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2 Atlanta Falcons
Austin Murphy
August 17, 1998
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
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August 17, 1998

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

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Schedule

Sept.

6

at Carolina

13

PHILADELPHIA

20

OPEN DATE

27

at San Francisco

Oct.

4

CAROLINA

11

at N.Y. Giants

18

NEW ORLEANS

25

at N.Y. Jets

Nov.

1

ST. LOUIS

8

at New England

15

SAN FRANCISCO

22

CHICAGO

29

at St. Louis

Dec.

6

INDIANAPOLIS

13

at New Orleans

20

at Detroit

27

MIAMI

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 Mexico.

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 paramount."

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 backwards."

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

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