MIAMI -- Chris Chandler was once close to where he sat Tuesday. And, when he was, he was farther than ever from where he will stand on Sunday.
The Falcons' quarterback once worked three hours up the road from Pro Player Stadium, spending two seasons in Tampa Bay during his gypsy career. They were two regrettable seasons in which he questioned his ability, his devotion to football and his future. Two years when he couldn't beat out Vinny Testaverde for a starting spot, which was a lot easier to do then than now.
So, when the 33-year old reaches his professional high point by starting Super Bowl XXXIII here Sunday, he won't have to look far to remember the opposite end of an 11-year career that saw him cut or traded by five different teams before landing in Atlanta. And, when asked Tuesday, he didn't have to think at all before naming the lowest of his considerable NFL lows.
"Tampa," said Chandler. "There's not much more that needs to be said. Tampa in the early '90s. Things were bad for me and bad for them.
"My father passed away during the off-season between the two years I was down there, my personal life was in a bad spot and professionally it wasn't much better. It was just two really bad years."
It wasn't just Tampa, though.
It also was Indianapolis, where Chandler was drafted in the third round, hurt his knee after an all-rookie season and was discarded as the team attempted to rebuild by trading draft picks to the Falcons for the right to draft Jeff George first overall. It also was Phoenix, where he was replaced by Steve Beuerlein after one effective season. And it was Houston, where patience wore thin for Chandler's frequent injuries at roughly the same time Steve McNair started showing promise.
And, admittedly, in most of those places, it also was Chandler, as unpolished a person as he was player early in his career.
"I was immature then," Chandler said. "I said stupid things and I did stupid things."
Even while Chandler was meeting with circumstances that threatened to ruin him, he was meeting people who eventually made him.
A year after he left Tampa, he met and married his wife Dianne, the daughter of former NFL quarterback John Brodie. Chandler credits Dianne and the couple's three daughters for bringing a stability to his home life that carried over onto the field.
Later that season, he began a 4«-year relationship with quarterback guru Jerry Rhome, who Chandler says merely "taught me how to play quarterback."
And, after being traded to the Falcons for fourth-±and sixth-round draft picks on Feb. 24, 1997, Chandler met another person who has enhanced his life and career equally.
"I was fortunate enough that Dan Reeves had a lot of faith in me," Chandler said of the Falcons' coach. "He said, `You're our guy and we're going to win or lose with you.' He put all his trust in me.
"That's the first time and the only time I've had an organization and a head coach feel that way about me. It's been a really good thing for me, Dan and the organization."
The combination of Chandler, Reeves and confidence was good enough for 14 wins during the regular season and victories over San Francisco and Minnesota to reach the Super Bowl. And it was Chandler's play in an NFC Championship Game comeback against the Vikings -- he threw for 340 yards and led Atlanta on a 70-yard drive to force overtime and a 71-yarder to win it -- that has sparked conjecture that perhaps the Falcons will take an unexpected advantage into Sunday. That, just maybe, Atlanta's journeyman is a better quarterback right now than Denver's John Elway, whose only foreseeable route will lead directly to the NFL Hall of Fame.
Opinions on the subject differ. Falcons' backup center Dave Widell believes the argument can be made.
"I've played with Troy Aikman, John Elway, and Mark Brunell, and Chris Chandler has to be included in that group," said Widell, who has played with four teams in 10 seasons. "He's proven he can make plays, he can win, he's got the arm to make the strong pass and can make the touch pass."
Chandler, meanwhile, won't even entertain the notion.
"That amuses me," said Chandler. "I think it's crazy to say something like that. I've been playing really well, but to say I'm the better quarterback in this game. I find it funny."
What's even funnier is how the theory has become like Chandler. If it's not there yet, it's awful close.
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