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Original Issue

Home At Last After nine vagabond years spent with five teams, Chris Chandler landed in Atlanta, where he suddenly emerged as one of the NFL's premier quarterbacks

He would move on to a new team and a new coach in a new city,
but Chris Chandler would run into the same old problem: Someone
always was waiting for him, like a mugger beside an ATM. Someone
always was trying to screw him out of a career as a starting
quarterback in the NFL.

The enemy was around every corner. Sometimes the coach would
ignore Chandler's abilities and gift wrap the starting position
for someone else. Sometimes the general manager would draft a
glamorous college quarterback in the first round even though
Chandler was doing the job. Always the media would write him off
as just another Bubby Joe LaufenDeBerg, a natural-born backup
who could never be the No. 1 guy because he was as fragile as a
Hummel figurine. "I felt screwed by everyone--the teams, the
newspapers, the fans," says Chandler. "I was always angry. It
was like I couldn't wait to get in a fight with someone, to
pout, to blow up. I did that a lot as a young guy. I just
couldn't handle going from college, where football was so much
fun, to the NFL, where it was no fun at all."

In his first nine pro seasons Chandler played for five
organizations and felt as if he belonged with none of them. He
was released once, traded twice and passed over for prom queen
too many times to count. The short list of fair-haired
signal-callers who were chosen over him: Jeff George, Vinny
Testaverde, Steve Beuerlein, Chris Miller and Steve McNair.

Today those quarterbacks have another thing in common: None are
playing as well or winning as often as Chandler, who has finally
found a home, with the Atlanta Falcons. Atlanta acquired him
from the Tennessee Oilers before the 1997 season, and Chandler
has led the Falcons to nine wins in their last 12 games,
including Sunday's 51-23 victory over the Carolina Panthers,
which ran their record to 3-1. Chandler threw for 189 yards and
two scores, giving him 27 touchdown passes in 18 games as a
Falcon. Since coming to Atlanta he has also played in a Pro
Bowl, amassed a higher quarterback rating (in '97) than Brett
Favre and John Elway, signed a four-year, $25 million contract
extension (he will earn $2 million in '98) and bought a big
house in suburban Duluth, Ga. There, Chris and his wife, Diane,
are raising their two daughters and awaiting their third, who is
due in February. Suddenly Jack Kerouac has become Jack
Armstrong, even-tempered, happy and secure.

Some people around the NFL still question whether Chandler can
withstand the rigors of a full season, but Chandler has news for
the doubters: He no longer cares what they think. He insists his
bitter 10-year campaign to prove the world wrong is over, and he
no longer sees bad guys lurking in the shadows. "You want to know
when I really became a good NFL player?" he says. "The day I
stopped trying to prove anything to anyone. That's when things
turned around for me. I'd dug myself into a hole, and I decided
to dig myself out."

Chandler admits the skeptics nearly buried his hopes forever when
he was still young and angry. His NFL career got off to a bright
beginning: As the Indianapolis Colts' third-round pick out of
Washington in 1988, he started 13 games and earned all-rookie
honors. But one month into his second year he tore up his left
knee, and Indianapolis showed its concern the way teams often do:
It found a new quarterback, choosing George with the first pick
of the '90 draft. "The Colts showed me what loyalty was in the
NFL," says Chandler.

In August 1990 the Tampa Bay Buccaneers gave up a first-round
draft choice for Chandler, and he still doesn't know why. "Vinny
[Testaverde] was there. What did they want me for?" says
Chandler, who was with the Bucs for 1 1/2 seasons, much of which
he spent sulking and complaining. His father died of lung cancer
on Father's Day 1991, which added to the edginess he carried
into his second year with Tampa Bay.

"He didn't mind being a backup," says a friend and former NFL
player, "but he couldn't stand backing up Vinny." Six games into
the 1991 season, Chandler stepped over the line, telling coach
Richard Williamson that he wouldn't know a starting NFL
quarterback if one bit him on the butt. "I snapped," says
Chandler, who had made six starts and thrown five touchdown
passes and 14 interceptions for the Bucs. "I said some things I
shouldn't have said." And the Bucs said the only thing they
could: See you later.

Tampa Bay released Chandler in midseason, getting nothing in
return for a guy who had cost that first-round pick. Claimed off
waivers by the Phoenix Cardinals, his third team in four years,
Chandler whined his way west, where he met the man who would
finally set him straight. Quarterback guru Jerry Rhome was the
Cardinals' offensive coordinator, and he saw promise in the
petulant drifter. "By the time Chris got to me, he just didn't
trust people," says Rhome, who now runs the offense of the St.
Louis Rams. "He was pretty confused and mad at the world. I just
told him, 'You've got talent, but you don't understand this
game.' He just said, 'Yes, I do.'"

Rhome told Chandler he would recommend that Phoenix not retain
Chandler for the 1992 season unless he agreed to let down his
guard and allow Rhome to coach him. "Three weeks go by, and then
one day he just walks in my office and says, 'Teach me, Coach,'"
Rhome says. As in a sappy Matt Damon movie, the angry young rebel
had swallowed his stubbornness and let the older, wiser man show
him the ropes.

Rhome taught Chandler how to run an offense and read a defense,
but mostly he taught him how to shut his mouth and play. They
shot pool together, they golfed, they bowled, they went to the
track. "We'd try to beat each other at anything and everything,"
says Chandler. "He made it fun for me to compete again. He was a
father figure, a coach and a friend all in one. I was unstable
back then, and all I can say is, Thank god for Jerry. Without
him, I'd probably be standing on a cheese line right now. He
saved my career."

Says Rhome, "For me, it was a pleasure. But the only thing I beat
him in was pool."

Chandler started 13 games in 1992 and threw for more than 200
yards in eight of them, including 383 yards against the Dallas
Cowboys. So what did it get him? What else? Another trip back to
the bench.

In April '93 the Cardinals signed Beuerlein as a free agent, a
move Chandler still considers the most baffling he has
encountered during his career. "I'll never forget [coach] Joe
Bugel sitting me down just before the '93 season and telling me
he was going with Beuerlein," says Chandler, shaking his head.
"That was a tough one to take. I knew I was better."

He also knew he was on the road again. As a free agent after the
1993 season, he signed with the Los Angeles Rams, who decided to
go with Miller. One season later he moved on to the Oilers, who
about six weeks after signing Chandler took McNair with the third
pick in the draft.

Reunited with Rhome in Houston, Chandler proved that he was good
enough to start, even if he was only keeping the job warm for
McNair. He was the AFC's fourth-highest-rated passer in 1995, and
in a road win over the Cincinnati Bengals he turned in one of the
most efficient performances in league history: 23 completions in
26 attempts for 352 yards and four touchdowns. "The next week,
they're handing out Steve McNair posters," says Chandler. "I have
to admit, that bothered me. Not as much as it bothered my wife,
but it bugged me. I mean, what did I have to do to get them to
throw a bone my way?"

This time, though, no one had to talk Chandler out of chewing
out his coach or punching his ticket out of town. He kept cool
and kept playing. He started 25 games over two seasons and
completed 60.5% of his passes for 33 touchdowns and 21
interceptions. While Rhome got him on track, Chandler credits
another old quarterback for keeping him there. Chandler met
former San Francisco 49ers star John Brodie shortly after he
started dating Brodie's daughter Diane, in the summer of 1993.
(They married in '94.) "The first time I met him, he told me I
was one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL," says Chandler. "I
was thinking, Oh, sure. He's just saying that because I'm going
out with his daughter. But somehow he made me believe it. He
told me he didn't start playing up to his potential until he was
30. I was about 28 at the time, and I remember thinking, Well,
maybe I'm right on schedule."

On the night the two men were introduced, Brodie grabbed a
football, dragged Chandler out of the Brodies' La Quinta,
Calif., house and worked him out. That, Brodie says, confirmed
his suspicions: Chandler could play. "He has always had as much
ability as anyone," says Brodie. "He has a great arm, a high IQ
and bigger b---- than anyone. He can make the throws no one else
can make. If he ever got on a winning team, forget about it.
Unfortunately he's been stuck with a bunch of losers."

Has that changed? Chandler was asleep in his off-season home in
Palm Springs, Calif., in 1997 when new Falcons coach Dan Reeves
called to offer him a chance to come to Atlanta. The Falcons gave
up fourth- and sixth-round draft choices for Chandler, and Reeves
has no plans to ask for a refund. "Honestly, I didn't know he was
this good," he says. "He's a very accurate passer, as accurate as
anyone I've been around."

Forty-four-year-old Steve DeBerg--who, like Chandler, has played
second banana more often than Danny Glover--is Chandler's
backup, proof that the Falcons have faith in their starter.
"Some guys are in a strange situation: They're too good to be
backups, but no one thinks they're good enough to start," says
DeBerg. "I think that's what happened to Chris. He had the
ability to be a starter. He just needed the opportunity."

When he gave Chandler the opportunity, Reeves had only one
question: Could Chandler stay healthy? "If he goes down, we
could lose every game," says tight end O.J. Santiago. "If he's
healthy, we could win every game."

In the first half of last season Chandler missed two games and
parts of four others with an assortment of injuries, and the
Falcons lost all six. In the second half, when he started and
finished every game, the Falcons made a remarkable turnaround,
winning six of eight en route to a 7-9 finish. Chandler ended
the year with the NFL's second-best quarterback rating, trailing
only the 49ers' Steve Young. No one had a better rating inside
the red zone, where Chandler threw 13 touchdown passes and no
interceptions. He became one of the game's top guns and still
could walk through airports unnoticed. "One day I actually saw a
jersey with my number, 12, in the stands," Chandler says. "That
was something I'd never seen before. Probably said C. MILLER on
the back."

The day before this season opened, Reeves and the Falcons showed
just how much they're sold on Chandler when they agreed to the
four-year extension, which included a $6 million signing bonus.
Even better: Atlanta has no hyped-up, high-priced rookie
quarterback or starry-eyed second-stringer angling for
Chandler's job. DeBerg is older than five NFL head coaches. "We
didn't want to make Chris think we were not committed to him,"
says Reeves. "We just figured we'd stick out our necks, put a
good cast around him and see if he can stay healthy for an
entire season. There's no doubt he is vital to our success."

For Chandler, who turns 33 next week, this is unfamiliar
territory. With a job to call his own and a coach who believes
in him, he says he will finally pull off the road and stay
awhile. He recently sold his house in Lake Tahoe and moved his
family to Atlanta. That was the first time, he says, he had made
such a commitment to an NFL city.

"It's probably just coincidence," says Chandler, "but most of the
people who got rid of me were fired or quit shortly thereafter.
You can look it up." He pauses and runs through the enemies list
in his mind one more time. He fights back a smile.

"Not that I wish bad luck on anyone," he says.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY PETER READ MILLER Flying high Chandler, the league's No. 2-rated passer last year, has the Falcons off to a 3-1 start in 1998. [Chris Chandler in game]

COLOR PHOTO: RICK STEWART/ALLSPORT [Chris Chandler in Indianapolis Colts uniform]

COLOR PHOTO: OTTO GREULE/ALLSPORT [Chris Chandler in Tampa Bay Buccaneer uniform]

COLOR PHOTO: JOHN W. MCDONOUGH [Chris Chandler in St. Louis Cardinals uniform]

COLOR PHOTO: V.J. LOVERO [Chris Chandler in Los Angeles Rams uniform]

COLOR PHOTO: JOHN BIEVER [Chris Chandler in Houston Oilers uniform]

COLOR PHOTO: BILL FRAKES The good life Armed with a contract extension that included a $6 million bonus, Chandler is ready to settle down in Atlanta. [Chris Chandler in swimming pool behind mansion]

Man on the Move

CHRIS CHANDLER has settled in as the Falcons' starting
quarterback, but before being traded to Atlanta in February
1997, he bounced around the NFL for nine seasons, during which
his results were decidedly mixed.

Colts 1988-89 18 16 313 168 53.7 2,156 10 15
Buccaneers 1990-91 13 6 187 95 50.8 1,021 5 14
Cardinals 1991-93 22 17 566 322 56.9 3,592 19 19
Rams 1994 12 6 176 108 61.4 1,352 7 2
Oilers 1995-96 25 25 676 409 60.5 4,459 33 21
Falcons 1997-98 18 18 458 261 57.0 3,599 27 13

"I didn't know he was this good," says Reeves. He's as accurate
as anyone I've been around."