Who are the Atlanta Falcons? No, really. Who are they? I don’t know anything about them.
When non-sports fans make presumptions about sports fans, one of the first things they assume is that a fan’s worst fear is rooting for a bad team. That’s not quite true – the Cleveland Browns are probably the worst-run organization in sports, and they have fans all over the planet. The Chicago Cubs have an enormous national fanbase despite having sucked for a long time, and they just rewarded their fans for the time and emotional investments. The Dallas Cowboys have been so bad since Barry Switzer’s Super Bowl that anyone who became fans during the dynasty can be given a true fan pass if they stayed. So it isn’t a bad team that disturbs fans. What fans really fear is ending up rooting for a team that’s inconsequential and irrelevant.
Ladies and gentlemen, the Atlanta Haw – uh, Falcons. I mean Falcons.
Yeah, the Falcons are a team that doesn’t get a whole lot of acknowledgement outside of Georgia. Hell, they don’t get very much IN Georgia, either. Fans in Georgia take a sworn oath to remain once and forever loyal to the Georgia Bulldogs upon birth. College football is god, and the NFL is the afterthought. And it doesn’t help very much that the Falcons have usually been having a tough go of things.
The Falcons were created in 1965 after the building of Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium. That got the city to start chasing the dream of professional football, so it applied for teams in both the AFL and NFL. The AFL said yes. NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle didn’t like that, so he followed suit in order to block the AFL’s claim to Atlanta. Atlanta was forced to make a choice, and it went with the older, bigger, cooler league. The name was left to a fan contest, and Falcons was singled out. Some 40 people suggested Falcons, but the singular winner was schoolteacher Julia Elliott, who wrote this about the falcon: “The falcon is proud and dignified, with great courage and fight. It never drops its prey. It’s deadly and has a great sporting tradition.” Some of the rejected names included Rebels, Crackers, Firebirds, and Thrashers. That last one would eventually become important. …Okay, you’re right. No it wouldn’t.
When the Falcons finally selected a coach, they were looking at a host of names: Bud Wilkinson, former head coach at the legendary University of Oklahoma; Frank Broyles of the University of Arkansas; Paul Brown, who was so good at coaching Cleveland’s NFL team that it was named after him; and Green Bay Packers coach Vince Lombardi. The Falcons leaned Lombardi’s way… In the respect that they decided to hire his old assistant, Norb Hecker! This was Hecker’s first gig as head coach, and there’s a reason he’s an NFL footnote. While his mentor in Green Bay turned into the greatest football coach of all time and had the NFL’s championship trophy named after him, Hecker was a terrible coach. In 1966 and 1967, he won four games – and that’s TOTAL, not per season. He was axed in 1968 when the Falcons started 0-3, and was never a head coach again. Don’t feel too bad for him, though; when Bill Walsh led the rise of the San Francisco 49ers in the 80’s, Hecker was an assistant for their first Super Bowl team.
The Falcons stayed dreadful through the 60’s. They were so bad that the 6-8 record they closed 1969 with was considered a vast improvement. The Falcons finally got onto something resembling a track in 1971. While their 7-6-1 year wasn’t exactly impressive, it was a winning season, and it was their first ever. They started showing promise the next year, going 7-7, and went 9-5 the following year. The 70’s were pretty up and down: The Falcons collapsed and went 3-11 in 1974, while 1977 saw a 7-7 record with an unusual quirk: They had allowed only 129 points on defense, which is a league record for the old 14-game seasons. They also allowed an average of 9.2 points per game, which remains the record even today; the other great NFL defenses, including the 1985 Chicago Bears, 2000 Baltimore Ravens, and 2013 Seattle Seahawks couldn’t even touch it. They also had an offense which set records, but those were records in futility. So those great defensive performances were wasted to an offense that posted under 13 points per game.
The Falcons didn’t make the playoffs until 1978. (And as bad as that is, they still got there sooner than the New Orleans Saints did – Saints fans had to wait through 20 godawful years to see their team play a playoff game.) In a year filled with dramatic comeback victories and two wins over the Saints that both had 20-17 final scores, the Falcons met the Philadelphia Eagles in the postseason. While they fell behind 13-0, quarterback Steve Bartkowski stayed calm and cool as he brought the Falcons back into the game. Atlanta’s defense didn’t waver, and the Falcons took a late 14-13 lead late in the game. The score held up when the Eagles missed a chip shot field goal at the end of the game which would have won it. Moving on to face the Dallas Cowboys, the Falcons had a shot when they knocked Cowboys star Roger Staubach out of the game and took a 20-13 lead into halftime. But the Cowboys were the class of the NFL back then, so to them, being behind at the half by a mere touchdown didn’t mean anything. It was Dallas that eked out the 27-20 victory, and the Falcons were done.
That popular sports pundit idea of a good run building momentum which carries over to the next season didn’t happen to the Falcons, because momentum carryover doesn’t exist. Or at least in Atlanta’s case, it skipped a season. After six wins in 1979, the Falcons won their division in 1980 with a 12-4 record. In the playoffs, they met the Cowboys again, but this time they really had their hearts ripped out in Mola Ram-like fashion. They had a 20-point lead over Dallas at one point. Although the Cowboys were starting their long fade-out by now and weren’t the juggernaut they were in 1978, they were still good enough to erase that deficit and win. That loss is considered one of the most heartbreaking moments in Atlanta sports history; it was worse than one particular Falcons loss from the 1998 season (I’ll get to that) and about a hair less heartbreaking than any loss the Georgia Bulldogs accrue. After that, though, the Falcons spent the 80’s resorting to their ways from the 60’s, save a 1982 playoff appearance which occurred because of a technicality during the strike season, the Birds suffered every football calamity that could have happened to them. In 1984, running back William Andrews was injured in training camp. Since it was a knee injury, he was out for two years, and it didn’t take him very long to retire soon after he returned. In 1988, the Falcons had the first pick of the Draft. They used it on Aundray Bruce, who played in 151 games… And started only 42 of them. He signed with the Los Angeles Raiders in 1991 and played 11 years, but is regarded as a bust. The player drafted after Bruce was Neil Smith, who was taken by the Kansas City Chiefs and went to five Pro Bowls with them before signing with the Denver Broncos and winning two Super Bowls.
Atlanta finally lucked out in the Draft in 1989 when they got Deion Sanders with the fifth pick. Sanders was a prime choice who could run at the speed of hyperdrive. There was a problem, though: Sanders was as good at creating and selling an image as he was at football. He and the Falcons got into a contract dispute which went almost to the first week of the season. And that led to another problem: He was also playing as an outfielder for Major League Baseball’s New York Yankees. He finally used his baseball talents as leverage to get what he wanted, only practiced the Friday before the first game, and when he hit the field he… Returned a punt 68 yards for a touchdown! Sanders actually turned out to be worth double what the Falcons were paying him. He also became the first truly identifiable player for them since Bartkowski. But he was also a cornerback – and one who wasn’t great at tackling. For all the cutthroat brilliance that made Sanders one of the most feared and dominant players to ever play his position, you couldn’t build much of a team around him.
The Falcons as a whole did improve in the 90’s, but that’s really a relative term in this case. They improved in the 90’s because the way they played in the 80’s couldn’t have gotten much worse. Coach Jerry Glanville managed to haul Sanders, wideout Andre Rison, and cornerback Tim McKyer to the playoffs in 1991. Known as the 2 Legit 2 Quit Falcons after the MC Hammer song, the Birds went 10-6 and managed to win their playoff game against the Saints before the eventual Super Bowl champion Washington Redskins hammered them the next week. They also made the playoffs in 1995. The rest of the decade was a bunch of mediocre seasons and the departure of Sanders in 1994. Desperate to make SOMETHING – anything at all – happen in the way of consistency, the team hired Dan Reeves to coach in 1997. Reeves had coached some great teams for the Broncos, and taken them to three unwinnable Super Bowls (which they didn’t win). He then coached the New York Giants for four years which saw the teams of Lawrence Taylor wane and fall. Reeves was a Georgia native and a former protege of the great Tom Landry. Unfortunately, Reeves wasn’t able to get very much out of the Falcons either. He was there for seven years which passed without much difference from any of Atlanta’s previous years.
Except for 1998 and 2002.
1998 was the big one. More to the point, it was the earlier one, and since I write these things chronologically, we’re going to cover that first. That was the year the Falcons shocked and awed the NFL. Reeves had taken the team to a 6-2 record to finish out the 1997 season after a 1-7 start and, incredibly, this was one of those rare cases where the momentum DID carry into the next year. Quarterback Chris Chandler was mainly a career journeyman, but he went to the Pro Bowl twice calling signals in Atlanta. Jamal Anderson went to the Pro Bowl that year too. The Falcons of 1998 flew off to a 6-2 start which was originally written off as a fluke. That was sort of the natural thing to do – look at the team’s history. They only won seven games the very year before. Besides, they were playing against a weak schedule and those two losses were slaughters at the hands of the Niners and New York Jets, both of whom were legitimate contenders that season. (I know, you’re looking at that latter one funny. But the Jets that year were coached by Bill Parcells, won 12 games and their division, and played in the AFC Championship.) In November, the Falcons laid those doubts to rest by killing the Patriots 41-10; that victory also snapped a string of cold-weather losses which had plaguing the Birds since 1982. In that game, tight end OJ Santiago performed a dance which Falcons mythos has deemed the Dirty Bird, giving this Falcons team its nickname. Week 11 brought a grudge match against the Niners, and the Dirty Birds made their statement here by taking a 31-19 victory. Dan Reeves had to have quadruple-bypass heart surgery after a road win in New Orleans, but the powerful Birds didn’t lose a beat – they simply had former Los Angeles Rams coach Rich Brooks take over while Reeves was out. Despite that, the Birds won out, taking their division with a stunning 14-2 record. Ordinarily, a 14-2 record would be the best record in the NFL, but that year, it wasn’t even the best in their conference. Reeves was back in time for the playoff confrontation against the Niners, and Atlanta took a 10-0 lead in the first half which was a 20-18 victory after 60 minutes.
Remember when I mentioned in the last paragraph that the Falcons weren’t even the best team in their conference? Yeah, so, that’s important now. The best team in the NFC – and, really, the NFL – was the 15-1 Minnesota Vikings. The Vikes that year were dangerous and explosive – quarterback Randall Cunningham was the league MVP, and receivers Randy Moss, Cris Carter, and Jake Reed outscored every team in the entire history of the damned league. While the Falcons drew first blood with a touchdown, the Vikings stormed back and pulled out to a 20-7 lead. But this was the Falcons’ first NFC Conference Championship game, and if they were gonna lose to the Team of Destiny, then they were at least NOT going to let themselves be embarrassed in the process. With 1:17 left in the first half, the Vikes got greedy and tried to put the game away right there. They threw two straight downfield passes and tried for a third when those failed. On the third attempt, the Falcons forced a fumble, which they recovered. On the next play, Chandler heaved a touchdown, and Minnesota’s insurmountable-looking lead was now cut to a quite manageable 20-14 lead at the half. Atlanta stole the momentum and cut into Minnesota’s lead again with a third quarter field goal. The Vikes finally responded in the fourth quarter, grabbing another touchdown which took their lead to 27-17. The Falcons responded with a 70-yard pass which soon turned into a field goal strike. The score was now 27-20, and it stayed that way for several more minutes as Minnesota’s vaunted offense was stymied again and again by a tough Falcons defense which wasn’t getting intimidated. Finally, the Vikes pulled together a 55-yard drive which looked like it was going to win the game with 2:07 left. Atlanta finally forced the Vikings to try for a field goal at their own 21, meaning it would be a 38-yard try. Out came Minnesota kicker Gary Anderson, a deadeye kicker who set a record that year by successfully kicking every field goal he was asked to make. 38 yards? This was a gimme… Only it wasn’t. The attempt flew wide to the left, and the Falcons had the ball, the momentum, and a new shot at life. Chandler took the Birds on an eight-play drive which concluded with a 16-yard touchdown pass to Terance Mathis. Morten Anderson kicked the point after, the game was 27 all, and the Vikings were suddenly squeamish. Although there were still 49 seconds to go, Minnesota wimped out and played for the tie. In overtime, the teams exchanged possessions before the Vikings managed to get stalled at their own 39. The ensuing punt pinned Atlanta at their nine, but the fired-up Birds went on a ten-play drive during which the demoralized Vikings only forced a single third down. After a two-yard run from Jamal Anderson got the Falcons to the Minnesota 21, Morten Anderson was pulled out again. Anderson split the uprights to give the Falcons a 30-27 victory which left viewers breathless and sent the team to the Super Bowl. This game, by the way, is available in its entirety on Youtube. If you’re into football at all, you need to fucking see it.
The Dirty Birds got shredded by John Elway in the ensuing Super Bowl, and the Broncos won pretty decisively. But the 1998 season is still the shining jewel in the team’s crown. It’s one of the few things Falcons fans can look back on with pride and say “Yep, MY team did that!”
The 2001 Draft had the Falcons and San Diego Chargers swap spots in the first round. That gave Atlanta the first overall pick, which they used on quarterback Michael Vick. The Chargers ended up in fifth, and they got LaDainian Tomlinson out of it. At first, this was looking like an even trade – both Vick and Tomlinson emerged as stars. In 2002, Vick was made into the starting quarterback in Atlanta. He also established himself as the fastest man on the planet; watching Michael Vick, you always had the feeling that whenever he had the ball, he was going to do something highlight-reeley. Vick got the Falcons to a 9-6-1 record that year and entered the playoffs against the heavily favored Packers. The Packers had never been defeated in a playoff game at their home stadium before, but the Birds showed them there was a first time for everything. Vick ran everywhere over them – it was almost like he was just teleporting all over the field. The Falcons won 27-7. They lost to the Eagles the next week, but Vick had emerged as the new prototype quarterback and the new face of the NFL. In his book Bloody Sundays, football journalist Mike Freeman even hypothesized that one day, some coach – Jon Gruden was singled out – was going to try to deploy a formation of 11 defensive backs in order to stop him. (And yes, Freeman was wrong. I read Bloody Sundays back when it first came out, and it seemed to have a fair amount of smarts for the time. Now so much of it has turned out to be wrong that it’s hilarious.)
Although 2002 ended in Atlanta earlier than anyone who watches football would have liked, Vick was all set to run like a Mountain Dew-spiked cheetah over the league. Then he broke his fibula in a preseason game and had to miss the first 12 weeks of the season. That pretty much crippled the team’s entire game plan, and they won just five games in 2003. Vick did return in 2004, though, and the Falcons won the division that year. After destroying the Rams in the playoffs, they were sent home by the Eagles again. After 2004, Vick then signed the richest contract in NFL history. It was also after 2004 that other coaches started to notice something important about him: While he was an electric and dangerous player, he couldn’t, ah, how can I put this… He couldn’t actually play quarterback very well. Yes, he had more speed than anyone. He also had the most powerful throwing arm on the planet. Unfortunately, being a good quarterback doesn’t mean heaving the ball as hard as you can; it means throwing so the receivers can, you know, CATCH the ball! Michael Vick was only dangerous as a runner. If you forced him to pass, he seemed to only be capable of taking receivers’ hands and heads off. The Falcons got to be respectable, but really not quite GOOD. And in 2007, it stopped mattering what Vick did on the gridiron anyway. It was discovered that he was involved in a dogfighting ring, and he was suspended. Falcons owner Arthur Blank said that Vick should probably be allowed back into the NFL, but he probably wouldn’t ever be a Falcon again. The team spent 2007 using Joey Harrington and Byron Leftwich to fill Vick’s gap. They won four games.
Given the circumstances, you wouldn’t think the Falcons would have been able to mop up such a mess very quickly. But it was right the next year they scored in the Draft: Their pick, third overall, was a Boston College quarterback named Matt Ryan. They hired Mike Smith to coach and augmented Ryan with running back Michael Turner. Smith and Turner stayed for a few years. Ryan is still there. All three have been credited with turning the Falcons around. They gave Atlanta an 11-5 season in 2008, and the next year, a 9-7 record meant the Falcons achieved back to back winning seasons for the first time ever. If there was a Golden Age for the Falcons, it’s now. 2013 and 2014 were losing seasons, but it looks like they were hiccups. Ryan had them back on track with an improved 8-8 record in 2015. And in 2016, Ryan beat his reputation as a playoff choker. The 11-5 Falcons made the playoffs, beat the Packers in the NFC Championship, and are on their way to their second Super Bowl as of this writing.
The Falcons are deadweights when it comes to fielding superstars. None of the true marquee players the Falcons have ever had stayed for very long. Deion Sanders was out the door when the Niners offered him a contract, but he was still honored in Atlanta for significant service to the Falcons. The big knock on Sanders was that he couldn’t tackle, which was true – in a career which ran around 14 years, he compiled only 513 tackles. But then again, cornerbacks aren’t for tackling – it’s expected to a point because they’re defensive players, but a cornerback’s job is to keep the receivers from getting the ball. Sanders is an undisputed legend when it comes to that. He intercepted 53 passes during his career, forced ten fumbles, and ran for a total of 5722 yards strictly on returns. He reached the endzone 22 times. As for the others, Eric Dickerson spent the final year of his career in Atlanta. Michael Vick was out the door so the team didn’t look bad. One very popular ex-Falcon is a player a few fans and folks involved with the team are probably still kicking themselves over. Their 1991 Draft pick in the second round was a Southern Miss quarterback named Brett Favre. Upon Favre being drafted, then-coach Jerry Glanville took a sip of water to spit out in stunned disgust. He HATED Favre and once said it would take a plane crash for him to ever start Favre. In fairness to him, though, The Gunslinger didn’t have much of a career in Atlanta. The first pass he ever threw resulted in a touchdown… On an interception return! The remainder of Favre’s career with the Falcons consisted of four more passes, all of them incomplete, so when the Packers offered a first round pick for him soon after, the Falcons jumped on it. With their new 19th pick, the Falcons drafted running back Tony Smith. With a total of some 300-odd rushing yards and two touchdowns to his NFL career name, Smith is regarded as a bust. Meanwhile, in the third game of 1992, the Packers played the Cincinnati Bengals. Don Majkowski’s torn ligament was just the break Brett Favre needed to get into the game and prove himself. By the time Favre retired in 2010, he owned every major passing record in the NFL.
There’s one other notable player the Falcons had on their roster, but it’s not because of anything he ever accomplished on the gridiron. Tim Green’s career ran from 1986 to 1993, and he only ever played for Atlanta, and he didn’t pick up any major recognitions. What he did do was get so bored during team meetings that he took up writing, which was something that probably came naturally to him because he read in the locker room to relieve his pre-game jitters. After retiring, he finished law school and went into the field, which isn’t unusual. But he also took his written team meeting musings and turned them into books. Green is known more now as a bestselling author. A lot of his books are children’s books, but he’s written a lot of books for adults as well. He wrote two nonfiction books about life in the NFL: The Road to the NFL in 2003 and The Dark Side of the Game in 1997. My father worked as an assistant printer in a book bindery, so my family frequently received the fruits of his labors at no cost. The Dark Side of the Game was one of the books he brought home. Being one of the first sports books I ever read, it holds a special place in my heart for helping me get into the genre. (I also received The Baseball Hall of Shame and The Jordan Rules from him.) The Dark Side of the Game was such an eye-opener that I was able to predict the damage reports and health concerns about football players when they started popping up a couple of years ago.
The team is just finishing off a major ripoff project. Although the Falcons played in downtown Atlanta until last season, they’re going to move in the upcoming season to someplace called Flowery Branch in Hall County. That’s two counties away from Fulton County, where Atlanta is located. If you’re a fan outside of Georgia, you may want to secure a hotel there if you plan to check out a game. There’s virtually no public transit to where the Falcons are going to be playing soon, which figures; the Falcons just don’t light many fires under fans’ asses. I try very hard to write these reviews and mention the unique quirks of every team, and I can’t think of much of anything else to say here. The Falcons are just 53 overpaid blase football players and whoever coaches them at the time. They hate poor people, and their branding is some of the worst and most boring on the planet.
It doesn’t help that the Falcons have been called out for a terrible marketing mistake. Atlanta has an enormous black population. It’s the home of a rap music sound of its own making. The popular and acclaimed rap group Outkast is from Atlanta and so proud of it that they included the city’s postal code, ATL, in the title of their second album, ATLiens. When the teams of the Michael Vick era charged out of the tunnel, their introductory song was “Bring ‘em Out” by rapper TI. When the white fans didn’t take to that, the team tapped Travis Tritt – a country singer – to write a country theme song for “the fans who don’t appreciate rap.”
And that’s the Atlanta Falcons. Now that I finally excreted this bland team out of my system, I can finally go on and review the only other team in Atlanta, the Braves, who are actually worth wri- what? An NBA team called the Hawks? You’re kidding, right? Sigh. Fine. I’ll write about the damned Hawks, this blog IS called EVERY Team Ever, not Teams I Like, and then… What now? TWO NHL teams?! Okay, now you’re just fucking with me.
Awesome 1998 season; Michael Vick and Deion Sanders played for them; no bandwagon stigma exists and the team is in no danger of developing one; you won’t be mocked if you cheer for them
Michael Vick was busted for dogfighting; team is inaccessible in virtually every way; sad history is so inconspicuous that everyone forgets they’re there even when they do well; could easily be confused for Atlanta’s own NBA team; are the walking equivalent to plain bread
Should you be a fan?
God, no. I mean, you shouldn’t let that sway your opinion – if you feel drawn to the Atlanta Falcons, by all means hop aboard. What I’m really trying to say is, what is there to draw anyone to them? This team doesn’t have any real identity.