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Petrino getting more than he bargained for leaving college

FLOWERY BRANCH - On that giddy day nine months ago, which now seems more like nine years, Bobby Petrino bragged he was getting one of the best coaching jobs in the NFL.

At the time, it didn't sound so far-fetched.

The money was great: $24 million over five years. The team had potential. Heck, the Atlanta Falcons were only two years removed from playing in the NFC championship game. Best of all, Michael Vick would be running the offense.

Petrino, like most everyone else, had no idea what Vick was doing away from the field. The dream job quickly became a nightmare, and the rookie coach has yet to wake up.

'It's difficult, because you're not seeing the hard work of the players, all the preparation, pay off with wins,' Petrino said. 'We've been in a lot of games. We've been right there. We just haven't gotten over the hump yet. That's hard.'

Vick, of course, should get most of the blame for putting Petrino and the Falcons in this miserable predicament.

The quarterback was operating a gruesome dogfighting operation in his spare time, breeding animals to become ferocious killing machines, executing the ones that didn't show enough fighting spirit, and funding the whole sordid affair with his NFL riches.

Once those revelations came to light, Vick was done - at least in Atlanta. And so was the Falcons' season, before it even got started.

'Anytime you're without one of the best athletes in the National Football League, it's going to be tough,' said Pro Bowl cornerback DeAngelo Hall, whose relationship with Petrino has been severely strained. 'Take Peyton Manning from the Colts and they'll go through a little slump.'

Instead of Vick, Petrino had to make do with Joey Harrington, already a two-time loser when it comes to holding a starting job. That lasted all of six games before Petrino switched to Byron Leftwich, a former starter in Jacksonville but plagued by gimpy ankles. Leftwich barely made it to the second half of his first start before going down again, handing the job back to Harrington for at least a few more weeks.

Not that it matters much. The Falcons (1-6) appear headed for one of the worst seasons in their already miserable history, certainly a far cry from what the 46-year-old Petrino left behind.

'There's no question this situation is hard on everybody,' he said. 'It's hard on me, it's hard on the staff and it's certainly hard on the players. We've just got to keep working, keep a positive attitude and work on improvement.'

In four years as Louisville's coach, Petrino produced a 41-9 record and some of the highest-scoring teams in the country. The Falcons, on the other hand, are a mess offensively, unable to run, pass or block with much success.

Given the extenuating circumstances, it's unfair to judge at this point whether the Falcons made the right call in giving Petrino all that money. Plenty of more accomplished college coaches have failed making the adjustment to the NFL, though.

There are some signs Petrino, like Steve Spurrier and Nick Saban before him, may not be up to the task of coaching an NFL team, which is composed of 53 disparate, independent and sometimes outspoken personalities.

Unlike college, where coaches are able to establish a cult of personality and unquestioned authority, the pro game requires a more delicate handling of touchy issues. Especially for someone who's never been a head coach at this level.

'He has to make sure he's got his hands on this team so he doesn't lose it,' running back Warrick Dunn said. 'He has to be involved in guys' lives.'

So far, Petrino doesn't seem at all interested in a friendly relationship with his players, unlike his predecessor, Jim Mora. That aloofness wouldn't be a problem if the Falcons were winning; after all, how many times has Bill Belichick gone out for a beer with his players? But a first-year coach finds himself getting stared down by plenty of skeptical eyes when the losses are piling up.

'He's a little bit more standoffish,' Hall said. 'He's not as - I'm not going to say people-friendly, because he's a pretty friendly guy - but I guess Coach Mora was really concerned what other people thought about him. Coach Petrino don't care about that. He's going to go out and do what he's got to do. He could care less whether you love him or hate him, but you're going to respect him.'