Short History of the Atlanta Falcons

Courtesy of Albert Herring

Courtesy of Albert Herring

The Atlanta Falcons joined the National Football League (NFL) as an expansion team in 1965. NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle offered the franchise to Rankin Smith Sr. on June 30, 1965 in exchange for $8.5 million, the highest price in NFL history for a franchise to that date. The NFL granted the Falcons the first pick in the 1966 draft and the franchise chose Tommy Nobis, a linebacker from the University of Texas. Smith hired Norb Hecker, an assistant under Green Bay legend Vince Lombardi, as the first coach and the team lost its first regular season game to the Los Angeles Rams 19-14 on September 11, 1966 in Atlanta Stadium. And so, the Falcons began their journey as one of the least successful franchises in NFL history.

Hecker lasted three games into the 1968 season before Smith fired him after the coach compiled a record of 4-26-1. Smith then hired Norm Van Brocklin, who lasted eight games into the 1974 season before receiving the axe. Van Brocklin’s ledger: 39-48-3. Marion Campbell became next man up. He lasted through five games into the 1976 season, walking away with a 6-19 record. Leeman Bennett stepped to the fore-front at the beginning of the 1977 season and led the Falcons to their first playoff game (a 14-13 win over the Philadelphia Eagles) in 1978, and their first Division title in 1980. Unfortunately for Falcons fans, both playoff runs ended with losses to the Dallas Cowboys.   Bennett’s tenure with the Falcons ended with another playoff loss after the strike-shortened 1982 season, but he became one of only four Falcons coaches who left with a winning record, 46-41. The next 15 years entrenched the Falcons as one of the worst franchises in NFL history as a litany of coaches came and went while compiling a record of 79-147-1, a .350 winning percentage.

Dan Reeves took the helm in 1997 and led the franchise to its only Super Bowl appearance after the 1998 season. The team lost to the Denver Broncos in Super Bowl XXXIII, 34-19, without star safety Eugene Robinson who was arrested earlier that day for soliciting an undercover police officer posing as a prostitute.

Reeves remained the head coach after Arthur Blank bought the franchise from the Smith family on December 6, 2001. Reeves proceeded to guide the Falcons to the playoffs in 2002 behind first-year starting quarterback Michael Vick. Vick broke his leg during the 2003 preseason, the Falcons lost seven straight games during the regular season, and Blank fired Reeves. Reeves left with a record of 49-59-1.

Jim Mora Jr. took over the reins in 2004 and Vick returned as the starting quarterback. The Falcons won their third Division title, defeated the St. Louis Rams 47-17 in the Divisional playoffs, but lost in the NFC Championship game to the Philadelphia Eagles, 27-10. Mora would not achieve another winning season in Atlanta and in 2006 professed his dream job–head coach at the University of Washington. After a 7-9 record that year, Blank gave Mora the opportunity to pursue his dream job after terminating Mora’s employment with the Falcons.

Bobby Petrino accepted Blank’s offer to become the Falcons’ 13th head coach. Before the 2007 season, Vick pleaded guilty to dog-fighting charges in Virginia and would never play for Atlanta again. Petrino resigned without notice after 13 games to take a job at the University of Arkansas.

Yet, the Falcons would enjoy their best five-year run in franchise history from 2008 to 2012. Mike Smith became head coach, Thomas Dimitroff took over as general manager, and Matt Ryan became the third overall pick in the 2008 NFL Draft. The Falcons finished 11-5 that year but lost in the first round of the playoffs to the Arizona Cardinals, 30-24. While not making the playoffs in 2009, the team finished 9-7 and for the first time in franchise history attained back-to-back winning seasons. The Falcons stormed back in 2010 with a 13-3 record, their fourth Division title and the top seed in the National Football Conference (NFC) playoffs. However, the Green Bay Packers pasted the Falcons in the Georgia Dome, 48-21. The next season, the Falcons again made the playoffs before falling to the New York Giants, 24-2, in the NFC Wild Card game. In 2012, the Falcons enjoyed their best season since the 1998 Super Bowl campaign. The team went 13-3, beat Seattle in the Divisional round of the playoffs (30-28), for Smith’s only playoff win, and lost to San Francisco in the NFC championship game, 28-24, after a fourth-down pass from the San Francisco 10-yard line fell incomplete in the waning moments of the game.

The 2013 and 2014 Falcons compiled a 10-22 record, which ultimately led to Smith’s demise. Blank fired the coach after the 2014 season. Still, Smith left as the most productive coach in franchise history, 60-36. Not long after Smith’s termination, Blank hired Dan Quinn to coach the team. Time will tell if the decision to hire Quinn was a shrewd one or another in a long line of poor management decisions that have plagued the franchise from its inception.

The Falcons are arguably the worst franchise in NFL history. The team is about to embark on its 51st season and yet the numbers do not lie. After 50 years of play, the team has compiled a record of 330-432-6, 7-12 in the playoffs. The franchise owns five Division titles, one Conference championship, one Super Bowl appearance, one Hall of Fame inductee (Claude Humphrey), and zero, I repeat, zero, NFL Championships. To borrow a phrase from former San Francisco 49er coach and current University of Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh, “Who has it better than us?” For Falcons fans, just about every other franchise. Falcons Rise Up!  You are way overdue.

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