Leftwich replaces Harrington as Atlanta's No. 1 quarterback

On his first day as the Atlanta Falcons' starting quarterback, Byron Leftwich felt like a kid.

'Football has been really taken away from me the last month and a half,' he said. 'It just seems like it's a new feeling. It's all fun again. Any time you're not out there, it's a tough situation to deal with.'

Whether Leftwich can energize Atlanta's struggling offense remains to be seen. First-year coach Bobby Petrino said Wednesday that Leftwich would take over the Falcons (1-5) from Joey Harrington for the rest of the season.

'That's the big part of it,' Petrino said. 'We need to make a change and get something going.'

The decision wasn't difficult for Petrino after the offense failed to score off three New York turnovers in a 31-10 loss to the Giants on Monday night.

Petrino indicated that Leftwich might have played against New York if he hadn't missed so much practice with a mild ankle sprain. Leftwich has shown Petrino and quarterbacks coach Bill Musgrave, who worked as Jacksonville's offensive coordinator when the Jaguars drafted Leftwich seventh overall in 2003, that he understands the offense well enough.

'He's come along with it,' Petrino said. 'He's been here a month now. I wish he would've gotten all those reps he missed last week with the ankle injury, but the ankle feels good, and that's a good thing.'

Leftwich, who went 24-20 in four years with Jacksonville, signed a two-year, $7 million contract last month after being released. In his only appearance with Atlanta, Leftwich was 2-of-8 for 28 yards and one interception after replacing Harrington in the fourth quarter of a 20-13 loss at Tennessee two weeks ago.

The Falcons are 0-1 in the NFC South heading into Sunday's game at New Orleans (1-4). Petrino, whose offense has scored only seven touchdowns with Michael Vick suspended, believes his team can still gain ground in the division.

Regardless, Petrino has seen enough of Harrington, whose statistics are respectable with a 63.1 completion percentage and a passer rating of 80.1 - despite being sacked 21 times, just four less than Jon Kitna's league-leading total with Detroit.

But Petrino believes Leftwich has more tangible assets than Harrington.

'He has a very strong arm,' Petrino said. 'He throws the ball deep down the field, and he just needs to be able to see it, and I have the confidence that he can put it in there. I think he'll do well.'

Signed to be the backup to Vick after the Falcons traded Matt Schaub to Houston, Harrington is 24-48 as a starter with Detroit, Miami and Atlanta. The Lions drafted him third overall in 2002.

Harrington left the locker room without speaking to reporters on Wednesday, but he sounded despondent after the Giants loss.

'We were moving it just fine, and then just everything shut down,' Harrington said. 'I mean, everything. I missed some. We dropped some. We missed some protections. We missed some hots. It was everywhere. That's the frustrating part. You don't know where to pinpoint your efforts.'

Vick, who pleaded guilty in Virginia two months ago to federal charges of bankrolling a dogfighting ring, led the Falcons to 39 wins and two playoff appearances in 66 games as a starter. He also became the first NFL quarterback to rush for 1,000 yards in a season.

Petrino decided in a staff meeting Tuesday to bench Harrington and go with Leftwich.

'I think Coach Petrino got to the point where he has enough confidence in me that I know what I'm doing now,' Leftwich said. 'He's giving me the opportunity to lead this football team.'

SideBar: Falcons at Saints

When: Sunday, 1 p.m.

Where: New Orleans

TV/Radio: Fox/92.9-FM