Buchanan's comeback season turns sour

Updated: October 31, 2003, 10:22 AM ET
ESPN

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- Before the season, Ray Buchanan tried to come up with an appropriate analogy for his expected comeback. He settled on a leather-clad Elvis in that '68 television special.

Well, the King is dead -- and Buchanan is now on the bench.

The flamboyant cornerback, a fixture in Atlanta's secondary since 1997, was benched for the first time in his career with the Falcons mired in a six-game losing streak.

Not surprisingly, the move didn't sit well with the 32-year-old Buchanan, who continues to insist he's one of the top pass defenders in the NFL despite plenty of evidence to the contrary.

"Do I worry about someone picking me up?" Buchanan asked rhetorically. "Not in the least. Teams are always looking for great corners -- and I'm still great."

Hmmm. When the words are put up against the numbers, Buchanan sounds like an aging fighter who just can't accept that his best days are behind him.

The Falcons (1-6) are giving up 416.6 yards a game, easily more than any other team. A big chunk of those yards -- 266.9 -- have come through the air.

Opposing quarterbacks have completed more than 63 percent of their throws. The Falcons have surrendered 13 passing touchdowns, while managing just four interceptions.

During a bye week, Atlanta decided to try a totally different approach. The starting secondary was benched -- Buchanan, cornerback Tyrone Williams and safeties Keion Carpenter and Gerald McBurrows.

Carpenter accepted the demotion with a dose of reality.

"It's hard to say you're doing good when you're last in the league in pass defense," he said. "We're just not getting it done."

Buchanan used to get it done. In 1998, he made seven interceptions, broke up 18 passes and started in the Pro Bowl as the Falcons won their first NFC championship.

Two seasons later, Buchanan was rewarded with a $36 million contract, despite indications his performance was beginning to slip.

Buchanan thought he reached rock bottom a year ago. He was suspended four games after testing positive for ephedrine. He was slowed by injuries to his abdomen and knee. He wound up matching a career-low with only two interceptions.

If not for a guaranteed contract, it's unlikely that Buchanan would have returned to the Falcons in 2003. He vowed to prove he wasn't washed up -- and claims to have lived up to his end of the bargain.

"Everyone knows the secondary isn't the reason we're losing," Buchanan said. "If I was getting roasted and toasted, I could see it. But I'm out there making plays."

OK, he has broken up a team-high eight passes. But he's made only one interception and gotten burned on several TD passes, most recently a 32-yard score while matched one-on-one with Joe Horn of the New Orleans Saints.

From Buchanan's point of view, it's easy to blame the secondary for a team that has all sorts of problems.

"It's like the ship is sinking, and they're going to see how many people they can bring down," he said. "But I'm a swimmer. I'm a survivor."

Coach Dan Reeves can understand Buchanan's pain, but insists the Falcons had little choice.

"Any of us who used to have success and aren't having the success now, it's hard to swallow," Reeves said. "But we're not having a (funeral) service for him. He hasn't passed away. He's still here, he's still able to play and hopefully he's going to be part of any success we might have the rest of the year."

The coach left open the possibility of Buchanan regaining his starting job, but said the 11-year veteran is going to have to prove himself in practice.

Buchanan, who is tied for third on Atlanta's career list with 30 interceptions, considers that a slap in the face. He has started 148 of 149 games since breaking into the lineup with Indianapolis as a rookie in 1993.

He signed with the Falcons in '97 and is now one of the team's senior members. He's been through the good times -- a Super Bowl, a trip to the playoffs last season -- and plenty of bad times.

"I've bled for this organization," Buchanan said. "Even last year, when I was hurt, I was taking injections, trying to play. Through bad decisions and good decisions, I'll always be a Falcon."

This story is from ESPN.com's automated news wire. Wire index