Mora puts himself in line for contract extension

FLOWERY BRANCH - One more victory could move Jim Mora into a higher tax bracket for the second time in 13 months.

The rookie head coach has no escalators in the five-year, $7.5 million contract he signed last January, but leading the Atlanta Falcons into the Super Bowl might earn him a windfall of sorts.

A source within the NFL indicated that owner Arthur Blank has considered adding value and length to Mora's contract regardless. At 12-5, the Falcons have exceeded expectations of most league observers who predicted they would struggle to earn a playoff berth.

Instead, Jim Mora orchestrated a dramatic turnaround from last year's 5-11 debacle.

"Money is the furthest thing from my mind," Mora said last week. "I can't imagine being so self-absorbed that I'd start whining about my contract, particularly at this point in time. Geez. Give me a break. We're trying to win a football game. Plus, I signed a fair deal, and even if I hadn't, I wouldn't care. All of my focus is on winning and nothing else."

During the brief negotiations Mora's agent, Bob Lamont, held with the Falcons Jan. 8-9, 2003, the two sides agreed to wait two years before considering a longer, more lucrative deal.

That was the approach Atlanta president and general manager Rich McKay took in 1996 when he hired Tony Dungy as a first-time head coach in Tampa Bay. The timetable worked well. Though Dungy's 6-10 debut looked nothing like a harbinger of good times, his second season gave the Buccaneers their first winning record in 14 years. He led them to four playoff appearances and a 48-32 mark in the regular season from 1997-2001.

McKay soon came calling with a raise, but Dungy, who earned a $250,000 salary in each of his first two years, didn't reach the NFC title game until his fourth season. Mora made it in his first.

"We're thrilled with the job coach Mora's doing," McKay said. "I speak for myself, Mr. Blank and the rest of the organization when I say that we're blessed to have Jim and a great staff that he assembled working with our players. It's been a win, win, win situation for everyone."

Most teams that advance to conference championships catch several breaks, and Mora was the first to acknowledge as much this week as he talked about the health of Atlanta quarterback Michael Vick.

When Vick made 17 starts in the 2002 season, Mora's predecessor, Dan Reeves, led the Falcons into the second round of the playoffs. Luck ran out on Reeves the following preseason when Vick broke his ankle, and Atlanta went 2-10 with Doug Johnson and Kurt Kittner starting at quarterback.

Vick will make his 17th start of the 2004 season Sunday when the Falcons visit Philadelphia (14-3). Other than losing starting fullback Justin Griffith to a broken ankle last month, Atlanta has managed to avoid a catastrophic injury to an irreplaceable player like Vick, running back Warrick Dunn, tight end Alge Crumpler, running back T.J. Duckett, defensive tackle Rod Coleman, defensive end Patrick Kerney or linebacker Keith Brooking.

"That's the one thing I think that stands out most prominently," Mora said. "(But) you've got an owner who's in his third year now with this organization and he's created a culture conducive to winning. He brought in a president and general manager in Rich McKay who's a football guy and understands winning in this league, in terms of acquiring talent, setting up a structure with the salary cap, and managing that cap."

Mora certainly helped his cause by hiring an impressive staff led by offensive line coach Alex Gibbs, whose blocking schemes cleared room for the Falcons to lead the NFL in rushing. Offensive coordinator Greg Knapp, linebackers coach Chris Beake and secondary coach Brett Maxie left San Francisco to join Mora in Atlanta.

Ed Donatell, in high demand after Green Bay fired him as defensive coordinator, chose Atlanta over Washington. Mora made the right decision in keeping several holdovers from Reeves' staff _ Joe DeCamillis (special teams coordinator), Bill Johnson (defensive line), Emmitt Thomas (secondary assistant), Ollie Wilson (running backs) and George Stewart (receivers).

"Man, I can't tell you what a difference it's made to have a coaching staff that holds every player to the same high standard," nose tackle Ed Jasper said. "We've leaders all through this locker room now. Anyone who tried to stand up for what was right last year didn't always have the support of the people upstairs. That might not have been the case, but it felt that way."

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