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A few missteps in QB shuffle

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Eight NFL teams changed starting quarterbacks since the end of last season, but how many can truly say they've bettered themselves at the position? Only a select few.

Drew Bledsoe for Rob Johnson is an improvement in Buffalo. Gus Frerotte for Jon Kitna is a positive step in Cincinnati. Trent Dilfer for Matt Hasselbeck was an upgrade in Seattle until Dilfer hurt his knee in the Seahawks' first preseason game and threw the opening-day job back to Hasselbeck.

The other changes were due to a commitment to the future (Michael Vick in Atlanta, Drew Brees in San Diego), breaking with the past (Chris Redman in Baltimore, Shane Matthews in Washington) or sheer desperation (Rodney Peete in Carolina). Vick and Brees are assured to get time to grow into the role, but the others, for various reasons, may not have that luxury.

Youth will be one of today's themes. Redman and Brees join the Houston Texans' David Carr in making their NFL starting debuts. Vick, the first pick in the 2001 draft, makes his third career start at Green Bay. Falcons coach Dan Reeves knows what comes with the territory.

"He's going to see some things that [the Packers] haven't shown," Reeves said. "I know in my experience with John [Elway], they're going to come after you with some things that are not necessarily sound, and see if he can pick them up."

Toward that end, Reeves wants Vick, 22, to get in and out of the huddle quickly to give himself time to look at the defense rather than rushing to take the snap.

At this point, Vick is not as good as the man he replaces - Chris Chandler, who went to the Chicago Bears - but he is a better athlete and could be a better quarterback in the long run.

Said Vick: "I know what I am looking for on the field and I have a good understanding of what's going on. I am the leader of this football team and I have to play like it."

Saving shot

San Francisco 49ers kicker Jose Cortez may have saved his job with a game-winning 36-yard field goal in the final seconds against the New York Giants Thursday night. He also saw a 25-yard attempt blocked and was short on a 48-yard try.

Cortez had fallen into disfavor when he missed seven of his last 14 field-goal attempts last season, including five that were blocked. The 49ers spent a fourth-round draft pick on Jeff Chandler and kept him on the 53-man roster. He knows the score.

"They're keeping me as an insurance policy," Chandler said. "It's kind of like being a freshman all over again. Just wait it out, that's all I can do."

Not so efficient

Even though the Philadelphia Eagles reached the NFC championship game last season, they were 29th in the league in third-down efficiency. They converted just 21 of 54 third-and-shorts (3 yards or less) for 38.9 percent. They threw the ball 30 of those 54 third downs and made only six. And they were 14-for-23 when running the ball on third-and-short. (They also gained a first down by penalty.)

"The average number of punts [per game] in the NFL is five," said Eagles offensive coordinator Brad Childress. "Last year, ours was 6.5. Just to be able to stay on the field for another set of downs, not only does it help you be able to change the field position during the course of the game, [but] it keeps the defense off the field, chews up the clock. Not to mention that you've got another opportunity to score."

Texans go young

The Texans will start five rookies on offense in their inaugural game tonight against the Dallas Cowboys, including wide receiver Jabar Gaffney, who beat out Jermaine Lewis. The former Raven will play as the third receiver and return kickoffs and punts.

"He's obviously a guy you'd like to get the ball in his hands as much as possible," coach Dom Capers said of Lewis.

Other rookies starting on offense tonight are Carr, linemen Chester Pitts and Fred Weary and fullback Jarrod Baxter.

The bottom feeders

Today's matchup between the San Diego Chargers and the Cincinnati Bengals comes with an ugly distinction. It matches the two teams with the fewest wins in the league over the past five seasons (counting teams that have been in existence since 1997 or earlier).

The Chargers are a league-worst 23-57 in that time and the Bengals 24-56. The two franchises also have the longest active playoff droughts in the league. Cincinnati has missed the postseason 11 straight years and San Diego the past six.

Audibles

The St. Louis Rams might have depth problems. They were outscored 78-30 in the second half during the preseason, when the subs play. They went winless in the preseason for the first time since 1994, and only one Super Bowl champion - the 1982 Washington Redskins - failed to win a single exhibition game. ... Since Dan Reeves' first draft in Atlanta, the Falcons have taken 16 wide receivers and safeties. Only two are still on the 53-man roster - safeties Johndale Carty and Kevin McCadam. ... Only 11 players remain from the reborn Cleveland Browns' original 1999 team. ... Kansas City quarterback Trent Green, who threw an NFL-high 24 interceptions last year, threw five more in the preseason, but coach Dick Vermeil wrote it off to the vanilla offensive approach the Chiefs took. ... The Dallas Cowboys have the league's heaviest offensive line this season, averaging 329 pounds. The Eagles are second at 324.4. ... It was no surprise that linebacker Greg Biekert signed with the Minnesota Vikings after getting cut by Oakland. His defensive coordinator two years with the Raiders was Willie Shaw, who holds the same position with the Vikings.

The last word

Tampa Bay Buccaneers defensive tackle Warren Sapp has an angle on everything. This week he took a shot at former New Orleans running back Ricky Williams while gushing about current Saints running back Deuce McAllister, whom he faces today.

"They have a better running back than they did a year ago when they came down here," Sapp said. "Deuce can do more than Ricky can. Ricky has small hands. Ricky is just a one-dimensional guy. He's a power runner. Deuce can do power running, outside speed and catch the ball out in the flat. He can do some special things out in the open field."

Not surprisingly, the Bucs won't face Williams, now with the Miami Dolphins, unless the two Florida teams make the Super Bowl.

Compiled from interviews, wire services and reports from other newspapers.

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