Originally created 07/25/02

Question marks

GREENVILLE, S.C. - It's no surprise Doug Johnson thinks the Atlanta Falcons are suitably equipped at quarterback.

As the primary backup to first-year starter Michael Vick, Johnson offers coach Dan Reeves plenty of promise but little experience. Johnson attempted only five passes last year, and at 24, he's just 2 1/2 years older than Vick, who made only two starts after being named the No. 1 overall draft pick in 2001.

"Mike and I complement each other well," Johnson said. "I know my place on this team. He was the top draft pick, but I'd still like a chance to start."

Because quarterback is the most important position on any football team, Reeves and position coach Jack Burns must give Johnson, Kurt Kittner and Dusty Bonner enough snaps in four preseason games in August to determine whether the multi-talented Vick has an adequate supporting cast.

That question is one of five the Falcons will begin answering today as training camp opens at Furman University.

Q: Vick has superstar potential, but can this team succeed without an experienced backup quarterback?

A: No.

In a perfect world, Chris Chandler would've agreed to a massive pay cut and a demotion to work behind Vick.

Chandler, the third-leading passer in franchise history had 14 years' experience - nearly all of it as a starter - but was released as the Falcons purged his contract and others to create room under the 2001 and 2002 NFL salary cap.

Reeves intimated before the draft that Atlanta needs to find some experience at the position.

Selecting Kittner made little sense, unless the Falcons believe they can trade him or Johnson for a veteran backup or a high draft pick. Tampa Bay, with Rob Johnson and Shaun King backing up starter Brad Johnson, has a glut at quarterback, but the Buccaneers might be unwilling to trade with a division opponent that signed Warrick Dunn, their former star running back. Cincinnati, with Jon Kitna trying to fight off Gus Frerotte and Akili Smith, could be a better fit.

The list of free agents will include Tony Banks, who dropped a weight on his hand in June and won't be ready for another two weeks. Banks, a six-year veteran, is eager to sign a deal to play for his fifth team in five years. Washington released him after the season.

Q: Will Reeves live up to his promise to let Warrick Dunn touch the ball 20 times a game?

A: Yes.

Dunn has always been hurt by his lack of size, and an injury-plagued 2001 only reinforced that theory. However, Dunn didn't receive a $6.5 million signing bonus to play a bit part in Reeves' power running game.

Q: Can Wade Phillips restore credibility to the ransacked Atlanta defense?

A: Yes.

Even the disclosure that shoulder surgery likely will end the season for starting left end Shane Dronett, the Falcons are loaded at linebacker. The position was already strong with Keith Brooking in the middle, but it was reinforced when Patrick Kerney was made a designated pass rusher.

Ray Buchanan and Ashley Ambrose are solid corners, and Fred Weary and Allen Rossum are expected to stage a big battle for the nickel spot. Keith Lyle might lack a step at safety, but Gerald McBurrows and Keion Carpenter should win the starting jobs with Kevin McCadam and Juran Bolden fighting for playing time, too.

Q: Other than new right tackle Todd Weiner, the offensive line personnel is largely unchanged. When will these guys stop surrendering so many sacks?

A: It's hard to say.

Left tackle Bob Whitfield has to prove he's worth the $8 million signing bonus he got before last season. Weiner has to do more than hold off the pass rush on the right side; he also must protect the blind side of Vick, a left-hander.

Next, position coach Pete Mangurian must settle on a starting left guard - third-year veteran Travis Claridge and rookie Martin Bibla are the candidates - and then stay with his man. That job, along with the center battle between Todd McClure and Roberto Garza and the right guard work of Kynan Forney will determine what kind of year the backfield has.

Q: Special teams were outstanding for the Falcons last year, but with Rossum replacing Darrien Gordon as punt returner can they be even better?

A: Unlikely.

Rossum, who has more speed than Gordon, could send Darrick Vaughn to the unemployment line if he shows promise at kick returner, too. But the bottom line with Atlanta's special teams - the confidence coach Joe DeCamillis earned from his players and the job they did executing his system - was the kind of perfect mix that hardly occurs in successive seasons.

Chris Mohr needs to have a better year punting. Jay Feely must find his range on mid-range field-goal attempts.


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