<
>

Petrino: Job is Leftwich's soon as he's healthy to return

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- Even though Joey Harrington led
Atlanta to two straight victories, Byron Leftwich remains the No. 1
quarterback for the Falcons.

Coach Bobby Petrino made it clear Wednesday that Leftwich will
reclaim the starting spot as soon as he's healthy -- a stand that
caught Harrington off guard.

"That message has not been conveyed to me," Harrington said
after working with the first team at practice, while Leftwich
returned to the field with the second teamers. "That wasn't my
understanding coming into today. But I'm not going to create a
fuss. I'm going to do my job for this team."

After the Falcons lost five of their first six games, Petrino
announced that Leftwich would be the starter the rest of the year.
He lasted just a little over a half in his first start Oct. 21,
going down with a severely sprained ankle at New Orleans.

Leftwich underwent surgery to speed the recovery process, which
allowed him to return to the practice field just three weeks later.

Petrino isn't sure if Leftwich will be healthy enough to play
Sunday in a suddenly crucial game against NFC South rival Tampa
Bay. The Falcons (3-6) can climb within a game of first place by
beating the Buccaneers (5-4).

Asked if he was concerned about hurting the team's continuity by
changing quarterbacks again, Petrino said, "Yeah, sure, it's
something you worry about. But to be honest with you, we made the
decision a while back that Byron is the starter and Joey is the
backup. Right now, it's just a health issue."

Harrington, who was 19-of-26 for 192 yards in last week's win at
Carolina, had a stunned look on his face when asked if he knew what
the first-year coach had said after practice.

"I feel like I've done what they've asked me to do with the
exception of maybe one game," Harrington said. "But, like I said
a couple of weeks ago when this all started, this isn't my first
rodeo. I've been around it before, so I'm not surprised. But, like
I've also said, I have a right to disagree with it."

Harrington was eager to hang on as Atlanta's starter after
losing the No. 1 spot in both Detroit and Miami. He was beaming
when he walked off the field at Carolina, having thrown a 30-yard
touchdown pass to Alge Crumpler with 20 seconds remaining that gave
the Falcons a 20-13 victory.

The quarterback's demeanor was much different Wednesday.

"I do think I've earned [the starting job] as of late," he
said. "Because of the way this team has played, yeah, I do think I
deserve a chance to be out there."

In his first practice since the surgery, Leftwich impressed
Petrino with his quick recovery.

"I thought he looked pretty good," the coach said. "Actually,
he looked a little better than I thought he would. He was throwing
the ball good. His movement was OK. The thing I worry about is
what's going to happen tonight and tomorrow morning, how he reacts
to all that work. That's the most work he's done on it in three
weeks. We've still got to wait and see how he is physically."

Leftwich was appreciative of Petrino's support and looks forward
to getting back on the field, perhaps even Sunday if there are no
setbacks the rest of the week.

"It just shows he has confidence in me," Leftwich said. "For
a guy to respect you, respect the work you put in, respect the way
you go out there and play the game, to have enough trust in you to
lead what is ultimately his football team, to have all that is a
great thing."

Leftwich, the former starter in Jacksonville, was cut by the
Jaguars at the end of the preseason, largely because of recurring
injury problems. He signed with the Falcons after Week 2 and went
through a rushed process of learning Petrino's offensive scheme.

Leftwich struggled after replacing Harrington during a loss at
Tennessee, going 2-of-8 for 28 yards with an interception. He
looked much better in his lone start, completing 15-of-23 for 145
yards and a touchdown before getting hurt on Atlanta's first
possession of the second half.

Through much of his pro career, Leftwich has dealt with ankle
problems.

"I haven't been 100 percent since the first quarter of the
Akron game my senior year," Leftwich said, referring to his
college days at Marshall. "That was October, five or six years
ago. I'm being honest. I have not been 100 percent in while."

That's what made his latest injury so tough to take. He had
joined a new team and was eager to make a good impression, but
couldn't even make it through an entire game.

"They understand my biggest problem in the league has been
injuries," Leftwich said. "It's never been the way I played out
there. It's been staying on the field week in and week out.
Unfortunately for me, the past few years have not gone well as far
as staying healthy and being out there for my team. Jacksonville
got frustrated with that. I got frustrated with that."