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Falcons trying to move on without Vick

FLOWERY BRANCH - The Atlanta Falcons are hurt and confused. They're struggling to comprehend how the guy they knew as a star on the field and a friend in the locker room could have gotten himself into this much trouble.

At least the uncertainty is gone. The players who once lined up with Michael Vick know he's gone - and probably never coming back.

'He's not on the team,' running back Warrick Dunn said Tuesday. 'That pretty much makes him an ex-teammate.'

The Falcons have no choice but to move on, though Vick's decision Monday to plead guilty to federal dogfighting charges will have long-range ramifications.

Instead of having one of the NFL's most dynamic players, Atlanta must turn over the quarterback position to former No. 3 overall pick Joey Harrington, a flop in both Detroit and Miami.

Down the road, there will be major salary cap issues to address as the Falcons deal with the leftovers of Vick's $130 million contract.

Veterans such as Dunn, offensive tackle Wayne Gandy and linebacker Keith Brooking, all in their 30s and eager to play with a contender, suddenly find themselves on a team that everyone is picking to be one of the worst in the league.

'This is unprecedented,' Brooking said. 'It's never happened before. For us to sit here and try to reconcile that or put it all in perspective, it's very confusing.'

The Falcons practiced for just under two hours Tuesday, trying to carry on as if it was business as usual.

Coach Bobby Petrino addressed the situation with his team, gauging their feelings and trying to get a handle on how they wanted to express it.

Some players wanted to talk with the media. Some didn't.

'They've got me under a gag order,' said outspoken cornerback DeAngelo Hall, a teammate of Vick's at both Virginia Tech and with the Falcons.

Petrino said any gag orders were self-imposed.

'I told them there would be a number of guys today that spoke with the media,' the first-year coach said. 'Some guys didn't feel like they wanted to. That's fine. I have no problem with that.'

Tight end Alge Crumpler seemed most passionate about Vick's predicament. They came into the league the same year and Crumpler quickly emerged as Vick's favorite receiver. Now, it looks as though they'll never hook up on a passing play again.

Vick is likely to be sentenced to at least a year in prison - and probably longer - after he enters his guilty plea next week. He also faces certain punishment from NFL commissioner Roger Goodell under a tougher personal conduct policy that went into effect this year. Vick is likely to miss at least two seasons before he can even think about a comeback.

'Michael is a human being,' Crumpler said. 'People have been trying to dehumanize him. But he's hurting. I know that. Believe me, he's hurting.'

Vick is only 27 and likely to miss some of his best years, but his young age leaves open the possibility that he'll be able to resume his career, even if it's with another team.

His one-time teammates hope he'll learn from his egregious mistakes and come back a stronger, better person.

'Michael is loyal to a fault,' Crumpler said. 'I think that really hurt him in this situation.'

The Falcons won't be making an immediate decision on Vick's future, having been asked by the NFL to hold off until the league gets a report from its own investigator.

That hasn't stopped some players from trying to reach out to Vick, offering support as he faces the possibility of a lengthy prison term. Gandy and Crumpler have both been sending frequent text messages, trying to let the quarterback know that he's not alone.

'It's kind of hard,' Gandy conceded. 'You don't really know what to say.'

'I try to send him a positive note every day,' Crumpler added. 'I want to make sure he keeps his head up.'

Still, there's no getting away from the lurid allegations in the indictment: dogs being electrocuted and drowned when they didn't show enough fighting spirit, some of them reportedly killed by Vick himself.

'It's disturbing, obviously,' Dunn said. 'That someone of his caliber would be associated with that is the troubling part.'