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2 Atlanta Falcons With hopes that the offensive line is better--it can't get any worse--the mission is to protect quarterback Chris Chandler long enough to win

He plays, they have a chance. He sits, they lose. Last season
the Falcons went 7-3 in games that quarterback Chris Chandler
started and finished, and lost the six that he missed or didn't
finish. Team brass went into the off-season with a clear
mandate: Do everything possible to protect Chandler. That meant
upgrading a line that allowed Atlanta quarterbacks to be sacked
54 times, fourth most in the NFL. This was not so much a need
area as a disaster area. The club responded by signing one
free-agent starter, Corey Louchiey, late of the Bills. As
bailouts go, it fell somewhere short of the economic rescue of

Louchiey is a gargantuan right tackle with the wingspan of a
pterodactyl and lots of potential. But there are reasons the
26-year-old former third-round pick has started only 13 of his
44 NFL games. He's not particularly graceful on his feet, and he
lacks a mean streak. If Louchiey can't do the job, it will fall
to Ephraim Salaam, a seventh-round draft choice out of San Diego
State. In addition, the Falcons signed Dave Widell from the
Jaguars. Widell was a nice pickup--he's big, versatile and
scrappy. He's also 33, playing in his 11th season and penciled
in as the backup center.

When he took over in 1997, coach Dan Reeves inherited hogs who
had, for the most part, spent the previous three seasons playing
patty-cake in June Jones's run-and-shoot. "We want 'em to come
off the ball and hit someone in the mouth, to claim the piece of
ground they're standing on," says offensive line coach Art
Shell, who came on board with Reeves, "and some of them were not
built, or lacked the demeanor, to do those things."

Jamal Anderson and Byron Hanspard, quality backs though they may
be, can't run through nonexistent holes. Atlanta's inability to
move the ball on the ground last season (the Falcons ranked 19th
in the league) resulted in frequent third-and-longs, which
invited defenders to storm the barricades in pursuit of
Chandler. Too often, they caught him. The 32-year-old sustained
two concussions, a bruised sternum and a high sprain of the left
ankle. "The problem," says Reeves, "is that teams feel if they
can get to him, they can knock him out."

When Chandler has his health, and a couple of seconds, he's
terrific. "I had no idea he was this good," says newly arrived
free safety Eugene Robinson, whom we last saw picking off John
Elway in the Super Bowl. Robinson, whose 49 career interceptions
lead all active NFL players, was signed from the Packers to lend
leadership--and larceny--to the secondary. "Chris throws such a
beautiful, accurate ball and does a lot of little things that
Brett [Favre] does," says Robinson. "Keeping him healthy will be

Indeed, the drop-off after Chandler is so precipitous as to
require carabiners and climbing rope. The prospect of facing
44-year-old Steve DeBerg will not cost opposing defensive backs
much sleep. Meet the men charged with keeping Chandler healthy
this season.

Left tackle Bob Whitfield, who came out of Stanford six years
ago, still isn't the All-Pro that many expected him to become,
but he is a quality player, the best of this bunch. He lines up
next to guard Calvin Collins, an All-Rookie center last season
who had trouble getting the snap to the quarterback, a slight
problem at that position. Reeves decided that Collins should
trade places with Robbie Tobeck, a fourth-year man who was Drew
Bledsoe's center at Washington State, and is a close friend of
professional wrestlers Bill Goldberg and Ron Reis, a 7'2",
400-pound man-mountain. (Maybe Reeves should have borrowed
Tobeck's Rolodex in the off-season.) Beanbag-chair-buttocked
Gene Williams, who was fined for reporting at 337 pounds, 22
over his assigned weight, plays right guard. Finally there's
Louchiey, of whom Falcons coaches say, "He's not a Pro Bowler,
but he's better than what we had last year."

Atlanta's strong finish in '97--the Falcons lost seven of their
first eight games, then went 6-2 in the second half--has given
rise to guarded optimism on the part of everyone but Robinson,
who is incapable of such subtle emotion and who proclaims, "I
look around and I see a team ready to crest that hill, a team on
the verge of good things."

Atlanta also happens to be on the verge of a cliff, over which a
couple of injuries at the wrong positions could push them. It
sounds like a plea as much as a statement when Anderson says of
Louchiey & Co., "They don't have to be great. They don't have to
hold their blocks for five seconds. Just don't get knocked

If the line isn't better, backwards is the direction this team is
going. --A.M.

COLOR PHOTO: JOHN BIEVER HEAD GAME The talented Chandler can be effective, but not if he keeps getting his bell rung, as has happened often in recent years. [Chris Chandler in game]

B/W PHOTO: GREG FOSTER Brooking [Keith Brooking]


Sept. 6 at Carolina
27 at San Francisco
11 at N.Y. Giants
25 at N.Y. Jets
Nov. 1 ST. LOUIS
8 at New England
29 at St. Louis
13 at New Orleans
20 at Detroit

Fast Facts

1997 Record 7-9 (3th in NFC West) NFL rank (rush/pass/total):
offense 19/22/23; defense 8/20/20

1998 Schedule strength NFL rank: 22 Opponents' 1997 winning
percentage: .480 Games against playoff teams: 6

Role Model

Dan Reeves, a college quarterback at South Carolina who played
running back for the Cowboys from 1965 to '72, threw three
regular-season touchdown passes during his NFL career (all to
Lance Rentzel). Last season Jamal Anderson became the sixth
running back to throw a touchdown pass for a Reeves-coached NFL
team. Reeves's scoring strikes to Rentzel went for 45, 50 and 74
yards, all longer than the eight touchdowns thrown by the
running backs who played for him.

Running back,
team Date Opponent Length of TD pass, receiver

Jamal Anderson,
Falcons Oct. 19, 1997 49ers 27 yards, to Bert Emanuel

Tyrone Wheatley,
Giants Oct. 27, 1996 Lions 24 yards, to Chris Calloway

David Meggett,
Giants Sept. 18, 1994 Redskins 16 yards, to Aaron Pierce

David Meggett,
Giants Nov. 14, 1993 Redskins 21 yards, to Chris Calloway

David Meggett,
Giants Oct. 10, 1993 Redskins 42 yards, to Mike Sherrard

Bobby Humphrey,
Broncos Dec. 16, 1989 Cardinals 17 yards, to Melvin Bratton

Tony Dorsett,
Broncos Nov. 27, 1988 Rams 7 yards, to Sammy Winder

Steve Sewell,
Broncos Sept. 7, 1986 Raiders 23 yards, to John Elway

Inside Slant

First-round pick Keith Brooking of Georgia Tech doesn't plan on
dueling with David Brandon and Henri Crockett for the strongside
linebacker spot. "They wouldn't have taken me with the 12th pick
if they didn't think I'd be a starter right away," says
Brooking.... Eight minutes into the summer's second day of
practice, 6'5", 312-pound Nathan Davis walked off the field and
declared, "My heart's not in it." The Falcons hoped that Davis,
a flop last season after being a second-round pick out of
Indiana, would fill the void created by the free-agent departure
of Dan Owens to the Lions.... At 44, Steve DeBerg is the oldest
player in the league, a distinction he also held in 1993 as a
backup in Tampa Bay and Miami.

Projected Lineup With 1997 statistics

Coach: Dan Reeves
Second season with Falcons (148-115-1 in NFL)

Offensive Backs PVR*

QB Chris Chandler 24[PVR*] 342 att. 202 comp. 59.1%
2,692 yds. 20 TDs 7 int. 95.1 rtg.

RB Jamal Anderson 53[PVR*] 290 att. 1,002 yds. 3.5
avg. 29 rec. 284 yds. 9.8 avg. 10 TDs

FB Bob Christian 331[PVR*] 7 att. 8 yds. 1.1 avg.
22 rec. 154 yds. 7.0 avg. 1 TD

RB Byron Hanspard 231[PVR*] 53 att. 335 yds. 6.3
avg. 6 rec. 53 yds. 8.8 avg. 1 TD

Receivers, Specialists, Offensive Linemen

WR Tony Martin[N] 59[PVR*] 63 rec. 904 yds. 6 TDs
WR Terance Mathis 115[PVR*] 62 rec. 802 yds. 6 TDs
WR Todd Kinchen 191[PVR*] 16 rec. 266 yds. 1 TD
TE O.J. Santiago 205[PVR*] 17 rec. 217 yds. 2 TDs
K Morten Andersen 74[PVR*] 35/35 XPs 23/27 FGs 104 pts.
PR Tim Dwight[N](R) 378[PVR*] 19 ret. 19.3 avg. 3 TDs
KR Byron Hanspard 231[PVR*] 40 ret. 24.7 avg. 2 TDs
LT Bob Whitfield 6'5" 310 lbs. 16 games 16 starts
LG Calvin Collins 6'2" 307 lbs. 15 games 13 starts
C Robbie Tobeck 6'4" 300 lbs. 16 games 15 starts
RG Gene Williams 6'2" 315 lbs. 15 games 15 starts
RT Corey Louchiey[N] 6'8" 305 lbs. 16 games 6 starts


LE Lester Archambeau 44 tackles 8 1/2 sacks
LT Travis Hall 78 tackles 10 1/2 sacks
RT Shane Dronett 26 tackles 3 sacks
RE Chuck Smith 54 tackles 12 sacks
OLB Keith Brooking[N](R) 131 tackles 2 sacks
MLB Jessie Tuggle 92 tackles 1 1/2 sacks
OLB Cornelius Bennett 90 tackles 7 sacks
CB Ray Buchanan 52 tackles 5 int.
SS William White 79 tackles 1 int.
FS Eugene Robinson[N] 112 tackles 1 int.
CB Ronnie Bradford 51 tackles 4 int.
P Dan Stryzinski 89 punts 39.3 avg.

[N]New acquisition (R) Rookie (statistics for final college
year) *PVR: Player Value Ranking (explanation on page 88)