I have written before about the misery of being an Atlanta sports fan. 150 combined years of baseball, basketball and football have brought exactly one title to the city I grew up in. With the Cleveland Cavaliers finally having won a title, Atlanta can arguably be called the most miserable sports city in America.
I’ve written many times about the Braves, but rarely about the Falcons. My relationship with the Falcons has often gone back and forth. They were my first NFL love, the team I followed when I first became aware of professional football. I did this right about the time they became good for the first time in history. Before 1978, they were a hapless team, mostly know for poor Dave Hampton, who became the Falcons’ first ever 1000 yard rusher … only to be tackled for a loss on his final play and end the season with 995 yards. But in 1980, right when I started watching, they had a great season. With Steve Bartkowski and William Andrews and Jeff Van Note, they went 12-4, won their division and took a big lead against the Cowboys in the first playoff game … which they proceeded to blow. One of my first clear memories of football is crying at the end of that game (I was eight).
Over the years, the Falcons would occasionally flirt with contention but mostly be a doormat. In 1986, they won their first four games of the season and a song called “Falcons, you can win it all!” appeared on the radio (a very poor knockoff of the Bears’ Super Bowl Shuffle). I remember my dad commenting on how starved the city was for a winner that a 4-0 start had the town Super Bowl crazy. Of course, the Falcons fell apart, finished the season 7-8-1 and their coach was fired.
I latched onto two other teams, great teams that were entering fallow periods. I came to love the Packers because my grandparents lived in Wisconsin. And I cam to love the Steelers because they could beat the hated Cowboys. And while I dearly love those teams (and Super Bowl XLV was almost a dream come true), the Falcons were still my first team.
The Falcons would have personalities over the years — the colorful but ineffective Glanville, Billy “White Shoes” Johnson, Neon Deion, Bad Moon Rison. But very little success came to them. Then, in 1998, they stunned everyone by winning their division for the first time in 16 years, upsetting a powerful Minnesota team and going to the Super Bowl. Of course, Eugene Robinson then had one of the strangest weeks in history, getting the Bart Starr Award, then getting busted for soliciting a prostitute, then getting burned by Elway on the way to a devastating Super Bowl loss. And the success did not continue. Chris Chandler couldn’t stay healthy. Jamal Anderson blew out his knee. Dan Reeves left.
Things began to change in 2002, when Arthur Blank took over the franchise from the Smith family. Blank immediately cut ticket prices, deciding correctly that huge enthusiastic crowds were a critical ingredient to success. The team then drafted Mike Vick, who became an electrifying player. They won the wild card in 2002, went to the conference title game two years later and the city suddenly had a real team.
Of course, then Bobby Petrino left after one year. And Vick turned out to like torturing dogs in his spare time. By the end of 2007, the Falcons had reached the nadir, a terrible hapless team that was not worthy of one of the better owners in sports.
Magically, however, it turned around. They drafted Matt Ryan and became a great team. Before 2009, the Falcons had never had back-to-back winning seasons. They then had five in a row. They were consistently one of the best teams in the game, getting within a pass of the Super Bowl in 2012. And now, after a few down years, they’ve come back with the best offense in football, an 11-5 division-winning season and a second trip to the Super Bowl.
I must say … this is my favorite Falcons team. More than the Bartkowski-Andrews team of my childhood. More than the Chandler-Anderson team of grad school. More than the Vick teams or the 2012 team. They’re just so much fun to watch. Matt Ryan, finally given some protection, has shown everyone what a great quarterback he’s always been and walked off with the first MVP in Falcons’ history. They have two fun running backs, the incredible Julio Jones, a great pass rush and a spirit that you can’t help but find infectious.
The Falcons are facing the Patriots today in the Super Bowl and I must admit that my hopes for a title are very muted. The Patriots are a machine, arguably the greatest team in NFL history. They are about as good as the Falcons offensively and better defensively. A Falcons win wouldn’t be a huge upset, but the decades of heartbreak have taught me not to get my hopes up. Still, win or lose, this is the best year I’ve seen from them.
Update: Aaaand … another chapter is added to the long long suffering of Atlanta fans.