The Atlanta Falcons: Super Bowl Champions?

I call myself a fan of the Atlanta Falcons and have been such for just over 40 years.   Which is pretty good since the franchise is in their 51st season.  Oh sure, I could have picked the New England Patriots (but they actually sucked pre-Belichick and pre-Brady) or the Green Bay Packers or the Pittsburgh Steelers or the Dallas Cowboys, but that would have been too easy.  I figured I live in Atlanta so why not pull for the home team. Now, over those 40+ years I have witnessed much failure and little success.  A quick tale of the tape shows that the Falcons have won six Division titles, one National Football Conference (NFC) championship (1998) and no National Football League (NFL)–Super Bowl–championships.  I would also be remiss if I did not add that the organization has had one player inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame as a Falcon—Claude Humphrey in 2014.

Satrurday, the Falcons will play the Seattle Seahawks in the NFC divisional playoffs.  The Dirty Birds finished 11-5, won their division, and garnered the number two seed in the NFC playoffs.  Vegas oddsmakers have established the Falcons as a 5 point favorite in the Georgia Dome on Saturday.  However, the Falcons lost to this same Seattle team earlier in the year, albeit after a bit of controversy. Still, Atlanta seems to have a good chance to win the game and a fair chance to bring home the city’s first NFL title.  After all, they have one of the most prolific offenses in the history of the NFL.  Yet, I am uneasy.  I am skeptical of their chances against Seattle. I am somehow expecting the Falcons to pull out defeat from the jaws of victory.  As any long-time Falcons supporter (yes, more than a few of us exist) will tell you—we have witnessed too many Falcon playoff horror stories.

As a backdrop, please know that Atlanta is 7-12 all time in playoff games.  Though, it seems much worse than that.  I attended the first game after the 1978 season.  Yes, it took the Falcons twelve years to make their first playoff appearance.  That should have tipped me off right there, but I was young and stupid (now, I am much older and a little less stupid, mainly because my lovely wife has enlightened me a bit).  Anyway, Atlanta won 14-13 when the Philadelphia punter, subbing for the injured placekicker, missed a 34-yard field goal with 17 seconds to go in the game.  My thoughts simply were that we were lucky to win the game and had no inkling that the Falcons would break our hearts over and over again.  We lost the next week in Dallas to the Cowboys, 27-20, after leading 20-13 at halftime.  However, I wasn’t jaded yet.

That feeling began to form after the 1980 season.  Atlanta posted a 12-4 record and won its first division title.  The Birds hosted Dallas in the divisional playoffs with visions of a Super Bowl title firmly implanted in my brain.  With Atlanta leading 24-10 going into the third quarter, I was feeling pretty good.  However, we gave up three touchdowns in the fourth quarter, including the game winner with 47 seconds to go.   That game initiated an oft-repeated mixture of feelings: frustration, anger and despair.

After the 1982 strike-shortened season when it seemed the whole league made the playoffs, my Falcons decided to flush the season with a 30-24 loss to the Minnesota Vikings.  At that point, I could have cared less because the strike had left me a little embittered with professional football.

I should have cared more because the Falcons would not make the playoffs again until 1991.  For years, I forgot Atlanta actually had an NFL team, and frankly, I think many Americans believed the same.  But lo and behold a brash fellow by the name of Deion Sanders, Prime Time, entered the Atlanta sports scene and helped lead both the Falcons and the Braves back to the playoffs.  If I had a boy at this time I would have named him either Deion or Prime Time, but I didn’t, so let’s move on.  The Falcons actually won a playoff game in 1991 by defeating the hapless New Orleans Saints, 27-20.  However, the Birds were face-planted the next week in D.C. by the Redskins 24-7.  All in all, I felt pretty good to be a Falcons fan and Deion helped the Braves go to the World Series.  Maybe I’ll name my next dog Prime Time.

While the Braves were becoming the Team of the ‘90s, the Falcons just struggled.   Deion left for greener pastures, and who could blame him?  The Falcons made the playoffs again in 1995 but decided to freeze up in Green Bay as the Packers blasted the Birds, 37-20.   Just as I was pushing the Falcons deeper into the abyss of my mind, Fate laid her hands on the Dirty Birds in 1998.  After eking out a 20-18 home playoff victory over the San Francisco 49’ers, Atlanta somehow defeated the heavily favored Minnesota Vikings up there.   Normally dependable placekicker Gary Anderson missed a chip shot field goal that allowed the Falcons to tie the game on a Chris Chandler to Terance Mathis touchdown reception with 57 seconds to go in regulation.  Morten Andersen nailed a 38 yard field goal in overtime to secure Atlanta’s first Super Bowl berth.  I took special delight in the fact that Atlanta defeated Minnesota in that disgrace of a building, the Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome.  The 1991 Braves lost four times in that god forsaken place to the Twins during the World Series.  Karma, man!

Just as I was feeling some love for the Dirty Birds and believing they might actually win a championship, Fate kicked us in the posterior this time.  You see, we had an All-Pro safety by the name of Eugene Robinson.  The day before the Super Bowl, Robinson received an award given annually to a player who best exemplifies outstanding character and leadership.  Late that evening, Robinson celebrated by soliciting an undercover police officer posing as a prostitute.  As you can imagine that did not go well for ole Eugene or the Falcons.  After getting out of jail in the early morning of Super Bowl day, Eugene lined up in his safety position and John Elway and the rest of the Denver Broncos beat him like a rented mule.    A mantra of mine sprung forth as a result of this defeat:  Same Ole Falcons! Yep, just when you start to believe, they do something that will make you puke.

And so we move on to the Michael Vick era.  Atlanta finally made it back to the playoffs in Vick’s second season with Atlanta.  Stunningly, he led the Birds to a victory over Green Bay in Lambeau Field after the 2002 season.  Up until that time, Green Bay had never lost a playoff game there.  Of course, just as I was revving up the Falcons love meter, Atlanta and Vick spit the bit the next week in frigid Philly.  Still, I had thoughts that the Falcons were about to embark on a new era–a time of consistent playoff appearances and a much-coveted Super Bowl title or two or three.

Vick breaks his leg before the 2003 season but returns to form in 2004 to lead the Falcons back to the playoffs.  After routing the St. Louis Rams at home, Vick returned to Waterloo the next week and the Falcons were again caged in Philly.  Yet, I still had hope that the Falcons were close to going on a long championship run.  Those hopes were dashed when the Falcons could not make it back to the playoffs the next two years and Vick checked in to Leavenworth after a conviction on dog fighting charges in 2007.  At that point, I washed my hands of those filthy Falcons.

Enter Matt Ryan.  Ryan performed admirably as a rookie in 2008 and the Falcons made it back to the playoffs only to see Ryan throw two costly interceptions in a loss to the Arizona Cardinals.  I became hopeful again.  Ryan was just a rookie, so better times were ahead, or so I thought.  What I didn’t know at the time was that Ryan would have trouble winning in the playoffs and would commit horrific turnovers that would lead to those losses.

The Falcons missed the playoffs the next year.  Yep, same ole Falcons.  And guess what, the hapless Saints won the freaking Super Bowl.  Are you kidding me?

However, Ryan and the Birds soared to a 13-3 record in 2010 and secured the number one seed for the playoffs.  Oh happy, happy, joy, joy!  Surely, this will be the year.  Nope.  Ryan throws two interceptions and loses a fumble.  The Packers boat race the Falcons, 48-21, in Atlanta.  Honk if you didn’t score for the Packers in that game!  Same ole, stupid Falcons!

We made it back to the playoffs the next season.  Ryan commits no turnovers!  We score two points.  We lose to the New York Giants.  Same ole Falcons.

Then, the 2012 season unfolds. The Falcons go 13-3 and secure the number one seed again.  We open with Seattle and jump out to a 20-0 halftime lead.  Game over, right?  Wrong!  The Falcons offense went comatose and Seattle scored three touchdowns in the fourth quarter to take a 28-27 lead with 31 seconds left.  Another Falcons choke?  Not this time. Matty Ice led the team down the field, kicker Matt Bryant booted a 49-yard field goal with eight seconds to go and the Falcons held on.  Again, with the thoughts of a championship fresh in my mind, Atlanta proceeded to waste another healthy halftime lead in the NFC championship game.  They got the ball down to the San Francisco 10 yard line late in the game but gave it back to the 49’ers on downs.  The Falcons fought hard but lost 28-24.  Maybe this was the sign of good things to come.

Nope.  The Falcons fell apart over the next two seasons and the organization fired its all-time winningest coach, Mike Smith.  Same ole Falcons.  Just shoot me!

Enter Dan Quinn.  Arthur Blank hired Quinn as his new head coach after the 2014 season.  Quinn came from the ultra-successful Seattle organization. While the 2015 season was a bust, the 2016 season saw the Falcons finish with the aforementioned 11-5 record against one of the toughest schedules in the league.

So now it’s time to see if the Falcons have changed. Will they finally win that elusive championship?  Or will they revert back to those same ole Falcons.  First up–Seattle.  After that, who knows?  If we can’t beat Seattle, it’s a moot point.

I am cautiously optimistic about the Seattle game.  I honestly believe Atlanta has the better team, but I believed that before Dallas beat us in 1980, Green Bay killed us in 2010 and San Francisco beat us in 2012.  I have seen too many collapses over the years and can’t get this image of Ryan committing costly turnovers out of my head. I want so badly to believe, but the Falcons have never won a championship in 51 years.  Like a lot of Atlanta fans, I am hoping for the best but expecting the worst.  Please don’t be these same ole Falcons.  Please. Please.

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.