Not since 1998, the magical season when the Atlanta Falcons stunned the football world and even themselves by advancing to Super Bowl XXXIII, has the team featured a pair of wide receivers with at least 50 catches each. The last time the Falcons had three players at any combination of positions with at least 50 receptions was 1996, when Atlanta operated from the gimmicky run-and-shoot offense, which inflated everyone's passing numbers.
Those streaks could end this season, a year in which a new coaching regime has installed the West Coast offense, and in which quarterback Michael Vick will be surrounded by an improved arsenal of receivers.
"It's really a great group (of receivers)," said Vick, who has worked arduously with new offensive coordinator Greg Knapp in the offseason to assimilate the many nuances of the West Coast design. "Probably the best talent since I have been here. It's certainly the best speed. If everything comes together the right way, we can do some good things."
The most critical piece of the puzzle is Vick, who missed all but five games in 2003 after suffering a broken ankle in preseason, and whose return to health could return Atlanta to the playoffs. But beyond staying in one piece, the three-year veteran must mentally piece together the myriad components of a new offense, one in which the NFL's most electric player is being asked to upgrade his accuracy and his acumen.
Rookie coach Jim Mora and his staff won't try to rein in their best playmaker in an effort to insulate Vick from potential injuries. The quarterback's trademark derring-do is such a natural extension of his game that any attempts to curtail it would likely fail anyway and clearly would remove a key element of what makes Vick tick. Instead, the Falcons staff wants Vick to be more discerning, and to throw the ball away once in a while.
As a career 52.2-percent passer, Vick has to dramatically improve his marksmanship, since the West Coast offense all but mandates at least a 60-percent completion rate. And he will have to be more decisive in his reads, spread the ball around better, learn to dump the ball to the check-down receiver instead of trying to force something that isn't there.
Fortunately for Vick, he will have a significantly overhauled receiving corps to assist him in those pursuits.
The Falcons signed former Chicago Bears part-time starter Dez White as an unrestricted free agent. General manager Rich McKay traded for an extra first-round choice late in the opening stanza of the draft to snatch Ohio State wideout Michael Jenkins, a player who would not have been available to the Falcons in the second round. And, finally, Knapp has redesigned the role of tight end Alge Crumpler, a Pro Bowl performer last season, and a three-year veteran who could emerge as the NFC's premier player at his position.
As part of the emphasis on overall team speed, and on putting receivers into situations that enhance their playmaking skills, Crumpler will be "flexed" away from the line of scrimmage this season and his in-line blocking responsibilities will be reduced. Coming off a 2003 season in which he posted a career-best 44 receptions, Crumpler figures to grow into a 50-catch performer.
In the spring, the biggest surprise was the performance of White, who will go to camp as the starter opposite Peerless Price. The four-year veteran, overlooked by many teams in free agency, has quickly grasped the West Coast playbook. Noted for the first four years of his career as a spotty pass-catcher, White has been more consistent with his hands, and has demonstrated good quickness and decisiveness in route conversions.
His play could permit Atlanta to move lanky Brian Finneran to the No. 3 wideout spot, a role that probably better suits him. Jenkins will need time to develop, but is another wide receiver with nice physical dimensions, and has surprisingly good deep speed.
The upshot is that an offense that had just one player with more than 45 catches in 2003, and which ranked 31st in passing offense, should be far more potent this season.
Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com.