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Leftwich, Harrington want to stay in Atlanta

POSTED: January 8, 2008 5:02 a.m.

FLOWERY BRANCH — Joey Harrington and Byron Leftwich both think they have a bright future in Atlanta.

Each quarterback hopes to return with the Falcons next year and win the starting job.

"I want to be part of the Atlanta community," Harrington said, "and I want to be a part of this Falcon team for a long time."

Added Leftwich, "I know there’s really nothing I can do to help the Falcons this year, and that’s the saddening part, but I understand how hard I’m going to work in this offseason. At some point, this bad luck is going to run out, and ol’ Byron Leftwich is going to get a chance to play in 16 games."

Owner Arthur Blank is still trying to replace coach Bobby Petrino, who resigned two weeks ago and left for Arkansas. Harrington and Leftwich aren’t the only players facing uncertainty. The entire roster likely will undergo a complete makeover once Blank names his sixth head coach, including two interim replacements, since December 2003.

The Falcons’ next coach will want to move quickly to fix the problems at quarterback. After beginning offseason workouts nine months ago, Atlanta has gone from having three-time Pro Bowl selection Michael Vick to ending the year on Sunday with Chris Redman, who went three years without taking a snap in an NFL game.

Harrington was named the starter four times after a federal grand jury indicted Vick on dogfighting charges in July. Leftwich took the job twice before ankle problems essentially ended his season.

Another potential No. 2 quarterback, former Georgia starter D.J. Shockley, never made it to Week 1 after suffering a knee injury. By the time Petrino turned to Redman in Week 13, the Falcons were finished.

The backdrop of Vick’s 23-month prison sentence, handed down two weeks ago, was the team’s biggest letdown.

"People have asked, ‘How can you continue to stay positive?’ The answer is, ‘That’s all you’ve got,’ " Harrington said. "If you sit there and make excuses, ‘Oh, the line is hurt or this part of our team is wrong,’ you’re always passing blame. You’re never standing up for the mistakes you make, and you’re only taking credit for the things you do well."

Harrington will serve as Redman’s primary backup when the Falcons (3-12) end the season against Seattle (10-5), but that’s hardly the role he envisioned when training camp started.

Despite winning just 23 of his first 66 starts, Harrington believed Petrino’s offense would help turn his career around.

Instead, the Falcons lost five of their first six games before Harrington was benched. Leftwich couldn’t finish his first start, a 22-16 loss at New Orleans the following week. He needed ankle surgery that kept him sidelined until Week 11, when Tampa Bay sent him hobbling to the training room with a bruised tailbone.

"I think everybody understands that I’ve got to find a way to stay healthy," Leftwich said. "If I do that, I can help a football team. I think everybody knows I can play this game. It’s just a matter of, ‘Can this guy stay on the field?’ It’s a legitimate concern because the past few years I haven’t been able to do that."

With Vick suspended from the league and Harrington losing his first two starts, Atlanta quickly moved to sign Leftwich to a two-year, $7 million contract. But the same ankle problems that caused Jacksonville to cut him at the end of preseason continue to plague Leftwich, who had a 24-20 record after the Jaguars drafted him No. 7 overall draft pick in 2003.

"Nobody wants that label as being injury prone," Leftwich said. "Unfortunately for me, it’s not that I’m tweaking my ankle or having mild sprains that I can’t get over. I’m having serious injuries to these ankles."

Bad health hasn’t affected the career of Harrington, whom Detroit drafted No. 3 overall in 2002. But after signing a two-year, $6 million contract to become Vick’s backup, Harrington believed he was the past the difficulties that resulted in a 23-43 career record with the Lions and Miami Dolphins.

Unfortunately, after Petrino named him the starter in July, Harrington lost seven of 10 starts, a miserable stretch that placed more doubt on his ability to win.

But Harrington acknowledges that he hardly has benefited from ideal blocking in his career. Injuries on the offensive line haven’t helped, and Harrington never had a consistently dependable downfield threat until Roddy White emerged as 1,000-yard receiver this year.

"You’ve got to do the best with the hand that you’re dealt," Harrington said. "We’ve had some young guys step in and play well, but we were dealt some tough injury cards this year and dealt them early."



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