Well look who’s playing this weekend in Houston. Nope, it’s not the Packers or the Seahawks. It’s my Atlanta Falcons who will face off against the New England Patriots in the Super Bowl in Houston.
I’ve been a Falcons fan longer than most. I’m not a bandwagoneer like many who just recently bought a Matt Ryan or Julio Jones jersey. I go way back before cable TV or the Verizon Red Zone. My earliest memories were not of Julio or Vic Beasley or coach Dan Quinn, but guys like Bob Berry, Cannonball Butler and Norm Van Brocklin. Yep, I’m that old back when the NFL had a 14 game schedule and Monday Night Football was a new novelty for a kid who loved the sport and didn’t know you could watch pro football on a weeknight.
“Back in the day” if the Falcons finished close to .500 or even .500 that was considered a moral victory. As much as we loved these Falcons we didn’t have any unrealistic hopes like they do now for every team. Of course back then you had dynasties in Dallas, Miami, Oakland and Pittsburgh. If our beloved team played any of these teams close it was the same as a victory. I still remember Atlanta’s first real winning season (sure they went 7-6-1 in 1971…). It was the 1973 team and Bill Lee was the starting quarterback. Prior to this season the most games the Falcons won was seven. This year they won nine and just missed the playoffs. I can still remember watching the Monday Night Football game that year against the undefeated Vikings. The Falcons won in a shootout. I remember Lee, who came from Minnesota avoid a sack scramble to one sideline, reverse field, get tripped up, regained his balance and threw a long bomb that set up the Falcons for victory.
But like all Falcons fans I knew not to get my hopes up. The next year they sucked. They sucked so bad they fired Coach Van Brocklin. Their play was so bad they got a top draft pick and drafted golden boy Steve Bartkowski. Bartkowski was the team’s first franchise quarterback to be drafted by the team.
The next ten years were a rollercoaster that saw the Falcons go to the playoffs for the first time, win their first playoff game and of course blow a lead against the Cowboys in the playoffs that could have eventually sent the team to the Super Bowl. One season the
Falcons even won 12 games. Holy cow that was a lot of wins for team whose overall record is over 100 games under .500.
But after every great season the Falcons couldn’t keep the momentum going. Until less than ten years ago the Falcons never had back-to-back winning seasons.
The ‘80s and most of the ‘90s were lost decades which saw the Falcons draft inconsistently and were always picking up other teams unwanted players – especially quarterbacks with mixed reviews. Names like Billy Joe Tolliver, Bobby Hebert, Erik Kramer, Wade Wilson, Jeff George and Chris Chandler to name a smattering of guys who saddled up under center for the Falcons in that era, the caveat being these guys were either free agents or trades – not drafted. The quarterbacks the Falcons drafted after Bartkowski was a who’s who of mediocrity and “what the hell were you thinking?” The lone exception to all this was Brett Favre. But Brett was too immature to be in Atlanta and we know what happened to him after he was traded.
As a long suffering Falcons fan (not a bandwagon fan like most) I was used to being disappointed and never got my hopes up. I was just happy to live within driving distance to a real NFL team. Of course I came from a generation where you were loyal to your home team – or at least the teams most geographically closest to you. Today teams have fans from all over the world, some who will never make it to an NFL game. Most are bandwagon fans. As a kid I was a Falcons and Dolphins fan. My friends liked the Dolphins until the Steelers started their dynasty. They jumped on to that bandwagon. Then of course they jumped to the Raiders, the Redskins, 49ers and Cowboys – you get the idea. To this day I still cheer for the Falcons and Dolphins. While it’s been years to have something to cheer for in Miami, I still look on and I’ve always kept up with the Falcons because I can drive to the Georgia Dome and the soon to be opened Mercedes Benz Stadium in roughly two hours depending on traffic.
Then came that magical season of 1998. That was the year the Falcons not only won a franchise best 14 games, they made it to the Super Bowl. I can remember being surrounded by the bandwagon fans. I remember that season. As a long seasoned Falcon fan I always waited for the proverbial other shoe to drop. No such thing. I remember half-watching the NFC Championship game against the Vikings. I knew “our” luck had run out. Then the infamous missed field goal by Gary Anderson, perhaps the most accurate kicker in league history. The Falcons made it to the Super Bowl.
Of course they tanked to the Broncos, a team I hate just because of John Elway being on their team. I’ve written in the past why I hate Elway so you can look it up.
Was Atlanta charting a new course with coach Dan Reeves now? Nope. 1998 ended up being his last winning season coaching the Falcons until 2002 when a Michael Vick led team became the first team in NFL history to defeat the Green Bay Packers at Lambeau Field in the playoffs.
This was followed by another disastrous season that led to another coaching change.
Another winning season and then the team made news for the off-field antics of Vick who was federally indicted for bankrolling a dog-fighting ring.
Let’s skip 2007 and go to 2008 now. After winning only four games the year before the Falcons hired a new coach, GM and had the third overall draft pick.
Fortunes for the team actually started to turn at the end of the 2002 season. Arthur Blank, one of the founders of Home Depot bought the team from original owner Rankin Smith. Blank promised to change the culture of the team and get the Falcons back to the Super Bowl. To be honest, I always felt that the Smith family saw the NFL franchise as a novelty. Sure, winning would be great, but it didn’t seem a priority to ownership. That’s probably why as much as I loved my Falcons I never got my hopes up. If you don’t get your hopes up you rarely get disappointed. In the 15 years that Blank has owned the team they have made the playoffs six times. During their first 36 years they only made the playoffs seven times and this week will be in the Super Bowl for the first time since the Home Depot founder bought the team and second time overall.
When Ryan was drafted in 2008 an unknown defensive coach for the Jaguars by the name of Mike Smith was named head coach and a talent scout from the Patriots by the name of Mike Dimitroff was named GM. No one expected much this season as Ryan was named the starting QB during preseason. Was the kid from Boston College ready for NFL action already or were Falcon brass rushing him into action too quickly? After the first play there was no doubt. Ryan hit wide out Michael Jenkins on his first pass from scrimmage for a 62-yard touchdown in front of a shocked and delighted crowd at the Georgia Dome.
And no it wasn’t beginner’s luck either. The Falcons became the league’s Cinderella team as they went 11-5 gaining a wild card berth. The following season the Falcons look to follow the usual pattern. With a 6-7 record they weren’t going to qualify for the playoffs but they managed to do something they’d never done before. They won their final three games to finish 9-7 and for the first time in franchise history they had back-to-back winning seasons.
And not only back-to-back winning seasons the Falcons ended up with a winning record five seasons in a row. 2012 saw them start 8-0 and they hosted the NFC Championship game and even had a 17-0 lead before things went haywire. Falling behind 28-24 with time running out the Falcons drove to the 49ers’ 10-yard line. Unfortunately that’s where the drive stalled.
Unfortunately that was the team’s last winning season until now. After back-to-back losing seasons Mike Smith, who is the franchise’s winningest coach was let go. Falcons’ brass brought in Dan Quinn the defensive coordinator from Seattle to try and fix a porous defense. Last year the team started 5-0 and hopes were surprisingly high but things fell apart.
There was definitely problems on offense as the team was having trouble adapting to offensive coordinator’s Kyle Shanihan’s playbook. There were public feuds going on between the offensive coordinator and franchise receiving leader Roddy White. People were calling for Shanihan’s head.
Ryan who had signed a large contract extension a few seasons back was catching grief from fans as his interception total. The offense just wasn’t clicking. Was Shanihan one and done? During the off-season White was released and the team picked up free agent Mohammed Sanu from the Bengals. Everyone in Atlanta was skeptical. Most pundits didn’t expect the Falcons to win more than eight or nine games.
After the season opener that saw them lose to divisional foe Tampa Bay 31-24 people were preparing for worst. Week two saw them going to Oakland to play the Raiders who everyone was predicting big things from. Oakland was a much-improved team and they did make the playoffs but on week two the Falcons won a shootout 35-28.
Defense didn’t show up but the offense did. The following week they put up 42 points and 45 the next. But the defense was giving up their fair share of points. After week three they took over first place in the division and never looked back.
The 2016 Atlanta offense went in the record books as one of the more potent in NFL history tied for eighth most points scoring 540, tying 1999’s “Greatest Show On Turf” (Rams). Ryan set franchise and league passing records, as did Julio Jones. A season defining defeat of the Carolina Panthers saw Ryan throw for over 500 yards (eighth most in league history) and Julio Jones with 300 receiving yards (sixth most in league history).
And while everyone was impressed by the offense nobody was paying attention to the defense. The 2015 Falcons’ defense only recorded 19 QB sacks. This year second year pro Vic Beasley Jr. lead the NFL with 15.5 sacks. Atlanta lost five games by a total of 22 points. The team’s last loss was December 4 against Kansas City and since that game they starting literally doubling up points on the opponents winning by an average of 19 points.
They clinched the number two overall seed in the playoffs but no one was giving the Falcons much consideration. Everybody was busy taking about the Packers and the Cowboys. The playoffs didn’t change anything for Atlanta. They handily defeated the Seahawks 36-20 allowing two late scores to make the final score semi-respectable.
The Packers surprised the Cowboys and came to the Georgia Dome for one final game before the facility is retired. The game wasn’t even close. The two met earlier in the season and the Falcons rallied for a one-point win. The Falcons jumped to a 31-0 lead in the third quarter. The battle of MVP candidates wasn’t even close. Ryan passed for 392 yards, four touchdowns, ran for another 23 yards and another score. His counterpart, Rodgers added yardage late throwing for 287 yards and three touchdowns. Rodgers was knocked around and sacked twice. The former league MVP was even flagged for a facemask penalty that got him fined by the league this week. The Falcons won 44-21 an almost identical score that the Packers beat the Falcons in the Georgia Dome in the 2010 playoffs.
And just like that there are believers. The Falcons are headed to their first Super Bowl in 18 years and they will face off against Super Bowl frequent fliers New England Patriots. Hopefully the team won’t act like they’re just happy to be there as they did in 1999. Ryan’s playoff performance has pretty much cemented his MVP award as he tries to finally quell critics that said he couldn’t win the big one. And if he does, I think you can say yes indeed, he is an elite quarterback.
– David N. Marks
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