Falcons' fate in hands of a couple of backup players

FLOWERY BRANCH - Embarking on the challenge of leading the Atlanta Falcons offense just days after starting quarterback Michael Vick was sidelined, Joey Harrington wanted to make something clear.

"I'm not trying to fill shoes," he said.

Signed in the offseason as a backup, Harrington is now likely to start some, if not all, of the Falcons' games at quarterback in 2007 as Vick fights a federal indictment connected to his alleged involvement in dogfighting.

The NFL has indefinitely barred Vick from training camp while it investigates the charges, and Falcons owner Arthur Blank has said the only reason the team didn't suspend Vick is because the league asked Atlanta to wait until its probe is finished. To some, the team seems to be acting like Vick will never be back.

That leaves it up to Harrington, who spent five mostly forgettable years in Detroit and Miami before coming to the Falcons. Harrington, who's completed 55 percent of his NFL passes while throwing 72 touchdowns against 77 interceptions, says he's ready.

"I don't know that my role has changed, to be honest," he said after the first day of training camp. "My role when I came to Atlanta was to be ready to play."

And yes, Harrington realizes he's not Vick, whose running ability and improvisational skills energized and occasionally frustrated Falcons fans.

"Michael is one of the, if not the most talented players to ever play this game," he said. "There is no getting around that."

Not that Harrington is incapable of scrambling if he needs to.

"Joey can make some guys miss and get it down the field," receiver Michael Jenkins said.

The Falcons insist Harrington doesn't have to be Vick for things to work. The key, they said, is to get on board with the offense new head coach Bobby Petrino was brought to Atlanta to install.

"I believe in Coach Petrino's system, and we have to buy into it," receiver Joe Horn said.

Petrino doesn't dispute that having Harrington under center instead of Vick will change the offense the Falcons will run. But he said it's not clear what that will mean before Petrino and his staff have time to figure out what Harrington does well.

"Then you form the offense around him," Petrino said.

Already, Harrington said he prefers the greater degree of freedom given to the quarterback to change things up at the line under Petrino, something that differs from his experience in Detroit's more restricted offense.

"It gives a quarterback options," he said. "It puts the control in my hands, which is all I can ask."

Harrington isn't the only backup who will see increased playing time during training camp. Running back Jerious Norwood will be taking more of the reps as Warrick Dunn returns from back surgery. Dunn is expected to be out 3-4 weeks.

While saying he's confident he'll be back for the beginning of the season, Dunn said he supports Norwood, who ran for 633 yards on 99 carries in 2006 as Dunn's backup.

"He's an exciting guy, he's lightning fast and he has an opportunity to go out and make some plays and establish himself," Dunn said.

SideBar: Training Camp

' What: Atlanta Falcons training camp

' When: Today-Aug. 14

' Where: Flowery Branch

' Noteworthy: Practices are open to the public and practice times vary. Go to www.atlantafalcons.com for more information.