Originally created 07/19/00

Falcons remain unsure of QB backup



GREENVILLE, S.C. -- The Atlanta Falcons are searching for a backup quarterback ... The Atlanta Falcons are searching for a backup quarterback ... The Atlanta Falcons are searching for a backup quarterback.

Yes, it does sound like a broken record.

Unfortunately for the Falcons, it's a problem they haven't been able to fix since Dan Reeves was hired as coach in 1997.

"It always seems to be like this," said Tony Graziani, one of the contenders this season -- just as he's been for the last three. "I don't know why no one has been able to step up."

Danny Kanell spent most of last season as the No. 3 signal-caller behind Graziani but now seems to have the inside track to the coveted backup position behind Chris Chandler, whose injury plagued career makes it even more imperative for the Falcons to find a solid No. 2.

Graziani is back for his fourth season with the Falcons after spending the summer in NFL Europe. Atlanta also signed former Florida quarterback Doug Johnson, a rookie free agent who hopes to remain as the third quarterback.

"Every one of us wants to be able to step in there and not miss a beat," Kanell said Monday at Furman University, the Falcons' training camp home. "But Chris is a great quarterback. He's been in the system longer. He's more comfortable with the other starters. It's going to be different when one of us gets in there. We're trying to make it less different."

This had been a familiar theme during the Reeves regime. When healthy, Chandler is one of the better quarterbacks in the NFL, but the dropoff is dramatic every time he goes down with an injury.

In 1997, Billy Joe Tolliver started as Chandler's backup but was waived at midseason. Graziani, an obscure rookie at the time, moved up to No. 2 and played in three games, but his numbers were dismal.

Reeves thought he had addressed the problem in '98, signing former Super Bowl winner Mark Rypien. But Rypien, whose son was suffering from a terminal illness, never played a down in Atlanta, forcing the Falcons to bring 44-year-old Steve DeBerg out of retirement.

Considering the circumstances, DeBerg played respectably during the Falcons' improbable run to the Super Bowl, but he was clearly not a long-term solution. So, Reeves signed Kanell, a former starter with the Giants who had fallen out of favor in New York.

Kanell struggled in the preseason and couldn't even beat out Graziani for the No. 2 job. The former Florida State quarterback played sparingly until Week 14, when he got the start in place of the injured Chandler.

In a cruel twist of fate, Kanell played well against the eventual AFC champions, completing 18-of-29 for 237 yards and two touchdowns, before going with a knee injury late in the third quarter. He was finished for the season.

"I want to be a starter again someday," Kanell said. "Last year was definitely a bump in the road. But I knew I would get another chance, and sure enough it came against Tennessee."

Kanell's knee is healthy and he gets the edge from Reeves for the No. 2 spot, though no firm decisions will be made until everyone gets a chance in the preseason. The 26-year-old quarterback definitely feels more comfortable with the Falcons' system.

"It's like going to Spain and thinking you can talk Spanish, but you have to concentrate really hard before you can translate it," Kanell said. "Once you've been there a while, you can just speak without thinking. Well, I'm a lot more fluent in this language now."

Reeves believes Graziani, also 26, is a more polished quarterback after his stint with the Barcelona Dragons.

"I was not fired up about him going over there," the coach said. "But I think Europe helped him to see things better. He got some confidence over there."

Johnson, 22, is a long-shot to make the team after throwing 62 touchdown passes in Florida's high-powered offense. He has a superb arm but never hit it off with Gators coach Steve Spurrier, who shuffled him in and out of the lineup.

With the Falcons, Johnson doesn't necessarily have to beat out Graziani and Kanell. The Falcons would prefer to have a No. 3 quarterback they are grooming for the future, so the rookie could earn a spot on potential alone.

"I'm not worried about anybody else," Johnson said. "I'm worried about myself."

AROUND THE NFL:

Chris Samuels, the No. 3 overall pick out of Alabama, agreed to a six-year deal for $30.6 million, with a $10 million signing bonus. ... Dolphins cornerback Patrick Surtain was arrested and charged with drunken driving. ... Giants cornerback Conrad Hamilton was Tuesday after failing a pre-training camp physical. ... Defensive tackle Eric Swann, released by the Cardinals last week, worked out for the Jaguars and will meet with Broncos officials today.