McKay Relieved To Have This One Behind Him
Joey Johnston, The Tampa Tribune, published 21 December 2003

Predictably, Rich McKay went underground Saturday. He was in virtual hiding. He never ventured to the field. He said quick goodbyes to former employees, but otherwise hovered close to a private box near midfield at Raymond James Stadium. Finally, the most bizarre afternoon of his professional life found normalcy. A football game. Then came kickoff. And for a brief moment, things got more weird. ``I was saying, `My God, my team is in the white [jerseys],' '' McKay said.

Tampa Bay's familiar red and pewter? Happy memories, but enemy colors. The Atlanta Falcons are now McKay's team. Make no mistake about that. He had brief moments of conflict, of course. So did his family at times. After a lifetime of rooting for the Bucs, building a franchise, agonizing about losses, celebrating victories, the relationships don't wash away. But after Atlanta's clinging-by-its-fingertips 30-28 victory against the Bucs, McKay felt a combination of joy and relief. He refused to gloat. He was in good spirits. ``This would've been a lot better game for me had we been playing next year,'' McKay said. ``With the way this week unfolded, I haven't got ten much sleep.''

That's understandable. McKay, who was Tampa Bay's general manager for most of nine seasons, was introduced only Monday as the Falcons' president and general manager. Then - boom! - he's back in Tampa for the first game with his new team. Against his old team. Wade Phillips, Atlanta's interim coach, said McKay suggested a play that resulted in a 49-yard completion to Peerless Price. McKay laughed that off, but admitted to sharing a few tendencies with the coach, specifically ``what we were fearful of people doing to us when I was in Tampa.''

The Bucs undone by McKay's game plan? Yeah, that's a stretch. But still, some weird possibilities. ``Let's put this one behind us,'' McKay said. ``The hard part is playing against guys you know, on and off the field. It's like the first time we [the Bucs] played against Warrick Dunn. It was very unusual to see Warrick running around in a Falcon uniform.''

Soon, McKay should be sleeping fine. The Falcons have quarterback Michael Vick, the cornerstone of all cornerstones. They have a high first-round draft selection. McKay gets to pick his own coach. The Falcons need major help defensively, but are much better than their 4-11 record indicates. Jon Gruden's Bucs, meanwhile, have difficult personnel decisions ahead, along with a potential salary-cap jam. They might be getting older, not better.

McKay seemingly has chosen a future that could equal his past. Or if you carefully consider the direction of the Bucs and Falcons, especially the way both teams played early in Saturday's game, there's another conclusion. McKay has traded up. ``This just opens up a whole new world for the Falcons,'' said Bobby Beathard, the former Redskins and Chargers GM who came out of retirement to serve as senior adviser to Atlanta owner Arthur Blank. ``I was way, way over on the football side. Rich brings everything. In fact, I don't think there's another guy in football who has more knowledge about the whole football operation and how to make it successful than Rich McKay.''

McKay's first few days have been a whirlwind. He has been in budget meetings. He has helped to shape a profile for the new coach and studied names on the list. He has watched several Atlanta practices and tried to shake the hand of every player. Jokingly, he tells office staffers to keep repeating their names, so he won't forget. He's an outsider, living in a hotel, trying to find his way, the family still back in Tampa. Slowly, it's getting easier. Maybe. ``We've been coming to the stadium for a long time, but this is the first time we're rooting for the other team,'' said McKay's wife, Terrin.

Oops. The Bucs are now the other team. It's difficult to avoid awkward moments. After all, McKay is shifting away from a lifetime of Buc allegiance. At first, he had a plan on how to arrive at Saturday's game. The Bucs granted him a parking spot, so he could drive with his wife and two sons, Hunter and John. But that didn't seem right. It was time to move on. He's still learning names and faces, but he rode Atlanta's team bus to the stadium. And that's how he left. Proudly, with head held high. ``I'm a Falcon now,'' he said. McKay wasn't gloating. He was just stating a fact.