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Harrington still the starter, at least for now

POSTED: October 13, 2007 5:05 a.m.

Five games into the post-Michael Vick era, the Atlanta Falcons already have a quarterback controversy and plenty of grumbling players.

Rookie coach Bobby Petrino insisted Monday that Joey Harrington is still the No. 1 quarterback, but former Jacksonville starter Byron Leftwich is waiting in the wings for his chance to lead the struggling team.

Harrington was yanked early in the fourth quarter of Sunday’s loss at Tennessee after completing 16 of 31 passes for 87 yards. Leftwich was even worse, completing just 2 of 8 for 28 yards and tossing a crucial interception with less than 3« minutes to go.

"Our best chance of success is to stay with Joey," Petrino said, having reviewed film of the miserable offensive performance. "I think he understands our offense. He knows what we want to do and how we want to execute."

Having signed with Atlanta (1-4) only three weeks ago, Leftwich is still learning Petrino’s complex system. That was evident by his performance against the Titans.

Even though Tennessee provided one chance after another for the visiting team to pull out the win, Leftwich and the Falcons couldn’t take advantage. In the fourth quarter alone, the Titans missed a field goal and gave Atlanta the ball deep in their own territory with an interception and a botched punt.

The Falcons scored zero points, the most troubling sequence coming when they had first-and-goal at the Tennessee 1 with 2 minutes left. Instead of banging it up the middle, Petrino called for a pitch to Warrick Dunn. Albert Haynesworth broke through to knock the ball away from Leftwich, and Dunn had to fall on it at the 9.

Two incompletions and a sack later, the Falcons were done. Tennessee 20, Atlanta 13.

"If we sit down and talk to (Leftwich) and put it on the board, he knows what the offense is," Petrino said. "It’s just a lack of reps, a lack of being under intense situations and executing the plays. That’s the problem with missing all the preseason, not having any preseason games with us, and bringing him in when we did."

Petrino has other things to worry about besides the quarterback.

Wayne Gandy, the most established member of the offensive line, went out with a knee injury on Atlanta’s next-to-last snap. The 14-year veteran was getting an MRI exam Monday, but the coach already sounds as though he knows that Gandy’s season is over.

"There’s no question that’s going to be a big loss if he’s out," Petrino said. "He has all kinds of experience. He was doing a real nice job of helping our young offensive linemen, a nice job of leading the team."

If Gandy is done, the Falcons will have to go with Renardo Foster, an undrafted rookie, at the crucial left tackle position.

Good luck, whoever is at quarterback.

Then there’s Alge Crumpler, a four-time Pro Bowl tight end and one of the team’s most respected players. He went off on Petrino after the game, questioning his play-calling and accusing the coaching staff of building for the future by favoring young players over the veterans.

"They keep telling us to trust them, but right now we are 1-4," he said. "Hopefully this week we will figure it out, because I am tired of waiting."

Petrino met with Crumpler on Monday and said they had smoothed over any hard feelings, but it was clear the former college coach is not used to having his players call him out in public.

"There’s one agenda here with our coaching staff, and that’s to win every week. That’s it," Petrino said. "He understands that I don’t like to put things like that out there in the press. I would rather he walk in my office if he has something to say."

Harrington, who already lost starting jobs in Detroit and Miami, must be wondering how much longer he’ll be No. 1 in Atlanta.

"Anytime you get pulled, it is frustrating," he said. "Obviously, I want to be this team’s starter. If coach makes the decision the other way, I am going to support this team. I have been through these situations before. I think I have played well enough up to this point to deserve a shot at it."

Leftwich got his shot but looked like the neophyte that he is in Petrino’s offense. Still, he’s confident that a shaky start will not prevent him from taking a bigger role down the road.

"Hopefully I can get out there and play some football," he said. "I would be lying to you if I told you I didn’t want to be out there."



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