Atlanta Falcons football has not always been pretty to watch. After the expansion franchise entered the NFL in 1966, the Falcons were only able to win 12 games in the 1960′s. Atlanta Falcons fans would wait until their 13th season, 1978, before the team made its first playoffs. In all, the team has only captured 3 division titles in 43 seasons.
Despite this, the Atlanta Falcons have often been an entertaining team to watch. From Steve Bartkowski to Andre Rison to Jamal Anderson to Michael Vick, the team has often featured top offensive talent and an exciting, go-for-it offensive approach. Unfortunately, the Falcons have often shown just enough to get their fans hopes, before falling back into a pattern of mediocrity.
NFL – Atlanta Falcons – A Rough Start
The first decade of the Atlanta Falcons was a summary history of mediocrity. The team’s first winning season was in 1971, though the team quickly fell back into its pattern of losing. New hope arrived in 1975 when the team drafted Steve Bartkowski quarterback. Bartkowski was a mad bomber of a QB, taking wild shots down the field.
This style didn’t meet with much success from 1975 to 1977. This was particularly disappointing, as the 1977 Falcons Grits Blitz defense set record for points against. The 1978 team reached the playoffs for the first time in Falcons history, defeating Dick Vermeil’s Philadelphia Eagles in a Wildcard playoff game.
The next week, the Falcons faced the Dallas Cowboys. They took a lead late into the game, and appeared to have the game under control when they knocked Roger Staubach out of the content. Staubach’s replacement, Danny White, led the Cowboys on a second half comeback. Many Falcons fans believed the Atlanta coaches squandered an opportunity to beat the Cowboys by their playcalling late in the contest.
Bartkowski would continue to grow as a quarterback, though. In 1980 and 1981, he became one of only seven quarterbacks to throw for 30 or more touchdowns in two consecutive seasons. 1980 was the best year for the Falcons, when they went 12-4 and captured their first division title. History repeated itself, though, as Danny White led a fourth quarter comeback to defeat the Falcons in the division round of play, hitting Drew Pearson twice in the final period to dash the Falcons’ hopes.
During these years, Atlanta Falcons football was consistently competitive. Head coach Leeman Bennett was the first Falcons coach to leave with a winning record. The remainder of the 1980′s would be a time of disappointment, and Steve Bartkowski would leave the team in 1985. In 1987, the team drafted Chris Miller to be their quarterback of the future.
Neon Deion Sanders
In 1989, the Atlanta Falcons drafted Deion Sanders out of Florida State. Sanders brought instant personality and flash to the Falcons team, combining Hall of Fame coverage skills with big play kick returning. Unfortunately, Deion was not nearly enough to make the Falcons competitive and the team would go through another coaching change in the offseason. Jerry Glanville would enter the picture in 1990.
Jerry Glanville had been a playoff coach of the Houston Oilers in the late-1980′s. Glanville’s wanted an aggressive defense and a high-powered offense, though he was by nature a defensive coordinator. Glanville was eccentric to say the least, wearing all black on gameday and reserving a seat in the stadium in case Elvis showed up. Due to Glanville’s influence, the Falcons changed their uniform colors from a base red to black jerseys and helmets, a look which would prevail for most of the next fifteen years.
Glanville wanted to bring a new attitude to the team whose defense he had coached in the late-1970′s. With the drafting of Andre Rison, he got a high-powered offensive combination with QB Chris Miller and WR Rison. The two made a highly dangerous combination, whose talents are sometimes underrated years after. While Chris Miller was healthy in the early nineties, the Falcons passing offense was a threat to opposing teams.
Glanville’s defense improved, as Deion Sanders became one of the stars of the NFL. His style was suited to Glanville’s aggressive all-out blitz approach, which sometimes forced opposing quarterbacks to throw ill-advised passes in the direction of Prime Time. This style didn’t always work, as with the famous (or infamous, depending on how you look at it) game where Joe Montana and Jerry Rice locked up for 5 touchdown passes in one game; Montana had 6 TD passes in all.
Still, the Falcons 1991 squad made a playoff run. This was the 2 Legit 2 Quit Falcons team, so-named because the team used the cheesy hit song "2Legit 2Quit" by Deion’s friend, MC Hammer, as their 1991 theme. It seemed to work, as the team made the 2nd round of the playoffs, defeating the Saints in the wildcard week and losing to the eventual Superbowl Champion Washington Redskins the next week.
Brett Favre Trade
One event clouds all others in the Jerry Glanville era, though. In the 1991 NFL Draft, the Atlanta Falcons drafted Brett Favre in the 2nd round. Glanville protested the selection, claiming it would take a plane crash for him to play Favre. Favre only through 4 passes in the 1991 season, and the first of these was an interception.
After Glanville’s successful 1991 campaign, he had the leverage to ship Favre off to a Hall of Fame career with the Packers. Atlanta Falcons football fans wonder to this day what might have been, had Jerry Glanville not traded away the record holder for passing touchdowns and consecutive starts. With Miller’s frequent injuries, Favre no doubt would have soon had the chance to show his abilities on the field.
Interestingly enough, Jerry Glanville had worn his welcome out in Atlanta only a year later, when he led the team to a 6-10 record. By that time, Deion Sanders and Andre Rison were expressing dissatisfaction with the team’s direction and Chris Miller was struggling with chronic injuries. June Jones would be the successor to Jerry Glanville, but the Falcons would struggle through the mid-nineties. When Jones was fired, the team brought in Dan Reeves to restore discipline to the franchise.
The Dirty Bird Years
Dan Reeves was hired in 1997, and he led the team to a 7-9 record. Jamal Anderson was solid running threat for the Falcons in 1996 and 1997, when he posted a pair of thousand yard seasons. Still, Anderson and the Falcons flew under the radar screen of most NFL fans.
That changed in 1998, when Jamal Anderson was the focus of the Reeves offense. Anderson gained 1,846 yards rushing that year, or better than 100 yards per game. Chris Miller added balance to the offense, providing a real scoring threat through the air. Still, Anderson was the star of the show, as he became famous for his "Dirty Bird" dance after every touchdown that year.
The Falcons finished the year second in the NFC with a 14-2 record, though they were largely overshadowed by the 15-1 Minnesota Vikings of Randy Moss, Randall Cunningham and Cris Carter. The two met in the NFC Championship Game and the Falcons scored a major upset, due to the balance of their offensive and defensive attacks.
Their running game was able to keep the game close by keeping the Vikings powerful offense off the field. Still, the game eventually came down to a missed field goal by Vikings kicker Gary Anderson, who had not missed an attempt all year. The Falcons would move on to their only Superbowl, but they lost to Denver Broncos of John Elway, Terrell Davis and Mike Shanahan. This Denver squad was repeating as NFL champions.
Jamal Anderson never reached his full potential, as his career was cut short by recurring knee injuries. He would miss most of two successive seasons and be entirely out of the game by 2001. As Anderson’s career ground to a halt, Atlanta Falcons football also suffered. Two disappointing seasons in 1999 and 2000 culminated in the Falcons holding the 5th overall pick of the 2001 NFL Draft. This pick would become the focus of a trade every bit as fateful as the Brett Favre trade.
Trade Up for Michael Vick
The Atlanta Falcons were sitting at the #5 overall pick in the 2001 NFL Draft. That pick gave them the opportunity to draft the replacement for Jamal Anderson, as Ladainian Tomlinson eventually would be drafted with that pick. But the Falcons wanted a quarterback to lead the franchise and fill seats, and they knew how tenuous a running back’s career is in the National Football League.
So the Falcons took that 5th pick and a package of other picks to move up to the 1st overall pick, which was held by the San Diego Chargers. The Falcons drafted Michael Vick, the quarterback wunderkind with running skills like no other quarterback before him. Vick also had a cannon for an arm, though there were concerns about the accuracy of this arm.
The Falcons drafted Vick as a project at quarterback, hoping to work on his mechanics to make Vick into a superstar at the position. Vick played sparingly in his first NFL season, but took over the starting quarterback position in 2002. Michael Vick’s running skills made him a weekly highlight star, and the Falcons combined his rare skills and a stingy defense to go 7-0-1 at one stretch of the season. Vick broke a record for rushing yards by a running back and the Atlanta Falcons qualified for the playoffs.
The Falcons did the impossible in the playoffs, defeating Brett Favre and the Green Bay Packers in a wildcard game in the Packers first-ever playoff loss at Lambeau Field. The Falcons lost to the Philadelphia Eagles the next week in the divisional round, but the Falcons were a favorite pick to advance in the playoffs the next season.
This was not to be. Michael Vick broke his leg in a preseason game and the Falcons struggled all season. Things got worse late in the year as Vick questioned Reeves’ attempts to get him to return earlier than he wanted from the injury. This dispute and a losing record was enough to cause the firing of Dan Reeves, despite his leading the Falcons to their two best seasons ever. The firing of Reeves was one of the first major decisions of the new controversial owner, Arthur Blank.
Arthur Blank and Jim Mora Jr.
Blank hired Jim Mora, Jr. to be the new head coach. Mora was the son of former Saints and Colts head coach, Jim Mora, and was also the defensive coordinator of the San Francisco 49ers at the time. It was hoped that Mora would bring a youthful energy to the franchise after the Dan Reeves years, and this proved to be the case at first.
In Mora’s first year with the Atlanta Falcons, 2004, the Falcons won the NFC South Division and defeated the vaunted St. Louis Rams in the divisional round of the playoffs, thereby advancing to the NFC Championship Game. For the second time in three seasons, the Falcons would be knocked out of the playoffs by the Philadelphia Eagles.
Things went downhill from here for Mora and Vick and the Falcons. The Falcons finished 8-8 in 2005 and 7-9 in 2006. Many fans around the NFL complained that Michael Vick was not improving as a quarterback, but instead continued to make the same mistakes he had as a young quarterback. Despite sometimes gaudy rushing totals, Vick was becoming pegged as a one-dimensional player.
The Falcons under Mora attempted to help Vick by spending high draft picks on receivers like Roddy White and Michael Jenkins, and the team installed a West Coast Offense to take advantage of Vick’s quick decision making and scrambling skills.
Unfortunately, the key skill a west coast quarterback needs is accuracy, to make the many short throws required in the offense. Therefore, Vick’s deficiencies were exposed in the new offense. Running back Warrick Dunn and tight end Alge Crumpler were Vick’s only reliable weapons, and these two players had injury issues of their own.
Vick’s lack of progress led some fans to call for promising backup passer, Matt Schaub, to be installed as the starting quarterback. This was never a serious option, given that Michael Vick was the franchise quarterback. After the 2006 season, Schaub would be traded to the Houston Texans for a 2nd round draft pick. By this time, Jim Mora had been fired as Falcons head coach. College hotshot Bobby Petrino would replace Mora.
Michael Vick Dog Fighting Scandal
Just months after Michael Vick’s replacement was traded away, Vick was implicated in a Virginia dog fighting ring. Vick’s cousin ran an illegal dogfight kennel on a property owned by Michael Vick himself.
Stories began to appear tying Vick directly to the operation, and at least one story alleged that Michael Vick participated in killing pit bulls which didn’t perform. Also, it was alleged that Vick bet tens of thousands of dollars on these dog fights, going back even to his early days with the Falcons.
This caused a nationwide firestorm of controversy, with many media outlets and animal rights groups calling for Michael Vick to be suspended from the NFL by league commissioner Roger Goodell. This is what eventually happened, though this was the least of Vick’s troubles. As the investigation progressed, more people implicated in the dog fighting ring began to roll over for the prosecution, building an airtight case against Vick. Eventually, Michael Vick was forced to plea bargain his case, accepting years in prison for his role with the dog kennel.
Vick now faces at least two years away from football while he serves a prison term and probably a third year of league suspension. He has lost tens of millions of dollars in advertising money and contract payments. The Falcons tried to get back a prorated sum of Michael Vick’s signing bonus worth 8 figures, but a judge has so far denied this request by the Atlanta Falcons.
2007 Atlanta Falcons Disaster
Meanwhile, the Falcons endured a disastrous 2007 season. Players grumbled about Bobby Petrino’s handling of veterans, specifically when he waived Grady Jackson in September. Others complained about playing time, while the team struggled to choose a quarterback between Joey Harrington and Byron Leftwich, who were both new to the team. The season ended with Petrino leaving for college before even one full season of his contract was complete and the Atlanta Falcons enduring a 4-12 season.
The Falcons are in the midst of major changes. The team hired Thomas Dimitroff from the New England Patriots front office to be their General Manager, and hired Mike Smith, the recent Jacksonville Jaguards defensive coordinator, as their head coach.
The team also signed running back Michael Turner away from the Chargers. Turner will pair with Jerious Norwood to give the Falcons a change of pace at running back. The Falcons also have the 3rd overall pick in the draft, which means they are likely to add either a young quarterback or a stud along the defensive line.