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Frank Reich's long-expected signing with the Carolina Panthers finally became a reality today, The Buffalo News has learned.

Reich, a reserve quarterback for the Buffalo Bills since 1985, agreed to a one-year contract with the Panthers for $1.25 million.

He becomes the sixth unrestricted free agent to leave the Bills this year and second to reunite with Panthers general manager Bill Polian, former GM of the Bills.

Reich, 33, had entered free agency in pursuit of a starting job, something he would not have a shot at with the Bills, who are committed to Jim Kelly. Reich should have such an opportunity with the expansion Panthers, although it is known they are still giving serious thought to making a quarterback -- either Steve McNair or Kerry Collins -- the top overall pick of next month's NFL draft. If they do select a QB, they would look to Reich probably to be their starter at the beginning of the season while providing instruction to the rookie.

Reich, who received an average of $790,000 per year from his last contract with Buffalo, did not receive the kind of money he thought he would get. He had hoped for a deal in the range of $2 million and a strong assurance, if not a guarantee, that he would start.

However, he attracted little interest from around the league for a starting job and only a few clubs expressed interest in him as a backup. Even the Panthers -- who earlier this month signed former Bills tight end Pete Metzelaars to a three-year contract worth $2.4 million -- didn't display the anticipated enthusiasm.

Even with Kelly recovering from major offseason knee surgery, the Bills made no effort to try to retain Reich. They seem content to go with Rick Strom, their third-stringer last year, in the No. 2 spot and perhaps draft a quarterback next month.

Reich joined the Bills in 1985 as a third-round draft pick from the University of Maryland. He has been the No. 2 man behind Kelly since 1986.

Reich has started 10 games for the Bills, including two in the playoffs.

Reich's career passing numbers: 377 attempts, 222 completions, 2,540 yards, 18 touchdowns, 12 interceptions.

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