Houston Oilers quarterback Chris Chandler is not a lame duck. He only plays for one.
In March 1995 Chandler, then a free agent, signed with the Oilers. His career till then had been a series of false starts and disappointing results. A third-round pick out of Washington, he had won the starting job with the Colts in 1988, only to be traded to Tampa Bay two years later after Indy drafted Jeff George. The Bucs gave up on him midway through his second year in Tampa, and the Cardinals picked him up on waivers. The next year, 1992, working with Arizona offensive coordinator Jerry Rhome, he had his best season, only to be let go the next season after losing his job to Steve Beuerlein. The Rams then gave Chandler a shot; he stayed one season before leaving as a free agent. But things were going to be different in Houston, where Rhome would again be his offensive coordinator. The Oilers gave Chandler a four-year contract, and he told his wife, Diane, that they had found a home. "A month later they use their first pick on [quarterback] Steve McNair. Four months after that I hear the team is moving to Nashville," says Chandler. "I was blindsided twice."
Now in his ninth season, Chandler can quit looking over his shoulder. Though his backup, McNair, won both games he started last season and has a seven-year, $28.4 million contract, Chandler is not boasting when he says, "I'm the guy here."
Since becoming an Oiler, Chandler has thrown 26 touchdown passes and only 14 interceptions. Last year he completed 63.2% of his passes, and this season he was the AFC's fourth-rated passer at week's end. In Sunday's 30-27 win over the Bengals, he completed 18 of 32 passes for 193 yards as the Oilers improved to 3-2 "He's a late bloomer," says Rhome. "He's just beginning to become what he can be."
Still, quarterback controversies never completely subside around Chandler. Late last season he contracted mononucleosis. He started Game 14 against the Lions and completed 15 of 21 attempts for 143 yards in the first half, but he was too weak to finish and spent the fourth quarter sleeping in the locker room as the Oilers lost. McNair started and won Houston's last two games of the season, and soon the Chandler-versus-McNair debate was resurrected.
Chandler immediately went to Oilers coach Jeff Fisher. "I asked to be traded," says Chandler. "I didn't want to go through that whole routine again." Fisher promised Chandler that the starting job was his and that McNair was there to learn from him. Chandler also found solace from his father-in-law, former 49ers quarterback John Brodie, who is his next-door neighbor in Palm Springs, Calif., in the off-season. "I was in the same boat as you," said Brodie, who played for 17 years in the NFL. "I sat behind Y.A. Tittle for three years in the beginning of my career, then had to hold off a Heisman winner [Steve Spurrier] at the end of it."
When Chandler met the media at the opening of the Oilers' training camp, the first question he got concerned McNair. His answer was that of a secure quarterback. "As long as I'm here," said Chandler, "he's waiting to play."