Pocket change could enrich Falcons' Johnson

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Michael Vick's misfortune could turn out to be Doug Johnson's windfall this year with the Atlanta Falcons. Because of Vick's broken right fibula, Johnson will be the Falcons' quarterback at least through the season's first four weeks and for perhaps as many as seven games.

Depending how Johnson plays - and how the Falcons fare in those games - he has a chance to be a hot-ticket item next winter when he becomes an unrestricted free agent. When Vick had to sit out a game with a shoulder sprain last year, Johnson delivered a big 17-10 road win over the New York Giants, completing 19 of 25 passes for 257 yards.

Johnson, 25, isn't going to supplant Vick in Atlanta no matter how well he plays. If Vick hadn't gotten hurt, Johnson would've gone into free agency with little negotiating leverage. Now, the undrafted, four-year veteran from Florida gets an opportunity to shape his future.

This is how some careers are made. Just ask the Washington Redskins' Rob Johnson, who was an unknown in Jacksonville when the Jaguars' starter, Mark Brunell, was hurt. A victory over the Ravens vaulted Johnson to a big contract, although not necessarily a successful career.

Doug Johnson isn't the only quarterback who, in effect, will be auditioning for prospective new employers this season. Here's the short list:

Brunell, Jacksonville: Once the Jaguars drafted Byron Leftwich, Brunell's clock was running. There is even speculation he may be cut this season.

Tim Couch, Cleveland: Beaten out by Kelly Holcomb, the No. 1 pick in the 1999 draft carries a salary cap number of $7.6 million next season. Unless he reclaims the job from Holcomb, Couch will leave the Browns by trade (unlikely) or release in the offseason.

A.J. Feeley, Philadelphia: His audition came last year when, as the Eagles' No. 3 quarterback, he went 4-1 in emergency duty. He's still No. 3 behind Donovan McNabb and Koy Detmer, and seems certain to be traded after the season.

Brian Griese, Miami: Signed to a one-year contract as Jay Fiedler's backup, Griese could win the job with the Dolphins in the season or move on as a free agent.

Chris Redman, Ravens: He can become an unrestricted free agent after the season, and it's unlikely he'll settle for being Kyle Boller's backup.

Schedule-friendly break

Although the bandwagon has emptied, don't automatically count the Falcons out of the NFC race because of Vick's injury. Two reasons they could survive until Vick returns are Johnson and the schedule.

The Falcons will play five of their first eight games at home. Only two of those games are against 2002 playoff teams. Then they play five of their last eight on the road, when Vick should be back. Four of those games come against 2002 playoff teams.

Easing the load on Johnson is a versatile running game, featuring T.J. Duckett and Warren Dunn, and a fast-improving defense. The Falcons' season still could rest in Vick's hands.

Patriots' coup

For all the moves the Dolphins made in the offseason - getting Griese, linebacker Junior Seau and safety Sammy Knight - the New England Patriots may have check-mated Miami with the addition of two former Chicago Bears defenders.

Outside linebacker Rosevelt Colvin, signed in free agency, is the playmaker/pass rusher that coach Bill Belichick hasn't had with the Patriots. And tackle Ted Washington, acquired in a trade last week, fills a major void that had started to grow worrisome.

Washington, 35, is coming off a fractured left fibula and a torn ligament in his left foot, injuries that limited him to two games last season. But if he still can play, the Patriots might be the team to beat in the AFC.

The right call

Browns coach Butch Davis made the best call of the preseason, making Holcomb his starter over Couch, but did he really have a choice? Holcomb had clearly outplayed Couch in the preseason, and it's hard to forget Holcomb's 429-yard passing game in the playoffs.

If Davis hadn't picked Holcomb, he could have lost his team. Listen to receiver Quincy Morgan's reaction to the switch:

"I love it, man, I love it. Holcomb, he takes his shots. He takes chances. When we line up, you already have a route, a short route [called]. Holcomb sees the guy in your face, he'll signal you a nine route, a go route. That's some of the things that he'll do. He's so in tune to some of the things going on in the game it's ridiculous. I can't describe it, man, but it's fun to play with him because of that one aspect. He switches things. He reads coverages. He makes the offense flow smooth."

Around the league

Tony Gonzalez, the Kansas City Chiefs' four-time Pro Bowl tight end, says he's motivated by the emergence of the Giants' Jeremy Shockey (74 catches) and the Ravens' Todd Heap (68) at his position. "I like to see how good those guys can be because they push me," said Gonzalez, who slipped to 63 catches last year. "Whatever they do better than me, that's what I work on." ... The Indianapolis Colts drew just 26,741 to the 56,000-seat RCA Dome for a preseason game a week ago, the smallest crowd in their 20-year tenure in Indiana. "Crowd?" quarterback Peyton Manning said. "Wrong word. That was embarrassing." ... Former Ravens punter Kyle Richardson is battling Dirk Johnson, who has punted in just one NFL game, for the Eagles' job. Special teams coach John Harbaugh says consistency will determine the winner. ... The Eagles are wary after defensive end Derrick Burgess last week injured the same foot he broke a year ago. Burgess had bone graft surgery in February that was supposed to preclude the likelihood of re-breaking his right foot. He had a good camp until the injury. ... The San Francisco 49ers lost starting cornerback Jason Webster for four to eight weeks with a hairline fracture of his tibia and a torn knee capsule. Now they'll find out how much progress former first-round draft pick Mike Rumph has made since his rookie season. Rumph almost immediately suffered a groin strain. ... Green Bay Packers nose tackle Gilbert Brown, whose season seemingly ended when he ruptured his right biceps, is attempting to play through the injury this season and avoid surgery. ... The Bears made a shrewd move in trading Washington to the Patriots because it kept the rotund nose tackle out of their division and away from Green Bay and Detroit.

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

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