SUWANEE, Ga. -- Better than anyone, Bob Whitfield knows how imperative it is that starting quarterback Chris Chandler remain healthy for the Atlanta Falcons this season.
Chandler missed two starts and parts of four other games last year, and the Falcons were 0-6. With Chandler in the lineup, Atlanta went 7-3.
"He's the key," Whitfield said Tuesday. "With him healthy, our team should be in the playoffs."
A starter at left tackle for every game over the last five years, Whitfield has been a Falcon during some difficult times -- the worst coming two years ago.
In 1996 the Falcons lost their first eight games and finished 3-13. The insubordination of No. 1 quarterback Jeff George left an aging Bobby Hebert as the Falcon starter, and the result was disaster.
"I take it personally," said Whitfield, Atlanta's No. 1 draft choice in 1992. "I want nothing more than to help make this team a winner."
Chandler played well enough last year to become the No. 2-rated quarterback in the NFL. He made his first Pro Bowl and was ranked best in the league in efficiency inside the 20-yard line (13 touchdowns, no interceptions).
For Whitfield, who was making the transition from June Jones' highly criticized run-and-shoot offense to Dan Reeves' more conventional, ground-oriented attack, Chandler's performance spoke volumes about the line's improvement.
"This is our second year in this system, and we have a good core of guys," Whitfield said. "We're starting to feel good together."
Reeves, who is preparing his team for its preseason debut Friday night against Tennessee at the Georgia Dome, is looking for the 6-foot-5, 310-pound Whitfield to finally emerge as a Pro Bowl player this year.
"He certainly has a chance to be one of the best," Reeves, the Falcons' coach, said. "But unless your team is successful, you're not going to get much credit as an offensive lineman."
With center Roman Fortin leaving as a free agent and right tackles Antone Davis and Matt Willig not returning, Reeves had some holes to fill on the offensive line when training camp began. Some of the pieces are falling into place.
On Monday, Reeves said center Robbie Tobeck and left guard Calvin Collins have secured starting jobs. Tobeck, entering his fifth year with the Falcons, started 15 games at left guard last year. Collins was the starting center for the final 13 games of '97.
"I think the switch will be good," Tobeck said. "It's going to be better this way."
Seven-year veteran Gene Williams is the starter at right guard, and O.J. Santiago, an 11-game starter last year as a rookie, is the No. 1 tight end.
From there, Reeves says other players will fit in where he needs them. Ephraim Salaam, a 6-7, 295-pound seventh-round draft choice, is the backup at right tackle. Second-round draft choice Bob Hallen is seeing action at both center and left guard.
Nate Miller, a Falcon reserve for two seasons, may start Friday at right tackle. Starter Corey Louchiey, a free-agent signee from Buffalo, is nursing a pulled groin.
NOTES:Reeves said Chandler will play the entire first quarter Friday. The coach then will insert No. 2 quarterback Tony Graziani for the remainder of the game. Next Friday at Detroit, Reeves will play Chandler in the first quarter and then will use No. 3 quarterback Steve DeBerg the rest of the way. "(The two reserves) both need a chance to work with the No. 1 unit, take a lot of snaps from center and get used to the cadence," Reeves said. ... Rookie free agent linebacker Richard "Schad" Freeman, of Valdosta State, was released Tuesday. Taking his place on the roster is second-year cornerback Kwame Ellis, a former fill-in for Minnesota and the New York Jets. ... The Falcons will practice Wednesday at 3 p.m. and then will work out Thursday afternoon at the Dome. Reeves has a workout scheduled for Saturday afternoon and is giving the players Sunday off.
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