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After losing power struggle in Tampa Bay, McKay thrives in Atlanta

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. (AP) _ Rich McKay built a Super Bowl champion in Tampa Bay, then lost a power struggle with Jon Gruden.

Talk about landing on your feet.

Now running things for the Atlanta Falcons, McKay is presiding over a first-place team less than a year into his tenure as general manager.

And the Gruden-coached Buccaneers? They missed the playoffs last season, have a losing record this season and are three games behind you guessed it the Falcons in the NFC South.

McKay insists that he takes no satisfaction from building a winner in Atlanta while his former team struggles. And he did his best to avoid the subject as the Falcons (6-2) prepared to host the Bucs (3-5) on Sunday.

Things happen, and you go on to a new place,'' McKay said by cell phone as he prepared to catch a flight Wednesday.I don't get caught up with what's happening in Tampa Bay. I still believe they have a good football team and they're going to win plenty of games. They just had some bad luck early.''

Tampa Bay is certainly playing better, winning three of its last four after starting the season 0-4. Still, that didn't lighten the mood when the subject of facing McKay's new team came up at Gruden's news conference.

This is not an issue,'' Gruden barked.Rich ain't playing the game and I ain't playing, either. It's something that was very sensitive. It will always be very sensitive. He was a great general manager here, but it's not for me to concern myself with. He's not here. He's in Atlanta.''

Let's talk about how that happened. McKay got much of the credit for assembling the team that won the Super Bowl during the 2002 season _ Gruden's first as Tampa Bay's coach.

From there, the relationship deteriorated as the general manager and coach sparred for control of player personnel, an issue nearly as old as the NFL itself. Gruden emerged victorious, winning the owner's heart and the battle of public opinion with his ``Chucky'' persona.

McKay, the quiet foot soldier who preferred working behind the scenes, didn't stand a chance going against a high-profile coach who kept showing up on magazine covers.

That turned out to be Atlanta's good fortune. Falcons owner Arthur Blank, who purchased the team in 2002, had wanted McKay as general manager right from the start. Blank even kept the job open while the back-room dealings played out in Tampa Bay.

When McKay left with three games to go last season, the Falcons swooped in with an immediate job offer. He took over in Atlanta just a few days later _ then watched his new team beat his old one in his very first game, though the Falcons finished 5-11.

Since then, McKay has made quite a mark. He made the call to hire Jim Mora, a fiery young coach who brought much-needed energy to a team that grew stale under Dan Reeves. McKay also got to work on the defense, signing Rod Coleman and Jason Webster to big-money contracts.

The other side of the line was in better shape. McKay was fortunate to have a quarterback such as Michael Vick, who missed much of last season with a broken leg. Alge Crumpler, Peerless Price, Warrick Dunn and T.J. Duckett gave a healthy Vick plenty of weapons to work with.

I thought this was a better team than everybody gave it credit for,'' McKay said.Yeah, they went 5-11 last year, but that was a unique year. Michael Vick was injured. When he played the year before, they made the playoffs. Coach Reeves left behind some very good weapons on offense.''

With a combination of good decisions and better fortune, the Falcons already have won more games than they did all of last season. They hold a commanding position within their division, leading both Tampa Bay and New Orleans by three games and defending NFC champion Carolina by a whopping five games.

Dunn, who spent much of his career with Tampa Bay, merely smiled when asked if he thought there was still some bad blood between McKay and Gruden.

They probably have their own little thing,'' Dunn said.We don't really know what happened. The only people who know are Rich McKay and Jon Gruden. I'm sure Rich is doing all the things he can to help the Falcons win this game.''

Sure, McKay wants his team to win Sunday, but insists it's nothing personal.

I've tried to stay away from focusing on what they're doing or what their record is,'' he said.I really don't think it has anything to do with what's going on now. That's yesterday's news.

``In my mind, it's a disservice to our team for me to even talk about it. It's more appropriate to talk about my guys and how they got to 6-2.''

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