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Blast From the Pass

Can DeGeezer still throw DeBomb?
That's the question coaches, players and fans are asking this simmering August in Atlanta, Georgia. At the age of 44, veteran NFL quarterback Steve DeBerg has returned from five long years of retirement (and two years of coaching) to become backup to the Falcons' oft-injured Chris Chandler. If he's called upon to put a charge into his club this year, he will become the oldest man since George Blanda to take a regular-season snap from center. Blanda was 48 and playing in his record 26th season when he threw three passes for the Raiders in 1975. Earl Morrall was 42 when he hung 'em up. Warren Moon? The Seattle Seahawks starter is but a child of 41 whose next birthday isn't until mid-November.

Meanwhile, no one in the state of Georgia regards DeBerg as a joke. Or an antique. Not yet, anyway.

"The man can still throw the ball," Falcons wide receiver Terance Mathis says. "He's still got a very strong arm, and he knows the game inside and out. I almost couldn't believe it when I first saw him throw a pass. People are gonna be surprised by what he can do."

You remember Steve DeBerg. Number Seventeen. He followed Matt Robinson and preceded a fellow by the name of John Elway as the Denver Broncos' starting QB. His United States Football League rights were once traded from the Oakland Raiders to the Denver Gold. He left the Broncos for Tampa in 1984 in exchange for defensive back Randy Robbins and wideout Vance Johnson.

But he's been wearing pads and a helmet even longer than that. Consider: When Steve DeBerg broke into the National Football League, Jimmy Carter was president, Elway was graduating from high school in Southern California and Peyton Manning was playing with a rattle in his crib. In 1978, DeBerg started twelve games for the San Francisco 49ers (Joe Montana was still at Notre Dame), launching a seventeen-year career with four teams that stands as a monument to talent and perseverance.

Does he have a little more gas in the tank?
Another figure familiar to Bronco fans thinks he does. Falcons head coach Dan Reeves--the man Elway loved to hate--says he came close to activating DeBerg two years ago when Reeves was head man for the hapless New York Giants and DeBerg was his quarterbacks coach. Watching the old-timer work out with his possible starters--Dave Brown, Tommy Maddox and Stan White--Reeves was astonished to see that the coach was still as capable as his students, probably more so. "It almost happened," Reeves acknowledges.

Instead, it has taken two more years, a change of venue and a tragedy to put Steve DeBerg back in the pocket. This summer, the Falcons' expected backup man, veteran Mark Rypien, told the team he would sit out the season to be with his wife and two-year-old son, Andrew, both of whom are seriously ill. DeBerg got a call from Reeves (a coach famous for loyalty to players from his back pages), and the man who used to start against the likes of Terry Bradshaw and Roger Staubach was suddenly back in uniform.

"I can probably contribute most if I don't play," DeBerg says. "But if I do play, I'll be ready. To tell you the truth, this is really a fantasy. A lot of guys my age would pay a lot of money to do this. Instead, the team is paying me. The game really is fun for me again, and if it doesn't work out, I'll write it off as another experience. But I really think this will work out just fine."

In the Falcons' second pre-season game, a 7-3 win last Friday over the Detroit Lions, DeBerg completed six of eleven passes for 39 yards, was sacked three times and was described by his head coach as "rusty." But he's not headed for the locker room in the sky anytime soon. Reeves also said his veteran, who had not played in the NFL since dividing the 1993 season into stints with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the Miami Dolphins, will be ready for the regular schedule. Nothin' broke (or rusty) that can't be fixed, Reeves says.

For the Falcons, that's good news, because ten-year vet Chandler is almost constitutionally prone to injury. In a career that has taken him from Indianapolis to Tampa to Phoenix to Los Angeles to Houston to Atlanta, Chandler has missed more than a third of his starts. Last season he sprained his ankle in one game, bruised his sternum in another and left two more with concussions. The result? The Falcons had seven wins and three losses in games Chandler completed; without him they were zero for six.

In the off-season, the team failed to land either Ty Detmer or local college hero Eric Zeier to shore up the quarterback spot, and Reeves says second-year, third-string man Tony Graziani, out of Oregon, has not come along as fast as the team had hoped.

Thus Steve DeBerg. Good thing his degree from San Jose State is in something called "human performance."

"He's as much coach as player right now," Chandler says. "He talks to all kinds of players about what's happening on the field--wide receivers, tight ends, backs. The man has a world of experience, and he's passing that on. He's also passing the ball. He's still got a terrific arm."

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