It’s been a long road from “Loserville” to Super Bowl LI.
The Atlanta Falcons’ birth in 1966 coincided with the NFL’s Super Bowl era, but the relationship between the two hasn’t been very close most of the past 51 years. That’s not too surprising for a franchise that went more than four decades before posting its first consecutive winning seasons in 2008-09.
“For a long time Atlanta was known as Loserville,” said Wilt Browning, a retired sports columnist who spent five years in public relations for the Falcons from 1971-76. “It was a pretty depressing place to watch a sports event.”
Now the Falcons sport the best offense in the league and are primed to erase a half century of frustration today in Houston. All they have to do is beat arguably the greatest coach, greatest quarterback and greatest franchise in the Super Bowl era.
The New England Patriots have reached their record ninth Super Bowl in 31 years, succeeding with the numbing regularity of Alabama football. While deep in the heart of Southeastern Conference territory where football is religion, the Falcons and their fans have epitomized the phrase “long-suffering.”
The Falcons didn’t aspire to a half-century of championship failure when they set out as an expansion team. Before the Super Bowl trophy was even named after Vince Lombardi, the Falcons courted the legendary Packers coach. Instead, they settled on longtime Lombardi assistant Norb Hecker while Lombardi guided the Packers to a championship in the first AFC-NFC Championship Game that would retroactively be known as Super Bowl I.
Hecker lasted three games into the 1968 season before getting fired with a record of 4-26-1. The habit of losing didn’t leave with him.
When the Falcons went 9-5 in 1973 and scored a record 318 points, folks believed that the franchise was on its way to bigger things. A year later it went 3-11 and scored a franchise worst 111 points that still stands.
“I’ll have to point the finger at myself,” Browning said. “One of my jobs was to go to Philadelphia in the offseason to work with NFL Films. They had a pretty good season (in 1973) and we were talking about a title for the highlight film. We came up with ‘A Step Away.’ Turned out to be a really long step. It stoked hope in Atlanta that never happened.”
There were many who believed the Falcons were doomed from the start. Wade Traynham, a former kicker for the Savannah Chiefs in the Southern Professional League who doubled as a gravedigger, got the job as Atlanta’s first kicker. On the opening kickoff of the first exhibition game, Traynham whiffed.
“He had no confidence at all,” Al Thomy, the late sportswriter who covered the first 12 years of the Falcons for The Atlanta Constitution, told me in 1999.
Decades later, Traynham swears he didn’t whiff and that it was in a regular season game and not the exhibition against the Eagles, but history hasn’t let his alternative facts detract from the legend.
“I just slipped planting my foot,” Traynham said a few years ago. “But I got a little piece of the ball as I went down. It wound up being a perfect onside kick and we got it back.”
The Falcons have come a long way from their first training camp in Black Mountain, N.C. – where Billy Graham’s blessing did nothing to help the extreme heat, mosquitoes and wretched food.
The roster consisted mostly of what the late Atlanta writer Furman Bisher called “castoffs and malcontents” beyond inaugural draft pick Tommy Nobis. Hecker hoped he’d find a leader in South Carolina Hall of Famer Alex Hawkins, who had championship experience with the Baltimore Colts. The coach threatened to take away Hawkins’ Red Ryder BB gun because he kept shooting out the lights in front of the training camp dorm.
On the first night of training camp, Hawkins rolled in at 5 a.m. on the back of a watermelon truck. Hecker gave him a chance to explain himself the next day before fining him $2,000 and stripping him of his leadership.
“Coach, would you believe I was kidnapped?” Hawkins replied.
The Falcons didn’t often distinguish themselves as judges of talent. They have drafted only two homegrown Hall of Famers (Claude Humphrey, 1968, and Deion Sanders, 1989) to date. Various top picks such as former Richmond Academy star John Small, Jon Profit, Gerald Tinker and Aundray Bruce never amounted to anything special. Pat Sullivan brought a Heisman Trophy and hope from Auburn but never panned out.
The Falcons didn’t always know what they had. They traded eventual Hall of Fame quarterback Brett Favre one year after drafting him. Bobby Beathard – who built winners as a general manager in Miami, Washington and San Diego – was almost entirely ignored as a Falcons scout.
Infighting was often the franchise’s prevailing theme. Tight end Jim Mitchell and running back Art Malone once fought each other in the huddle. Chuck Smith was suspended three games for clubbing teammate Roman Fortin with his helmet at training camp. Quarterback Jeff George battled on the sidelines with coach June Jones, leading to George’s unceremonious release and Jones’ exposure of lost control.
Things were so bleak in 1994 that receiver Andre Rison went up to Detroit coach Wayne Fontes after an opening-game loss to let him know he’d be a free agent at the end of the season.
“You got to go back and look at ownership,” Browning said. “As long as Rankin Smith and his boys were in charge, they had ego that needed to be fed and made calls themselves that made little sense from a scouting point of view. Makes me feel sorry for people like Nobis, Greg Brezina, Art Malone and David Hampton. Too bad they weren’t able to play on teams that could even come close.”
Atlanta’s coaching ranks were equally disappointing until Dan Reeves arrived in 1997. Only Leeman Bennett, who had two losing seasons from 1977-82, managed any success with three playoff appearances.
Norm Van Brocklin, who had a habit of walking through the locker room and spitting hot coffee on his players’ bare backsides, once grabbed Atlanta reporter Frank Hyland by the arm and ripped the sleeve off his jacket after an argument at a restaurant.
Marion Campbell was so inept that the Falcons hired and fired him twice.
Jerry Glanville was colorful – if you consider black a color. He brought the run-and-shoot offense, traded Favre, allowed Sanders to moonlight as a baseball player, left tickets at will call for Elvis and spent occasional Tuesdays crashing his race car instead of game-planning.
Glanville did lead a 10-6 playoff campaign before falling back into old losing habits.
At the very end of their reign, the Smiths finally did a couple of things right. They hired Reeves in 1997, and two seasons later Reeves’ “Dirty Birds” rode an 11-game winning streak into Super Bowl XXXIII in Miami. That they got there on the unlikeliest of miscues – Minnesota’s automatic Gary Anderson missed his only kick of the entire season from 38 yards with the chance to seal the NFC Championship game with two minutes left – didn’t detract from the euphoria as Falcons fans poured out of bars and onto Piedmont and Peachtree to celebrate.
Yet even that high-water moment turned sour. Pro Bowl safety Eugene Robinson, who accepted the Bart Starr Award for outstanding character and leadership on the eve of the Super Bowl, got arrested that night for soliciting an undercover female Miami police officer. Released from jail before the game, Robinson was burned on an 80-yard touchdown pass from John Elway to Rod Smith that turned the game into a blowout.
The Smiths finally unloaded the franchise to Home Depot magnate Arthur Blank on Dec. 6, 2001, and the new boss was determined to build a winner.
Atlanta rallied around franchise quarterback Michael Vick, whose unique gifts held the promise of glory. There was a playoff victory in Green Bay in 2002 and a conference championship appearance in 2004 to build faith in a foundation. Then Vick went to jail for abusing dogs and disloyal coach Bobby Petrino abandoned the team in the middle of the 2007 season.
The franchise didn’t buckle under. Coach Mike Smith and new quarterback Matt Ryan finally started producing consistent playoff contenders even if the road kept stopping shy of the Super Bowl . When the momentum stopped, they brought in Dan Quinn.
In his second year at the helm, Quinn has turned Ryan and the Falcons into a championship-worthy team. They entered their 51st season more than 100 games below .500 but sit 13-5 entering Super Bowl LI.
A season after celebrating their golden anniversary, the Atlanta Falcons are finally on the brink of their golden age.