FLOWERY BRANCH - The hard part is over for the Atlanta Falcons.
Quarterback Michael Vick is now what Warrick Dunn calls "an ex-teammate." Vick will plead guilty Monday to criminal charges related to dog-fighting activities. He will likely spend the better part of the next two seasons in prison.
But going forward without Vick this season will be so difficult the Falcons' record "doesn't matter," tight end Alge Crumpler said.
"Our team definitely has to deal with it, and we're going to deal with it," said Crumpler, whom the Falcons drafted just hours after they picked Vick in 2002. "I can't say what our future record will be. To me, that doesn't matter. What matters is we come in, do what we're coached to do, play hard and we build upon this process.
"It's not going to be an easy process. It hasn't been an easy process."
Crumpler, Dunn and the other three Falcons who spoke with the media Tuesday - head coach Bobby Petrino, linebacker Keith Brooking and offensive tackle Wayne Gandy - will spearhead that process. Vick's decision to plead guilty at least spares his teammates from dealing with the situation throughout the 2007 season.
Vick's trial was set to begin Nov. 26, 12 weeks into the 17-week schedule.
The Falcons now have three weeks to establish a post-Vick identity before the Sept. 9 season opener against the Minnesota Vikings.
"Since I've been here, the media has always referred to us as Michael Vick and the Falcons," Dunn said. "But to us, its always been just the Atlanta Falcons. It's not about one player. And right now, it's even bigger. We're relying on the guys who have been there and done that. Guys who can keep us together."
Petrino is doing his part. The new coach has maintained a football-only approach since authorities launched the Vick investigation in April. Dunn and Crumpler praised his focus and setting an example for the locker room leaders.
Petrino hasn't dodged the Vick issue, either with the team or the media. But he refuses to allow it to distract him from the season ahead. Brooking said Petrino has "incredible tunnel vision."
"We certainly can't sit around and feel sorry for ourselves," Petrino said. "We have a great challenge ahead of us. I'm going to be as positive as I can. And the great thing we have going for us is our players have been that way, too. They've been positive and willing to work hard every day."
Still, Vick's absence casts a pall over the team. Atlanta was considered a playoff long shot even with Vick, and teammates had held out hope his legal troubles would be resolved and he could return to the team.
"It puts our team at a loss," Crumpler said. "I don't know how much we were really expecting him to be back this year. But right now, I hurt. And I hurt for him and his family."
SideBar: Bengals at Falcons
When: Monday, 8 p.m.
Where: Georgia Dome