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Home At Last
Gerry Callahan
October 12, 1998
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
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October 12, 1998

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

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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.

TEAM

YEAR(S)

GAMES

STARTS

ATT.

COMP.

COMP. PCT.

YARDS

TDS

INTS.

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

He would move on the a new team and a new coach in a I 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 1½ 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 mid-season, 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.

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