.
And just like that, the Falcons went from title contenders to playoff missers.
Vick can take the blame for last season if he wants. But one stat tells the story: Atlanta went 3-4 in games decided by less than a touchdown. A year earlier, on the way to an 11-5 finish, the Falcons were 6-1 in those games.
Defense wins close games. Vick did some spectacular things in the clutch two years ago. Yet the defense gave him those opportunities. And when the Falcons had the lead, they didn't give it up.
Not so last season. Falcons' fans could sense late rallies coming in losses to New England and Tampa Bay. The pass rush disappeared, and the secondary became a sieve.
Vick said there were times last season where the offense played more like a team trying not to lose than one competing to win. Right idea, wrong side of the ball.
The overhaul in the secondary will make the biggest difference. Replacing Keion Carpenter and Bryan Scott with Crocker and Milloy is like trading in an abacus for a handheld computer.
Safety is what Crocker calls the "glue-spots" in an NFL defense. Two of the last four Super Bowl teams, Pittsburgh last season and Philadelphia two years ago, had impact players at safety: the Steelers' Troy Polamalu and the Eagles' Brian Dawkins.
"Safety is a position where you set the tempo," Crocker said. "Every good team in the league has tempo-setters in those spot. It's about coming out and being physical and making big plays."
The Falcons have that now. A Super Bowl could be next.
Adam Van Brimmer is an Atlanta-based writer for Morris News Service. E-mail him at email@example.com or telephone him at 404-589-8424.