Leftwich ready for new start

FLOWERY BRANCH - Byron Leftwich knew he would have to pick a new number when he got to his new team.

Not that anyone in Atlanta is wearing No. 7. But, for the time being, it still belongs to Michael Vick, who awaits sentencing for running a brutal dogfighting ring while the Falcons try to recoup some of his bonus money.

'We all know 7 is Mike's number,' Leftwich said Wednesday, standing at his locker after going through his first practice with the Falcons. 'I figured I would just pick a number. Well, 17 didn't look good on me. I'm trying to look as slim as possible. So I just figured I would pick 4.'

No. 4, it is - though the real question in Atlanta is: How long before Leftwich is No. 1?

The Falcons (0-2) have scored just 10 points and taken 13 sacks with Joey Harrington at quarterback. Coach Bobby Petrino already took a shot at his starter, saying he's been holding the ball too long and needs to take more chances.

Leftwich, the starter in Jacksonville the last four years but plagued by injuries, was cut just before the start of the season. He returned to his mom's home in Washington, D.C., where he watched the Jaguars beat the Falcons 13-7 last Sunday.

'I was in my mother's basement trying not to eat all that food,' Leftwich quipped. 'I wanted to make sure I didn't get too big, so I would be ready when the opportunity came.'

It came the very next day. He flew to Atlanta to meet with the Falcons, who were apparently mindful of getting burned by Vick as they questioned Leftwich.

'I guess they wanted to meet me and see what type of guy I was,' he said. 'They wanted to make sure I wasn't a knucklehead.'

No word on whether they asked Leftwich whether he owned any pit bulls, which is what got Vick in trouble, of course.

The Falcons' former starter pleaded guilty to federal dogfighting charges and figures to spend at least a year in prison. He also was suspended indefinitely by the NFL and is unlikely ever to play again for the Falcons, who haven't cut him yet merely for financial reasons (the team hopes to recover some of the bonus money from his record $130 million contract).

Harrington, who signed with the Falcons to serve as Vick's backup and try to get his career back on track, was thrust into the starting role by default. While he's completed more than 67 percent of his passes, he's accounted for more touchdowns by the other team (Minnesota returned two interceptions to the end zone in Week 1) than his own team has scored (the Falcons managed one TD in the first two games).

Despite his criticism, Petrino stressed Wednesday that Harrington is still the starter and Chris Redman remains the backup. Leftwich will likely need at least a couple of weeks just to get a handle on the Falcons' offense.

'This will have no effect,' Petrino said. 'Byron comes in as the number three. I talked to him about it, and I talked to the other two quarterbacks about it. They both knew we were looking for a veteran guy. We wanted to be patient, take our time and make sure we had the right guy.'

Leftwich, who agreed to a two-year, $7-million contract, just wanted to get back on the field - even if it was only a practice field in the far northern suburbs of sprawling Atlanta. He took part in the nearly two-hour workout, then hung around afterward to throw some extra passes.

'I'm a football player,' he said. 'I'll tell you, missing those last two weeks really bothered me, man, having to watch everyone else play and knowing I was healthy but couldn't go out there and be part of a football team. I'm just happy to be back out there.'

Leftwich refused to criticize the Jaguars, though it's clear he wasn't happy about getting released so close to the start of the season. He started 44 games for the Jaguars, throwing for 51 touchdowns and more than 9,000 yards, but the team decided to go with David Garrard after Leftwich missed the final 10 games of 2006 with an ankle injury and struggled in the preseason.

'It was a tough situation for me,' he said. 'I really don't want to go back over it. You'll have to ask those guys if there's something that happened. I really don't have an answer for it. I don't really need an answer as long as I'm here and part of the Falcons.'

Jaguars coach Jack Del Rio was equally diplomatic about the quarterback he cut.

'I'm not sure how that all will play out, but I'm happy he's getting an opportunity,' Del Rio said. 'It was obvious that he would get an opportunity to pursue his career somewhere, and I'm glad he's getting that opportunity and hope he does a nice job for them.'

SideBar: Panthers at Falcons

When: Sunday, 4:15 p.m.

Where: Georgia Dome

TV/Radio: Fox/92.9-FM