Petrino plans to go with Leftwich, when healthy, over Harrington

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- Even though Joey Harrington led Atlanta to two straight victories, Byron Leftwich remains the No. 1 quarterback for the Falcons.

Coach Bobby Petrino made it clear Wednesday that Leftwich will reclaim the starting spot as soon as he's healthy -- a stand that caught Harrington off guard.

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"That message has not been conveyed to me," Harrington said after working with the first team at practice, while Leftwich returned to the field with the second-teamers. "That wasn't my understandings coming into today. But I'm not going to create a fuss. I'm going to do my job for this team."

After the Falcons lost five of their first six games, Petrino announced that Leftwich would be the starter the rest of the season. He lasted just a little over a half in his first start Oct. 21, going down with a severely sprained ankle at New Orleans.

Leftwich underwent surgery to speed the recovery process, which allowed him to return to the practice field just three weeks later.

Petrino isn't sure if Leftwich will be healthy enough to play Sunday in a suddenly crucial game against NFC South rival Tampa Bay. The Falcons (3-6) can climb within a game of first place by beating the Buccaneers (5-4).

Asked if he was concerned about hurting the team's continuity by changing quarterbacks again, Petrino said, "Yeah, sure, it's something you worry about. But to be honest with you, we made the decision a while back that Byron is the starter and Joey is the backup. Right now, it's just a health issue."

Harrington, who was 19-of-26 for 192 yards in last week's win at Carolina, had a stunned look on his face when asked if he knew what the first-year coach had said after practice.

"I feel like I've done what they've asked me to do with the exception of maybe one game," Harrington said. "But, like I said a couple of weeks ago when this all started, this isn't my first rodeo. I've been around it before, so I'm not surprised. But, like I've also said, I have a right to disagree with it."

Harrington was eager to hang on as Atlanta's starter after losing the No. 1 spot in both Detroit and Miami. He was beaming when he walked off the field at Carolina, having thrown a 30-yard touchdown pass to Alge Crumpler with 20 seconds remaining that gave the Falcons a 20-13 victory.

The quarterback's demeanor was much different Wednesday.

"I do think I've earned (the starting job) as of late," he said. "Because of the way this team has played, yeah, I do think I deserve a chance to be out there."

In his first practice since the surgery, Leftwich impressed Petrino with his quick recovery.

"I thought he looked pretty good," the coach said. "Actually, he looked a little better than I thought he would. He was throwing the ball good. His movement was OK. The thing I worry about is what's going to happen tonight and tomorrow morning, how he reacts to all that work. That's the most work he's done on it in three weeks. We've still got to wait and see how he is physically."

Leftwich was appreciative of Petrino's support and looks forward to getting back on the field, perhaps even Sunday if there are no setbacks the rest of the week.

"It just shows he has confidence in me," Leftwich said. "For a guy to respect you, respect the work you put in, respect the way you go out there and play the game, to have enough trust in you to lead what is ultimately his football team, to have all that is a great thing."

Leftwich, the former starter in Jacksonville, was cut by the Jaguars at the end of the preseason, largely because of recurring injury problems. He signed with the Falcons after Week 2 and went through a rushed process of learning Petrino's offensive scheme.

Leftwich struggled after replacing Harrington during a loss at Tennessee, going 2-of-8 for 28 yards with an interception. He looked much better in his lone start, completing 15-of-23 for 145 yards and a touchdown before getting hurt on Atlanta's first possession of the second half.

Through much of his pro career, Leftwich has dealt with ankle problems.

"I haven't been 100 percent since the first quarter of the Akron game my senior year," Leftwich said, referring to his college days at Marshall. "That was October, five or six years ago. I'm being honest. I have not been 100 percent in a while."

That's what made his latest injury so tough to take. He had joined a new team and was eager to make a good impression, but couldn't even make it through an entire game.

"They understand my biggest problem in the league has been injuries," Leftwich said. "It's never been the way I played out there. It's been staying on the field week in and week out. Unfortunately for me, the past few years have not gone well as far as staying healthy and being out there for my team. Jacksonville got frustrated with that. I got frustrated with that."

Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press

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