First-year Falcons coach Petrino resigns after just 13 games at the helm

ATLANTA – Bobby Petrino resigned as Atlanta Falcons coach yesterday, having lasted only 13 games with the NFL team. A person within the league told The Associated Press that Petrino quit to return to the college ranks at Arkansas.

He had only left Louisville in January, agreeing to become Falcons coach for a five-year, $24 million contract handed out by a team that felt he could help star quarterback Michael Vick reach his full potential.

A few months later, Vick came under investigation for a grisly dogfighting operation that eventually led him to plead guilty to federal charges. He was sentenced Monday to 23 months in prison without ever taking a snap for Petrino.

A source familiar with Patrino’s decision, speaking on condition of anonymity because the school had not made an official announcement, said he was going to Arkansas. The Razorbacks have been looking for a coach for two weeks to replace Houston Nutt, who resigned after a tumultuous season and took the Mississippi job.

The school had no immediate comment on its coaching search, but called a 11:30 ET news conference for a “major announcement.”

The Falcons declined further comment beyond a terse, two-paragraph statement released last night. Owner Arthur Blank and general manager Rich McKay were scheduled to hold a news conference Wednesday.

There was no immediate word who would take over as head coach for the final three games, though defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer and offensive coordinator Hue Jackson would be the most logical candidates.

Petrino did not answer his cell phone or a call placed to his Atlanta-area home. His brother, Falcons receivers coach Paul Petrino, declined comment when reached on his cell phone.

“I don’t think I can say anything about it right now,” he said. “I’m sorry.”

After losing Vick, Bobby Petrino tried three starting quarterbacks without success. The Falcons are 3-10 and assured of the 32nd season of .500 or worse in their 42-year history.

“Anytime you’re without of the best athletes in the National Football League, it’s going to be tough,” Pro Bowl cornerback DeAngelo Hall said earlier in the season. “Take Peyton Manning from the Colts, and they’ll go through a little slump.”

The resignation of Petrino was another jarring blow in a surreal year for the Falcons, who had dealt with Vick’s legal troubles since the first day of training camp. A plane flew over the team’s practice facility pulling a sign that said: “New team name? Dog Killers?”

That was a far cry from Petrino’s introductory news conference, when he talked of his reasons for leaving Louisville.

“I was able to see the commitment that has been made here,” he said. “I believe this is truly the best football job in the NFL. It was an easy decision for me.”

Of course, he had no idea what Vick was doing in his spare time.

Petrino’s stint was one of the shortest for a non-interim coach since the 1970 NFL-AFL merger. Pete McCulley was fired after starting out 1-8 with San Francisco in 1978, and Sid Gillman lasted only 10 games in his second stint as San Diego coach, going 4-6 in 1971 before quitting.

In an interesting twist, Lou Holtz coached the New York Jets for 13 games in 1976. He went 3-10, then left the team with one game remaining to become Arkansas’ coach.

Petrino leaves with the third-worst winning percentage among Atlanta coaches. Only Norb Hecker, who was 4-26-1, and Marion Campbell, who went 17-51 in two stints as head coach, rank below Petrino’s .231 mark.

In four years as Louisville’s coach, Petrino produced a 41-9 record and some of the highest-scoring teams in the country. But the Falcons were anemic without Vick, ranking 24th in total yards and 30th in scoring.

Atlanta also was plagued by injuries on the offensive line, which forced Petrino to start two players who weren’t even drafted out of college.

Just hours after Vick’s sentencing in Richmond, Va., Atlanta took its fourth straight double-digit loss, 34-14 to the New Orleans Saints.

“Not a good day,” Petrino said afterward.

The resignation had to be a major surprise to Blank, who fired Jim Mora just two seasons after he led the Falcons to the NFC championship game, and lured Petrino with a lucrative contract.