Reich embraces expansion challenge


Frank Reich, who spent most of his NFL career looking over Jim Kelly's shoulder, now finds himself looking over his own shoulder.

Reich, who started just eight games for the Buffalo Bills while backing up Kelly for the past decade, starts a new phase of his career today when the two expansion teams, the Carolina Panthers and the Jacksonville Jaguars, make their debuts against each other in the Hall of Fame Game in Canton, Ohio.

At the age of 33, the former Maryland quarterback only has to beat out Jack Trudeau, the former Colts and Jets quarterback, to win the Panthers' starting job.

But Carolina coach Dom Capers says the job is wide-open.

"We don't have a quarterback controversy," Capers said. "I think both of these guys have done a real good job. But in my mind, they haven't done anything significantly one way or the other."

Although Reich is favored to beat out Trudeau for the job, he knows that Trudeau isn't his real competition. Reich has to be peeking over his shoulder at rookie Kerry Collins.

Collins might be third on the depth chart, but he was the fifth selection in the draft and the Panthers gave him a $7 million signing bonus. There will be pressure to play a rookie quarterback with a big contract as soon as possible.

"I came to Carolina because I wanted to have a chance to be a starter at this point in time," Reich said. "I have that chance, and I have no control over how long it might last."

Reich likes the challenge.

"I could recite for the next hour how bad I want to play and how long I've waited for this opportunity, but that doesn't mean anything," Reich said. "What matters is that you go out and make plays on the field and you do a good job and you avoid making too many mistakes. And then you get an opportunity to play."

Reich is not making a big deal out of the matchup of expansion teams.

"I'm not looking at it like this is the two expansion teams," he said. "It wouldn't matter whether we were playing in the Hall of Fame Game or the Super Bowl. You're programmed to go out and give it your best effort. It's important and I'll treat it that way."

The fans of both teams, though, are treating this game as a big deal, and their enthusiasm isn't lost on all of the participants.

Wide receiver Don Beebe, another ex-Bill, said it will be a special event to him and said he hopes that if it's close in the fourth quarter, Capers will put the the regulars back in and try to win.

"I admit it," Beebe said. "It will be something that 20 or 30 years down the road, I can look back and say that I was one of the starters, one of the founders on a new franchise team, and I played in that first game."

The coaches are taking a longer view.

Capers started working against the run-and-shoot offense in practice this week, stressing that he already is planning for the regular-season opener against the Atlanta Falcons.

"I wouldn't ever want to go into a game not thinking we're going to win or going out to win," Capers said. "But there are different objectives with every game, especially in the preseason."

Jacksonville coach Tom Coughlin echoes that idea and said the goal isn't the first exhibition game, but the first regular-season game.

Regardless of who wins today's game, both teams think they'll be more successful than expansion teams in the past because they were able to sign free agents. Before the players got free agency, Reich couldn't have left Buffalo for an expansion team.

"That made the talent pool much deeper," said Reich, who was one of those free agents.

Reich is unfazed by the fact that expansion teams have averaged 1.8 victories in their first season.

"The tendency is to compare what past expansion teams have done, but I think if you begin to do that, you stifle yourself," he said. "We shouldn't feel limited in what we can do."

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