SUWANEE, Ga. -- The Atlanta Falcons open their second training camp under coach Dan Reeves tonight aiming to prove that last year's strong finish wasn't a tease.
Fans are skeptical, based on Georgia Dome ticket sales, and they surely have reason. Many a time the Falcons have raised hopes with an encouraging season only to come up lame the following year.
The woebegone Falcons have never had a leader as accomplished as Reeves, though, so it's possible this time could be different.
"We have enough talent to be competitive," general manager Harold Richardson said. "The idea is to build on what we accomplished last year and keep building in the years to come. You don't create a winning program overnight if you're going for something that will last."
The results were promising in Reeves' first season: a 6-2 second half that resulted in a 7-9 record -- a four-game improvement over 1996. The team won four games on the road for the first time since 1991 and narrowly missed becoming only the second team in NFL history to start 1-7 and finish .500.
Expectations for '98 would be higher if not for the Falcons' well-documented history of taking two steps backward after every step forward.
Another factor has contributed to the ambivalence, and that's the team's rather disappointing off-season.
Of the seven veterans acquired, only receiver Tony Martin and safety Eugene Robinson are considered front-line players. Martin merely replaces leading receiver Bert Emanuel, who signed with Tampa Bay, and Robinson, who played in the last two Super Bowls with Green Bay, is 35.
The draft appears to include only one sure-fire impact player in linebacker Keith Brooking, the former Georgia Tech star. The next best player could be fourth-rounder Tim Dwight, who will be used primarily as a punt returner. Obviously, it's hard to project whether draft picks will pan out.
The Falcons' two most critical needs going into the winter -- offensive right tackle and backup quarterback -- still are big question marks. Corey Louchiey, a 6-8, 305-pounder who was considered an underachiever in Buffalo, steps in for Matt Willig at right tackle. And the No. 2 quarterback could be 44-year-old Steve DeBerg, who hasn't played in a game since 1993.
For reasons unknown, the team didn't make a run at any of the premier free agent blockers. And DeBerg was signed after the team was unable to acquire Ty Detmer or former Georgia star Eric Zeier, and Mark Rypien decided not to play because of family illness.
All in all, the Falcons probably are slightly stronger on paper than they were a year ago.
"We've got people who will come in and push for jobs, and that will make us better," Reeves said.
Said quarterback Chris Chandler, "We need the fans to get behind us, and that's only going to happen if we get off to a good start. That's our aim."
The Falcons have all 80 players signed, and all are expected to report tonight. The first team meeting is Thursday morning at 9 a.m., followed by the opening practice at 3 p.m. Two-a-days begin Friday.
Here's a positional analysis heading into camp:
Quarterbacks: Chandler comes off a Pro Bowl season, a remarkable feat considering he missed all or part of six of the first eight games. DeBerg will compete for the No. 2 job with second-year man Tony Graziani, a left- hander who has bulked up 15 pounds to 210. Rookie free agent Brian Brennan is the fourth man in camp.
Running backs: Jamal Anderson, who comes off consecutive 1,0000-yard seasons, will try to fend off second-year man Byron Hanspard. Anderson chose to work out at home in Utah and arrives a few pounds heavy. Hanspard will get a lot of work, as the coaches seek to find more ways to get him the ball. Former South Carolina standout Harold Green returns as the third back, and bob Christian returns at fullback.
Receivers: Run-and-shoot holder Terance Mathis will team with Martin, who was acquired from San Diego after leading the Chargers in receiving the past two years and making the Pro Bowl in 1996. Third-round pick Jammi German and holdover Todd Kinchen are the favorites for the other two spots. Tight end O.J. Santiago, who started as a rookie last year, returns after breaking his leg in the 10th game.
Offensive line: The insertion of Louchiey at right tackle isn't the only change. Returning left guard Robbie Tobeck and center Calvin Collins have swapped positions. Tobeck will be pushed by second-round pick Bob Hallen and possibly former Jaguar Dave Widell. Matt Elliott, a free agent signed from Carolina, was waived after failing his physical.
Defensive line: Returning starters Chuck Smith, Travis Hall and Lester Archambeau come off career years. Starting tackle Dan Owens left for Detroit and was replaced by Shane Dronett, who played about half of the snaps last year as a backup. Nathan Davis, a '97 second-rounder who bombed as a rookie, is counted on to contribute. The front four sorely needs a run stuffer Davis' size (6-5, 315).
Linebackers: An early surprise has Keith Brooking competing with Cornelius Bennett for the starting weak side linebacker job. It was assumed Brooking would start out on the strong side because Bennett played well last year at his position, but the coaches have decided to let the rookie and veteran fight for the job. Valdosta State product Jessie Tuggle, who has lost a step in the past couple of years, is back for his 12th year at middle linebacker.
Secondary: There is better talent here than at any time since 1991, when the Falcons lined up with Deion Sanders, Brian Jordan and Tim McKyer. A solid group of corners includes Ray Buchanan, Ronnie Bradford, '97 first-rounder Michael Booker, Juran Bolden and newcomer Randy Fuller, a former Steeler. Safeties Robinson and William White will be backed up by second-year man Marcus Wimberly and former starter and first-round pick Devin Bush.
Special teams: A potentially excellent group includes kicker Morten Andersn and punter Dan Stryzinski, along with Hanspard and Dwight on returns.