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No shows: Atlanta receivers struggle to make impact in West Coast offense

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. (AP) _ Peerless Price repeated the question, buying himself a little more time to come up with the answer. Still, there was a moment of awkward silence that spoke volumes about his role with the Atlanta Falcons.

``If I had to do it over again, would I?'' Price said, pondering whether he's got any regrets about signing with the Falcons almost two years ago.

At the time, he was coming off a career season at Buffalo _ 94 catches, 1,252 yards, nine touchdowns. In desperate need of a big-time receiver, the Falcons handed over a first-round pick to the Bills and a $10 million bonus to Price.

Now, flash forward to 2004. While the Falcons (9-3) are on the verge of clinching the NFC South, the lack of production by Price and the other receivers is one of the team's most troubling issues.

Price has just 29 catches for 458 yards and two touchdowns, which both came in a victory over Denver. The other starter, Dez White, has managed only 22 receptions for 254 yards and one TD.

Tight end Alge Crumpler has emerged as Michael Vick's favorite receiver, while the 28-year-old Price is saddled with the perception of being an overpaid flop. At this point, he would be happy if one or two passes came his way each week.

It's come to that,'' Price said.I don't feel like I need to have 100 yards every week. I just want to make a few plays that make a difference.''

While conceding the receivers need to play a bigger role in the offense, first-year coach Jim Mora said it's all part of the transition to a West Coast-style system.

The last three things that come are red-zone offense, third-down offense and the involvement of your receivers out on the perimeter,'' Mora said.I believe that our receivers will get more involved as we go.''

Price already had a chip on his shoulder after his first season in Atlanta. He dropped off to 64 catches and three touchdowns, hardly the sort of production the Falcons were expecting from their big investment.

There were extenuating circumstances. Vick broke a leg in the preseason, and the Falcons fell apart with Doug Johnson and Kurt Kittner sharing the quarterback job.

Now, it's the new offense that's getting the blame.

Sure, we're always saying, 'OK, how can we get them more involved?''' Mora said.Sometimes it works out. Sometimes it doesn't.''

All justifications and explanations aside, Price's lack of production raises questions about whether he's a legitimate No. 1 receiver.

With the Bills, he thrived in a wide-open offense that featured Eric Moulds as the top pass catcher. But, at only 5-foot-11 and 190 pounds, Price looks out of place alongside the big, physical receiver that has become the NFL norm.

Last week, Tampa Bay centered its coverage around Crumpler, who leads the Falcons with 44 receptions and six touchdowns. It would have been a good time for the receivers to show up, but Price managed only two receptions and dropped a couple of other throws in a 27-0 loss.

Price hasn't gotten a lot of help on the outside, either. White, who came over from Chicago as a free agent, is far below his 48-catch pace of the last three seasons. Brian Finneran (12 catches) has been plagued by injuries. First-round pick Michael Jenkins (two catches) has hardly contributed at all.

If you ask me, they've gotten their fair share of catches,'' Vick said.When they're called upon, they've got to make a play.''

The receivers might finally break loose this week. The Falcons can clinch the division title with a victory over Oakland (4-8), which has one of the league's worst pass defenses.

Raiders safety Ray Buchanan, who spent the last seven seasons with the Falcons, still chats with Price.

At first, he was probably a little frustrated when I talked to him,'' Buchanan said.I talked to him about winning being a little more important than individual goals he has for himself, and he understands that.''

Price would undoubtedly be getting a lot more criticism if the Falcons weren't winning. And he's been careful not to do anything that would rock Atlanta's winning ship.

You have egos and you have goals and you want to get the football,'' Buchanan said.Now, if you're losing, you'd probably speak up about it. But when you're winning, it's like, 'Forget about it. Let's try to get to the Super Bowl.'''

So, would Price sign with the Falcons if he had a chance to do it all over again?

Probably, yeah,'' he finally replied.But I probably would have done some things different. I probably would have done a little more research.''

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