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Mora has improved Falcons flying right

Published Aug. 28, 2005

In the locker room before a game, Jim Mora can seem more player than coach.

"If he had shoulder pads on and a helmet in his hands, you'd think he was about to go out and play," said someone who actually does, Jason Webster. "He's that intense."

Mora's fiery demeanor has certainly rubbed off on Webster and the rest of the Atlanta Falcons, who are 2-0 for the first time since 1998. While the new coach has some traits that border on paranoia _ especially when it comes to discussing injuries _ his passion for the game is a welcome change for this franchise.

There wasn't much excitement a year ago. The Falcons lost Michael Vick in the preseason and struggled to a 5-11 record. Coach Dan Reeves clearly lost touch with his team, stepping down with three games to go when told he wouldn't be back.

Enter Mora, who got the job in a bit of an upset.

Other assistants around the league were more touted than the 42-year-old defensive coordinator of the San Francisco 49ers. But his trouble-sitting-still enthusiasm during the interview process won over Falcons' owner Arthur Blank.

Nothing has changed since Mora got the job, becoming the third-youngest head coach in the league.

"He was aggressive as a defensive coordinator, and he's aggressive as a head coach," said Webster, a cornerback who played for the 49ers last season.

Mora's combativeness paid off last week, when the Falcons squandered a pair of double-digit leads to St. Louis and went to the fourth quarter tied at 17.

Atlanta drove deep into Rams territory, but faced fourth-and-1 at the 2. Instead of taking a chip-shot field goal and reclaiming the lead _ which likely would have been Reeves' call _ Mora kept his offense on the field. Warrick Dunn found a hole at right tackle, getting not only the first down but a touchdown.

The Falcons went on to a 34-17 victory.

There also was an episode that showed Mora is just a chip off the old block. Late in the first half, he screamed into a sideline phone over an issue with the clock, then continued his rant with the image-conscious Blank, who was on the sideline for a halftime ceremony.

That outburst rekindled memories of Mora's father, the longtime NFL coach of the same name, whose tantrums and emotional meltdowns were usually on display for all to see.

"He's just passionate about the game. He gets caught up in the heat of the battle," Webster said.

The players have responded to Mora's tactics, especially during the grueling days of training camp and practice.

"When you do what we do, the body doesn't want to cooperate. It takes a lot of monotonous effort," Hall said. "But he gets your emotions going, your energy going, your enthusiasm going, your adrenaline going. You want to keep pushing yourself."

Mora refuses to let his players get complacent. Just last week, instead of relishing a homecoming victory at San Francisco, he halted practice because he wasn't happy with the effort.

"Guys were messing up, so he just shut it down," Hall said. "He went off on everybody, and I mean everybody. He told everyone that they've got to pay attention to the details."

Putting their own spin on Mora's mantra, the offensive linemen have been designating a spokesman from their ranks to speak with the media each week, while everyone else is supposed to keep quiet.

Here's something that is believable: Mora insists he won't let his team get caught up in all the hype over their 2-0 start or being favored to make it three in a row against winless Arizona today.

"Our guys are workers," Mora said. "They understand that to play in this league, you never take anyone for granted. It doesn't matter if it's an undefeated team, a 1-1 team or an 0-2 team. Everyone's capable of winning in this league, and these guys know that."