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REICH IS RIGHT MAN FOR FIRST-YEAR PANTHERS

Frank Reich has no guarantees -- contractually or otherwise -- that he will be the starting quarterback for the Carolina Panthers this year.

All he has is a chance to be a starter, something he was not going to receive from the Buffalo Bills.

For that matter, Reich probably wasn't even going to have the opportunity to continue as the Bills' No. 2 quarterback.

"It was tremendous working with Jim Kelly, who I continue to believe is one of the greatest quarterbacks ever to play this game," Reich said Monday, after his long-anticipated signing with the Panthers became official. "But now I have a chance to actually come in and be a starter. In Buffalo, there's no question: when Jim Kelly's healthy, he's going to be the starter."

Kelly is mending from major offseason knee surgery and there are no other proven players behind him. But those factors weren't enough for the Bills to attempt to re-sign Reich, even after it was apparent that he was not a hot commodity in the NFL's free agent market.

"I don't know if they, like everybody else, just expected that it was probably going to be a done deal in Carolina," Reich said. "If that was the reason they didn't come after me real hard or if they were just trying to squeeze me for money, I don't know.

"But I never indicated to Buffalo that, 'Hey, listen, I'm gone.' I've always tried to keep the door open. I said right from the start that if I'm going to be backing up somewhere, Buffalo's where I want to do it."

It could turn out that Reich, a reserve for the Bills since 1985, will be a backup with Carolina for part, if not most, of this season. The Panthers have not abandoned the thought of making one of the nation's top two rated college quarterbacks -- Steve McNair of Alcorn State or Kerry Collins of Penn State -- the top pick of next month's draft. And if they do, they are likely to start him as quickly as possible.

The Panthers also don't have an enormous financial commitment to Reich. They signed him to a one-year contract worth $1.25 million, but the deal doesn't include a signing bonus. In fact, the only payment Reich is assured of receiving is a $50,000 relocation bonus. He will get $25,000 for each appearance in the Panthers' five-game preseason schedule and $100,000 if he makes their final roster. His base salary of $1 million is not guaranteed.

If Reich -- who received an average of $790,000 per year from his last contract with Buffalo -- does play extensively, it will be worth more cash. The Panthers will pay him $30,000 for each game in which he takes at least 52 percent of the snaps.

"By no stretch am I thinking that they're committed to me 100 percent," he said. "I don't think there's any doubt that they have intentions of bringing a younger guy in, whether it's this year or next year or whenever. And it only makes sense to do a one-year contract because the only advantage to signing a long-term contract is if you get a really big signing bonus. That wasn't really happening for me."

After joining the Bills in 1985 as a third-round draft pick from the University of Maryland, Reich, through his pleasant demeanor and many charitable contributions, went from being much-maligned to one of Buffalo's most popular citizens.

"I'm excited about the opportunity I have with Carolina, but I really do have mixed emotions," he said. "Not as far as the decision, but as far as just how much we love it there (Buffalo) -- the organization, our friends there and teammates. It's tough to leave.

"Without a doubt, going to four Super Bowls in a row was an experience I'll never forget, as was being part of the comeback game in the playoffs. Probably more than the friendships, I'll remember the community feeling that I had in Buffalo."

Reich, 33, has started in eight regular-season games (posting a 4-4 record) and guided the Bills to two playoff victories. He has completed 222 of 377 passes for 2,540 yards and 18 touchdowns, while throwing 12 interceptions.

Reich is best known, of course, for the 1992 wild-card playoff game against Houston, when he rallied the Bills from a 32-point deficit to beat the Oilers, 41-38, in overtime for the greatest comeback in NFL history.

"Whenever he played, money was on the line," said Panthers general manager Bill Polian, Buffalo's GM during seven of Reich's 10 seasons there. "Frank Reich is the ultimate money quarterback."

"Frank brings so much to the table," Carolina coach Dom Capers said. "Whenever he's been given the opportunity to play he's always performed and stepped up admirably. He's an intelligent guy. He's a decision-maker and he's always prepared."

The Panthers -- who have two other quarterbacks in Jack Trudeau and Doug Pederson -- no doubt would expect Reich to share his considerable knowledge with a rookie QB.

"If we draft a quarterback, it would be an advantage to have someone as experienced as myself," Reich said. "I would want to help. I will go above and beyond the call of duty to help."

Meanwhile, the Bills are left with Rick Strom, last year's third-string quarterback whom they recently re-signed to a one-year contract worth $190,000, and Alex Van Pelt as their backups behind Kelly. General manager John Butler said that if the Bills acquire another quarterback, it will likely be in this year's draft.

The question is, beyond McNair and Collins -- both of whom figure to be selected well before Buffalo's pick in the 14th slot of the first round -- is there another quarterback worth taking?

"I think there are guys down the line," Butler said. "Everybody wants to have that franchise quarterback, but I think that remains to be proven on all of them, regardless of lofty ratings.

"And not all people who become excellent quarterbacks are picked in the first round. That's why you scout because you might find certain people who fit your system best. Every quarterback in this year's draft has been scouted thoroughly by us."

In other Bills free agency developments Monday, linebacker Darryl Talley visited the Atlanta Falcons and defensive tackle Mike Lodish visited the Denver Broncos.

Adam Lingner, Buffalo's free-agent long-snapper, has decided against retirement and signed a one-year contract with the Bills for the NFL veteran minimum of $178,000. He is the fourth free agent to re-sign with the Bills.

Bills defensive coordinator Wade Phillips will be the featured speaker at a joint meeting of the Bills Backers clubs of Western New York tonight at 7:45 at the Radisson Hotel across from Buffalo International Airport.

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