ATLANTA -- There were plenty of Falcons fans wearing No. 7 jerseys at the Georgia Dome. They got a chance to cheer for Michael Vick's replacement.
Joey Harrington made a good first impression on Atlanta fans by throwing two touchdown passes Monday night in a 24-19 preseason win over the Cincinnati Bengals. It was a much-needed salve for a franchise trying to get past the stunning downfall of its most dynamic player.
"It's not something we can sweep under the rug," Harrington said. "Mike is definitely in a bit of trouble, but he's still a member of this team, still a member of this family."
The day began with Vick pleading guilty to federal dogfighting charges in Virginia, followed a short time later by Falcons owner Arthur Blank saying he won't cut the quarterback immediately, mainly because of salary-cap issues rather than any desire to bring him back two or three years from now.
Against that wrenching backdrop, Harrington and the Falcons (2-1) played their first home game of the preseason. Small groups of dueling protesters faced off outside the Georgia Dome, while hundreds (and perhaps thousands) of fans showed their support for Vick by wearing his jersey - the best seller in team history.
The Falcons spent the day trying to avoid an overload of news about the Vick case, but it was virtually impossible to watch TV without catching some of the massive coverage.
"I would be lying if I said I didn't" see any of it, Harrington said. "Between the Cartoon Network and NFL Films, I stopped by CNN once or twice."
Harrington received a smattering of applause when he trotted on the field for Atlanta's first offensive series. He was sacked on his very first snap, a jarring reminder the Falcons no longer have the quarterback who rushed for 1,000 yards last season.
"I'm not going to break out there and make plays spontaneously with my feet," he said. "I've got to make them with my head and with my arm."
After the rough start, No. 13's luck changed. Harrington completed his first six passes, including a 28-yard touchdown to Adam Jennings. After Allen Rossum put the Falcons in scoring position again with a 59-yard kickoff return, Harrington hooked up with Dwayne Blakley on a 29-yard completion, then flipped a 12-yard pass to Jerious Norwood for another TD.
Harrington played the first possession of the second half, guiding the Falcons into field goal range for Billy Cundiff's 37-yarder.
A flop in Detroit and Miami, Harrington left the field with a 17-13 lead and reveling in plenty of cheers. He was 13-of-21 for 164 yards and an impressive 118.0 passer rating, with two other throws being caught just out of bounds.
"Joey has been great. I think it's a little unfair for him to have to come in and be asked to fill Mike's shoes," tight end Alge Crumpler said. "I'm very proud of his leadership and the way he is accepting the responsibility and stepping up and making plays."
However, Harrington got an idea of the sort of expectations he'll face as Vick's replacement. After throwing three straight incompletions late in the first half, he heard some boos trotting off the field with the rest of the offense.
Of course, he got plenty of jeers in Detroit and Miami, as well.
"I guess I've learned not to worry about what the fans' reaction is going to be," Harrington said. "That's not to say we don't care about the fans. Without them, we're nothing. I want to put a winner on the field for the fans."
Another caveat to his performance: Harrington was facing the Bengals (0-3), who had the league's worst pass defense a year ago and were burned for two touchdowns and a field goal on New Orleans' first three possessions the week before.
"I don't want to overblow this thing," said first-year Falcons coach Bobby Petrino. "It's a preseason game. But it was important for us to go out there and show we could handle this and play well."
After an equally sluggish start to the preseason by the offense, the Bengals finally showed some life with the ball. Carson Palmer tossed an 8-yard touchdown pass to Chad Johnson and a 7-yarder to Daniel Coats, the first two touchdowns of the preseason for the first-team offense.
"I thought it was OK, but we're nowhere near where we want to be," Johnson said.
There were plenty of empty seats at the 70,000-seat Georgia Dome, which appeared about half-full at kickoff and was virtually empty by early in the fourth quarter.
Outside, about a dozen picketers waved signs such as "Ban Vick Permanently" and "Bad Newz Vick Shames Atlanta." Across the street, a similar number of Vick supporters barked out a much different sentiment, aided by a megaphone: "We love Mike! We love Mike!"
Lifelong Falcons fan Gwen Tucker was among those attending the game in a Vick jersey. She's still clinging to the idea of him returning to the team after he serves his time for dogfighting.
"I don't see any reason why he shouldn't," Tucker said. "He's an electrifying player. He did bring a hell of a lot of excitement to this place. It's not going to be the same."
Another fan, John Fox, considered wearing his No. 7 jersey with the word "Con" taped in front of Vick's name -- for "Con-Vick." But the Falcons fan ditched that plan, partly because he was impressed with the quarterback's televised apology shortly after the guilty plea.
"He actually showed contrition and I felt pretty bad for him," said Fox, who went with the No. 10 of former Falcons quarterback Steve Bartkowski. "Yeah, he did something stupid and ridiculous, but he did accept responsibility."
Falcons running back Warrick Dunn also watched Vick's news conference.
"He was real sincere," Dunn said. "Most important, I think he took everything on his shoulders. He didn't make excuses and said it was his fault."
Even so, the Falcons aren't likely to give Vick a second chance, already making him sound like a former player even though he won't be cut for the time being. That's a procedural move, necessary while the team goes through the process of trying to recoup $22 million in bonus money he got as part of his record $130 million contract.
Blank said cutting Vick would be "a short-term fix at the expense of our long-term success."
The Associated Press News Service