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pakowitz 11-18-2002 12:23 PM

refs to the rescue
this was written by espn's Len Pasquarelli

The frightening incident with Maddox aside, there is little more league officials can do to protect the quarterbacks, who all but play in a cocoon already. We bring this up because, while Atlanta's Michael Vick takes as many big hits as anyone in the league (perhaps more), NFL officials are certainly looking out for the guy. Before the Atlanta folks get miffed at this suggestion, we will stipulate (a legal term for the uninitiated) that Vick is a great athlete. That he is light-years ahead of the schedule we felt it would take for him to become a great quarterback. That he is one of the league's most exciting young players. But if you had seen the lame roughing the passer call against New Orleans linebacker Sedrick Hodge on Sunday, a play that contributed to an Atlanta touchdown drive, you would have cringed. Hodge could not possibly have avoided the contact. So this memo to the NFL: Look, this guy puts himself in harm's way every time he dashes out of the pocket and begins one of those derring-do scrambles. Isn't it enough he runs a 4.3-second 40-yard dash? He doesn't need the zebras taking care of him, guys, honestly. He's already sold a bunch of T-shirts for you, has given new meaning to the "I want to be like Mike" mantra formerly attached to that NBA guy. And he has energized a moribund franchise. Hell, last week, he was making phone calls to season ticketholders, urging them to pump up the volume in the Georgia Dome for Sunday's game with the Saints. And, oh yeah, about that crowd in the dome. Must have been a lot of those 70,382 people who bought tickets (wink, wink) who stayed home to watch the final NASCAR race of the season. There were some yawning stretches of people posing as empty seats in the corners of the end zone. New owner Arthur Blank has done an even better job than Vick of fanning the passions in Atlanta, and how he spends his money (like on the unsold tickets, so the home games can be televised) is his business. With the emphasis on business there. But to keep insisting that the Georgia Dome is really sold out, as the Falcons have done all season, is a charade that ought to end.

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