Originally created 03/03/98

Falcons should fly toward signing Zeier



ATLANTA -- Time after time, the Atlanta Falcons have botched their opportunities to connect with Georgia's college football fans.

Herschel Walker was there for the taking in 1985. The Falcons watched while Dallas risked a fifth-round pick on the USFL star, then nabbed him when the league folded.

Dorsey Levens was available in 1994. The Falcons used their fourth-round pick on receiver Harrison Houston, and Green Bay got Levens 11 picks later.

Terrell Davis was on the board in 1995 when the Falcons took receiver Roell Preston in the fifth round. Denver found Davis one round later.

Hiring Georgia native Dan Reeves last year won the Falcons some grass-roots support, and now the franchise has a chance to grab a bigger piece of the state's heart:

The team can sign former Georgia quarterback Eric Zeier.

Zeier is a restricted free agent with the Baltimore Ravens, and as such, he won't be easy to sign. But if the Falcons try they might get him.

Having lost out on unrestricted free agent Ty Detmer over the weekend, the Falcons are taking a closer look at Zeier. General manager Harold Richardson confirmed Monday that he has spoken to Zeier's agent, Lonnie Cooper. The Falcons apparently are willing to part with the third-round pick that would be required compensation.

So, now it becomes a question of whether the Falcons can pry Zeier free from the Ravens. Again, there's reason to believe they can.

The Ravens have three quarterbacks with starting experience -- Jim Harbaugh, Vinny Testaverde and Zeier -- and it's assumed that they want to dump the unhappy Testaverde and keep Zeier as Harbaugh's backup.

But if the Falcons make Zeier a good offer, the Ravens could have trouble matching it.

Baltimore has committed only $361,000 to Zeier for 1998 (the minimum tender to a restricted free agent), and if the Falcons come in with a multi-year offer that includes a substantial signing bonus, they'll put enormous pressure on the Ravens.

Of course, Zeier has the option of turning down a offer the Falcons or any other team makes, playing in Baltimore for the one-year tender, and becoming an unrestricted free agent next February.

"The difficulty in his situation is that you've got to negotiate a contract that he agrees to and that you don't think the other team will match," Richardson said. "Generally, if you negotiate a contract that you think is good, so would the other team."

Zeier is worth a premium, though. He would fill the team's need for a competent backup to injury-prone Chris Chandler. And he would help sell tickets.

The pool of remaining quarterbacks is stocked mostly with dead fish. There's Randall Cunningham, who turns 35 this month, and Dave Brown, who feuded with Reeves in New York. Wade Wilson, Mark Rypien and Jim Everett are available, too, but all are broken down.

Craig Erickson stands out among the younger quarterbacks, but he isn't likely to leave Miami.

Zeier, on the other hand, is a promising young talent. Despite concerns about his size and arm strength, he has played well almost every time he's taken the field. He is from the Atlanta area, and he has told friends he would like to play here.

Zeier was immensely popular at Georgia, even if the coach he played for wasn't. He is a natural fit with the Falcons, and the time is right to go after him.

The Falcons shouldn't blow this chance.