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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."

But how will DeBerg absorb the punishment dealt out by blitzing linebackers who don't choose to see him as a benevolent father figure? "That remains to be seen--the playing part," says DeBerg. "But I haven't heard a lot of old-man jokes around here. Really, it's been more a matter of respect. That's been nice."

It would be nice, too, if the Falcons can keep Chandler in one piece this year and let DeBerg serve mainly as mentor. While their brethren in pro sport, the Atlanta Braves, have been able to assemble and keep healthy the best pitching staff in baseball, the Falcons have had woeful luck with quarterbacks: Chris Miller, Brett Favre (yeah, that Brett Favre) and cranky-but-talented Jeff George have all departed the premises in recent years, and if management can't sign Chandler to a new contract next year, he'll probably be making upwards of $3 million a year somewhere else. Last year, he was (surprise!) the second-rated passer in the league while throwing for 2,692 yards, twenty touchdowns and only seven interceptions.

With Steve DeBerg at his side, he could be even better this year for a team that has rarely been able to put together a sparkling season. Last year the Falcons started a dismal 1-7 before recovering beautifully with a 6-2 second half. DeBerg could help keep them out of the autumn doldrums this year.

"Oh, yeah," Chandler says. "Steve's a great a help; he's invaluable. For me and for Tony. He's been around, and his coaching experience in New York really shows."

He's also made friends and influenced people everywhere on the Atlanta roster. "Who says you're too old to play football when you're 44?" asks receiver Mathis. "I can tell you this. A lot of guys on this team want to make a play for Steve. He's not only got a good arm, he's got a lot of heart."

Certainly, Steve DeBerg has stood the test of time.

Go ahead. If you didn't do it six weeks ago, stick that big barbecue fork in the Colorado Rockies. While Sammy and Junior and Big Mac go for Maris's home-run record, and the Yankees look destined for the best season mark in history, the Rox have faded again from the radar screen.

The two newfound, overpaid mainstays of their pitching staff, Daryl Kile and Pedro Astacio, have a combined record of 20-25 and an earned-run average that comes out to 5.73. No Rockies starter has a winning record.

In the Year of the Home Run, the scorched remnants of the Blake Street Bombers--Messrs. Bichette, Walker and Castilla--have hit just 72 dingers among them, and the ever-sore Walker (last year's National League MVP) has driven in just 52 runs.

New second baseman Mike Lansing, touted as the best leadoff-hitter-to-be in the league, has endured awful slumps and gotten his average up to .277. But he looks and sounds like the unhappiest guy in baseball doing it. Andres Galarraga, once the heart of the order at Coors Field, is headed for the playoffs with Atlanta. Ellis Burks has a shot at the same with the San Francisco Giants. After overcoming injuries, Armando Reynoso has won three straight for the Mets.

Do we want to hear more about Andy Ashby's rebirth in San Diego? How about Bret Saberhagen's resurrection in Boston? While the Rockies' two catchers have combined for nine home runs in 1998, ex-Rockie Joe Girardi has taken charge of the Yankees' great pitching staff.

And if we're not mistaken, that's Eric Young hitting .295 as leadoff man for the Dodgers and part-timer Trenidad Hubbard hitting .330 right behind him.

Todd Helton? Neifi Perez? Heaven help these emergent young stars in seasons to come. They'll inflate their personal statistics and make themselves marketable, but their pals on the pitching staff (how's the bad back, Roger Bailey?) will continue to get lit up like Christmas trees. Big Train Johnson and Nolan Ryan couldn't win fifteen in Coors Field.

Don't bother waiting for next year. The departures of manager Don Baylor and general manager Bob Gebhard are imminent, and it might take a while to regroup and rebuild from there--in the all-important slugging department, that is.

 

In the meantime, don't be surprised if the Rox find themselves looking up from the cellar at the mighty Arizona Diamondbacks.


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