The Atlanta Falcons have been one of the hottest teams in the NFL over the last four years. Over the time, they've gone 43-21, which leads the NFC in wins and is the fifth-best record in the league, and they've won their division twice in 2008 and in 2010 and made the playoffs three times. Before then, earlier in the millennium, they introduced a new quarterback, an electrifying fellow named Michael Vick who also led them to some of their better years. And just a few years before him, in 1998, coach Dan Reeves took them to the Super Bowl. Yeah, things have been on a recent upswing in the Dirty South lately, even though the Falcons' seasons have been sprinkled with occasional losing years. They've made people forget about their past, which is good because their past is among the most forgettable pasts in the league.
In 1965, the economy in Atlanta had finally recovered enough from the damage it took in the Civil War for the city to begin remaking itself as a modern metropolis. (Seriously. It really did take that long.) The city wanted to dance and sing from the Appalachian mountaintops about how awesome it was soon going to be, and major league sports teams are of course the proper way to go about doing that. So they built Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium in order to attract Major League Baseball. The ploy worked; they managed to capture the attention of the Milwaukee Braves, who had won the World Series eight years prior and had a heavy-hitting outfielder named Hank Aaron. Soon after the Braves made Atlanta their new, permanent home in 1966, the league picked on on the brand-new trend in American sports: This thing called football. The famed Greatest Game Ever Played NFL Championship between the Baltimore Colts and New York Giants had only been played recently, back in 1958, and the upstart American Football League was still a league of its own. Atlanta actually applied for a team in both leagues. Ownership groups could barely figure out what was what, but the AFL struck first and offered a team on June 7, 1965. The NFL, which had been going very slowly on matters concerned with Atlanta, was suddenly spurred into action by this and made Atlanta an NFL offer that very same month. Forced to make a choice between the two, Atlanta took the richer and more historic NFL, and the AFL took its franchise offer to Miami, where Atlanta's would-be team was turned into the Miami Dolphins, who had a lot more success than Atlanta. People made individual submissions for naming the team, and a schoolteacher named Julia Elliott was singled as the winning selection from many who had chosen the name "Falcons" because of her description: The Falcon is proud and dignified, with great courage and fight. It never drops its prey. It is deadly and has a great sporting tradition."
Former Lombardi lackey Norb Hecker was Atlanta's first head coach. Over his tenure, he won four games, and was fired after staring the 1968 season 0-3. Norm Van Brocklin took over, leading the Falcons to their first winning season in 1971 and going 9-5 in 1973 but otherwise receiving mixed results. His coaching record 37-49-3. (Meanwhile, the AFL team Atlanta ditched went to the Super Bowl in 1971, 1972, and 1973, winning those last two and famously never, ever losing a single game in 1972.) The Falcons were very spotty during the 70's. A winning season here, an abysmal season there. A good running back whose team couldn't defend, a good defense whose team couldn't attack. In 1977, the Falcons had defensive coordinator Jerry Glanville, who installed a defense he called the Grits Blitz. This defense allowed a paltry 129 points, a record for a 14-game season. They also set the all-time mark for fewest points per game at 9.2, a mark that not even the 1985 Bears or 2000 Ravens surpassed. Trouble was, the offense wasn't putting many more points per game on the board than that. They averaged less than 13 and the team finish 7-7. They made their first playoff appearance in 1978, beat the Philadelphia Eagles, but lost to the Dallas Cowboys despite knocking out Roger Staubach and entering halftime with a 20-13 lead.
The 80's began with promise as the Falcons went 12-4 in 1980. They even won the division, beating the up-and-coming San Francisco 49ers. They met Dallas again in the Divisional playoffs, at one point holding a 20-point lead. The Cowboys managed to rally, though, and Dallas quarterback Danny White threw the game-winning touchdown to Drew Pearson with less than a minute to play. This was one of the most devestating losses in Atlanta sports history, and the fans and team took the decade to recover. Their only winning record was 5-4 during the 1982 strike season. In 1989, the Falcons drafted the greatest player in team history: Deion Sanders. He became their most identifiable players, a franchise face, loud and flashy enough to call attention to himself despite playing one of the most inconspicuous positions in football (cornerback). Despite a contract dispute, he created a name for himself as a cornerback and a return specialist and one of the most deviously brilliant players ever.
Sanders shined in both baseball and football. He was a much better football player than a baseball player, but he played both well, and is the only pro sports player to play in both the Super Bowl and World Series. He is the only player to hit a home run and score a touchdown in the same week. In four games playing in the 1992 World Series, Sanders hit .533 with four runs, eight hits, two doubles, and an RBI. In 1994 and 1995, he won the Super Bowl with the San Francisco 49ers and Dallas Cowboys, respectively.
In 1991, the Falcons finally made the playoffs again, this time with Jerry Glanville coaching. The team included notable players like Sanders, Andre Rison, Tim McKyer, and quarterback James Kenny, a talented and brash player who had worn out his welcome in Miami the previous year, but who became just the guy the Falcons needed. The team had a backup quarterback that year too named Brett Favre. You might have heard of him in a recent sexual organ picture scandal. Atlanta traded him to Green Bay that year, where I guess he languished in obscurity. The result was one of those wonderful quarterback carousels that's so popular with floundering teams, which the Falcons became until they hired Dan Reeves to coach in 1997, when they managed to go a respectable 7-9. In 1998, Atlanta hit paydirt. The Falcons went 14-2, stunning the entire league with an aggressive defense and a balanced offense led by Pro Bowlers Jamal Anderson, a running back, and Chris Chandler, a quarterback. Ordinarily, a 14-2 team can write its own ticket, but the Falcons didn't even have the league's best record! That distinction went to the 15-1 Minnesota Vikings, and so the Falcons were the first 14-2 team to not receive home field advantage. Minnesota had the league MVP in Randall Cunningham, and a deadly trio of receivers, and so they looked like the team of destiny that year. Atlanta was the heavy underdog, and no one thought they would win. But the two teams engaged in one of the greatest NFC Championship games ever played, and Atlanta gutted out an incredible 30-27 victory in overtime.
Atlanta's Super Bowl against Denver ended with a 34-19 Denver victory which wasn't that close; Atlanta scored two late touchdowns to save their dignity, and one of them was on a kickoff return touchdown.
The team kept failing to build, though, and the Falcons spiraled to 5-11 and 4-12 the next couple of years. In the 2001 draft, they used the first pick to take Michael Vick. I won't begrudge them for this, since back then no one knew about Vick's inhumane and illegal little side hobby. No, back then we knew instead that he had failed to inform a woman that he had genital herpes before having sex with her, while visiting various clinics using the alias "Ron Mexico" seeking treatments, which meant that HE knew he had it. Vick was the most physically gifted running back the NFL had seen since Barry Sanders, but due to some kind of tragic screwup, he somehow got to be installed as Atlanta's quarterback. All joking aside, he did have the hardest throwing arm I've ever seen, but that proved detrimental because good quarterbacking isn't about how hard the player can throw the ball; it's about whether or not he can throw the ball to the position that allows the receivers to make the catches easily. Vick kept putting way too much juice on his throws, launching rockets over the middle when simple lobs would have been enough, and generally just throwing in a manner which would take anyone's head off, which made it very difficult for his receivers to be effective. People wonder why Vick's Falcons weren't as effective as they could have been; I wonder how the Falcons managed to make the playoffs with Vick as many times as they did. (Twice from 2001 to 2006.) Then came the dogfighting fiasco.
In 2008, Mike Smith was hired to coach and Matt Ryan was drafted, and the team has been on a tear ever since. It's safe to say they have another Super Bowl in their future, but that has to be taken with a grain of salt. The Falcons play in one of the shittiest and most inconsistent divisions in football, the NFC South. Their divisional rivals include such storied, historically unstoppable dynamos as the New Orleans Saints, Carolina Panthers, and Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Really, the only reason the NFC South is as competitive and unpredictable as it is is because the four teams in are are usually inconsistent at best; it's very rare that a real power like the 2002 Bucs or 2009 Saints or the 1998 Falcons for that matter emerges from it. The four teams have one Super Bowl appearance each, all recent; the Falcons were first in 1998 (loss, as I've covered), followed by the Buccaneers in 2002 (win), the Panthers in 2003 (loss) and the high-flying Saints of 2009 (win).
The truth is, I can barely rate the Falcons. A team founded in 1966 shouldn't have been irrelevant for so long, and when they reached relevance, they shouldn't have been so static. The biggest rivalry anywhere is with the equally historically irrelevant Saints; there's a reason this rivalry is almost completely under the radar despite the fact that both teams have finally reached a sustained level of on-field excellence. There's too much about them that feels generic; from the basic nickname being a raptor to the red, black, white, and silver uniforms to the fact they play in a dome. They had very few identifiable players whom people outside of NFL circles would ever identify as Falcons. Steve Bartkowski and Jessie Tuggle are among their best-known players, but they're unknown outside of Atlanta. They got rid of Michael Vick, which to be fair was for a damn good reason. But Vick is now back in the league helming the Philadelphia Eagles, where he'll probably retire and where he's also actively making one of the most spectacular redemption bids I've ever seen.
The Falcons have fielded four Hall of Famers. Eric Dickerson, one of the league's greatest running backs, played his final year of professional football for the Falcons in 1993 as a backup. Defensive end Chris Doleman played for Atlanta in his prime, but only for two years, 1994 and 1995. And wide receiver Tommy McDonald played in their second year, 1967, by which time McDonald was in the retirement-dodging phase of his career. Only one of their players in Canton was put there on considerable contributions to Atlanta, but he's a big one: Deion Sanders. An awesome player with a big personality to boot, Sanders eventually played for five teams; Atlanta had him for his first five years before San Francisco picked him up for 1994, after which he did another five-year tenure in Dallas before playing his last year in Washington in 2000. He returned to play for the Baltimore Ravens in 2004 and 2005. But he'll forever be branded as a Falcon.... And also a Cowboy.
There isn't much to remember the Falcons by. Their signature game is probably the 1998 NFC Championship, with their upset of the Green Bay Packers in the 2002 playoffs up there too. People know they were in the 1998 Super Bowl, but that's remembered more for Denver than Atlanta.
With all apologies to Falcons fans, I wouldn't choose this team if I was getting into football. Maybe I'm just not steeped enough in their history, but I can simply find nothing at all about them that appeals to me. And I think raptors are cool.
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Nicholas Croston (BaronSamedi3)
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The Atlanta Falcons participate in the National Football League (NFL) and are based in Atlanta, Georgia. Atlanta plays its games in the South of the NFC. The Atlanta Falcons, founded in 1966, play home games at the Georgia Dome and have won zero NFL Titles.