From wire and staff reports
FLOWERY BRANCH ? Dan Reeves was fired abruptly by the Atlanta Falcons on Wednesday with three games left in a disappointing season marred by star Michael Vick's injury.
Defensive coordinator Wade Phillips will take over as head coach for the rest of the season.
Falcons owner Arthur Blank told Reeves ? the sixth-winningest coach in NFL history ? that he would be fired at the end of the season but wanted him to coach the rest of the way. Reeves asked to be let go immediately.
"When Arthur told me he had made the decision about the end of the year, I knew it had to come to a fullness today," Reeves said. "I'm an eternal optimist, so yeah, it was a surprise. But I'm also realistic enough about coaching to understand this is how it is in the NFL."
Reeves, 59, is in his 23rd consecutive season as an NFL head coach, by far the longest tenure in the league, and he had one year left on his contract. Reeves led the Denver Broncos to three Super Bowls, losing each time.
The Falcons fell from the playoffs a year ago to one of the worst teams in the league after Vick was hurt in the preseason. Reeves was let go after the Falcons (3-10) defeated Carolina 20-14 in overtime in Vick's first start of the season.
As Blank answered questions from reporters in one of the team's meeting rooms Wednesday, Reeves stood outside in the hall and exchanged handshakes and hugs with some of the players, including Vick. Afterward, Vick and the others walked to the locker room to prepare for practice.
"Dan is a sweet guy, very sweet," Vick said. "He's a guy that really cares about his players. I think he went the extra mile for us, and a lot of guys are going to miss him."
Blank said he doesn't expect to hire a new coach until after the regular season. Phillips, a former head coach in Denver and Buffalo, isn't thought to be a leading candidate.
"I want to be clear that this decision is not being made based on our performance this season ? we're looking forward, not back," Blank said. "This is purely about the future of the organization."
Among the possible candidates: ex-Minnesota coach Dennis Green and college coaches Bob Stoops of Oklahoma, Nick Saban of LSU, and Kirk Ferentz of Iowa. Green's former agent is Ray Anderson, the Falcons' executive vice president.
Lovejoy head football coach Al Hughes has been a Falcons fan since the franchise was founded. He said he was disappointed to see Reeves fired at this point in the season.
"I hate to hear that," Hughes said. "I really respected him and thought he did a good job. It's unfortunate at this time of the year."