It was yet another blustery, winter afternoon in Detroit, Michigan and as usual, I was holding the door open for the Fed Ex guy. Upon finishing my shift at the shirt factory, I’d generally run into him while making my daily jail break and we’d joke about this and that. He was a sassy fellow, full of quips, silliness and totally easy to talk to.
“Who you like in the Super Bowl girl?” he asked humbly while chugging backwards to his awaiting truck.
“Oh that’s easy” I replied smugly as if I had a legitimate clue about such things “Falcons all the way man!”
As I stated previously, he was generally quite the conversationalist but this time all he could force from his lips was “To beat the Broncos!!!????”
He had to have been written up by his superiors for going over drop time that day as he spent the next full three minutes or so just pointing and laughing at me. That was my first REAL introduction into what life is like for an Atlanta Falcons supporter. Little could I realize that Eugene Robinson would torpedo any chance they had by trying to score some prostitute action the night before the big game. Fed Ex didn’t know that either, he was just going purely by his reasoning that they were the LOWLY Falcons going up against the NFL God that was John Elway. Even if he hadn’t done something so stupid, there may have been no difference in the outcome. Then again, perhaps it was the distraction that influenced Robinson to give up a momentum changing, 80 yard touchdown reception to Rod Smith. We’ll never know.
I was a NEW Falcons fan at that time having been initiated by my recently re-located boyfriend from Atlanta. Not like it was hard to get on board, I’d been a Lions fan for years so I understood his pain of having decent seasons from time to time but never winning the big one. I casually referred to myself as a football “fan” but until I met the man who is now my husband, I never fully understood the game. That’s even after playing it quite a bit as a kid/teen. The only real lesson taught by my male cousins was that since I was a hoss, the defensive/offensive line would be the best place to capitalize on my girth. I was to smash and maim our opponent to the best of my ability and would find out that doing so culminated in much glee for them. I had no idea about routes or schemes or what a Wide Out did, I just liked it and as I finally learned more from my husband (he said it would take years) about the rules, positions, etc….I came to LOVE it. Having a mess of angry, West Virginia coal miner in me from my Pa has left kind of an un-evolved Cro-Mag instinct when it comes to violence. I dig it and for anybody who’s into that sort of thing, football modestly satiates the craving.
I can’t really say my husband was crushed after the Super Bowl loss. His hopes never got TOO high because he’d followed his team long enough to expect the disappointment. Over the next couple of years we’d move to back to Georgia and watch a couple more lackluster seasons before the buzz begin brewing about the crazy athleticism of their newly acquired draft pick Michael Vick. A new breed of quarterback was how he was defined, choosing to run the ball over the traditional pocket passing of yore. We’d start to see what he could do towards the end of the 2001 season as the crown was passed from (overly concussed) Chris Chandler and the excitement began to pump in the air once more. Not much of an accurate passer but nobody seemed to mind. Vick was insanely fast, practically uncatchable and the transition in ownership from the Smith family to (Captain Home Depot) Arthur Blank only added a layer of anticipation going into 2002.
It was a blast watching Vick that season, breaking out, making offensive tacklers look like rodeo clowns. But when he led the team into Lambeau that year, killing the Packers undefeated at home playoff record, Falcons fans started believing again.
As usual, they’d soon regret it. Vick’s fibula was broken during a pre-season game in 2003 forcing his absence for the majority of the year. Poor Dan (run it up the middle) Reeves couldn’t handle another bypass and bolted a few games before seasons end leaving Wade Phillips as the interim coach. Still though, the last couple of games when Vick was able to get out there, he rocked the show and left the “maybe next year” butterflies fluttering again in my stomach.
The announcement of Jim Mora Jr. taking over as head coach in 2004 was met with mixed reaction. He’d done alright as a defensive coordinator for the 49ers but whether he could effectively helm a team that needed serious guidance was uncertain. Knowing what we know now it’s unclear if the Falcons ended up having such a great season that year as a result or in spite of him. What was certain, the addition of Rich Mckay in the front office along with an excellent roster including running back Warrick Dunn, tight end Alge Crumpler, linebacker Keith Brooking, and of course Michael Vick had finally made what seemed like a significant positive impact on the franchise. Even when they lost to Philly in the NFC championship that year, my husband and I still held our heads high. Solid hope had been constructed and we were positive that it would surely lead to a Super Bowl win the next year. Surely. Right?
What we would come to discern about Coach Mora in 2005 was that he was the most over paid cheerleader the team could possibly have. Football Sundays quickly became “eat too much chili and nap” Sundays because what was happening on TV left little to be alert for. Yet again, the Falcons would not achieve a back to back winning season. It seemed incomprehensible given the level of talent on the field that they would go from an NFC championship to 8-8.
His loss of control over the team only got more evident in 2006 when Vick decided to extend a middle finger to his fans after being booed for blowing another game. There was a different swagger going on then, a lot of arrogance being displayed but not much else to back it up. Definitely glimmers of greatness as there had been in 2005 but ultimately, it was a bust. Mora Jr. was canned and Blank went head coach shoppin’ again.
2007- My worst year yet as a Falcons fan. Barely even having a chance to think about what sort of anything NEW head coach Bobby Petrino might be able to conjure, IT happened and we all know what IT was. Being a pitbull owner and dog enthusiast, it’s a passionate subject that I’ve learned, much like religion and politics, should not be discussed at work. Whatever your feelings on what Vick was convicted for, the fact remains the same, he was gone and the Falcons entire season was done for. Knowing Petrino, the coward of the county who left goodbye notes in the locker room instead of being a man, it’s doubtful it would have been much better even IF Vick had been around. If Mora Jr. had no control over him, it’s safe to say good ol’boy Petrino wouldn’t have had a chance in hell. Speaking of, as I write this, his Razorbacks are getting beat in the Sugar Bowl and I couldn’t be more filled with shameful joy.
My husband and I expected nothing in 2008 but more chili and more naps. It was a rebuilding year. Another new head coach (Mike Smith) as well as some great draft picks that included quarterback Matt Ryan, wide receiver Harry Douglas, Thomas Decoud at safety along with Kroy Bierman at linebacker. They were all part of the plan when trading off some of the folks that weren’t productive anymore. Hell, I even pulled for my old heartbreakers the Lions in the season opener as I figured they may have a shot against such a young, new team. Unlike most rookie quarterbacks in the NFL, Matt Ryan wasn’t given the luxury of tutelage by an elder statesman on his way to the announcer’s booth or the usual weeks of benching during the grooming process. He was a starter first game out and displayed the kind of poise that makes you go “Wait, who is this kid? Where did he come from again?” The polar opposite of what Atlanta had become accustomed to in Vick, Ryan stayed in the pocket and PASSED the ball. Accurately! Plus he was tall which enabled him to actually to SEE down the field which was something his predecessor was forever stymied with. Vick was fast because he had to be, but Ryan was a throwback man. No bravado or attitude, just a solid hard worker committed to being the best TEAM player he could be. There wasn’t an ounce of bitterness coursing through my veins when they beat the Lions that day. In fact, the butterflies (just a few) started appearing again in my gut. Making it to Wild Card Weekend (eventually being beaten by Arizona) along with Coach Smith receiving the award for NFL coach of the year and Ryan commanding top offensive rookie honors, only made them multiply.
Would 2009 be the year the Falcons finally made it back to the Super Bowl? With the acquisition of the seasoned and amazingly productive tight end Tony Gonzalez it seemed the chances were better than ever. Sadly, it would not come to fruition. What DID happen is that for once in the history of the franchise, they actually had back to back winning seasons. With extreme determination going into their last game, the players made damn sure that it would count for something. If nothing else, they would enter 2010 with a monkey-less back and a piece of success that no other Atlanta Falcon lineup had ever achieved. The amount of heart displayed in that action was inspiring enough to keep the fire blazing for me and many others until fall rolled around again. Maybe this WAS a complete team, blue collar tough and growing stronger every year, but we couldn’t get too jazzed about it. As evidenced so many times in the past, you can knock on wood all you want after thinking they’ve beaten their old demons and they’ll still burn you on the slant route to failure every time.
But here we are. After several broken team records, another NFC South Divisional Championship, a bye week for the playoffs and home field advantage throughout, once again, the Atlanta Falcons are on the brink of greatness. Are they flashy? Hell no. What they ARE is a complete TEAM from top to bottom for the first time in the last 12 years that I’ve watched them. What they’ve found in Mike Smith is a leader who never lets personal egos outshine the goal. Who after each game, no matter how hard fought, doesn’t spend the following week giving pats on the back. He lets them know “Yeah, that was great but the next one is the most important game we’ll play all season”. With that resolve, each cylinder in his supremely engineered reciprocating football engine fires off of each other in perfect harmony. When running back Michael Turner can’t reach the desired efficacy you just go to Justin Peele and he’s ready to make it happen. John Abraham, Kroy Bierman and Jamaal Anderson have struck intimidation into every quarterback and O-line they’ve faced this year. And if Roddy White can’t catch it (which is rare) Harry Douglas, Michael Jenkins or Eric Weems will step up and snag whatever Ryan’s sending their way. Speaking of Ryan, what can possibly be said about him that would do any kind of justice? Every week it’s like I’m watching clips of the highlight reel that will be shown at his Hall of Fame ceremony some day.
So maybe they HAVE had to make several comebacks for victory’s this year. I say big freakin’ deal. The Falcons I’m used to watching (percentage wise) always had to score first if they were to even have a chance at winning a game. This group of dudes has been able to stare diversity dead in the eye and rise up against it. Not to mention, I couldn’t be happier for Arthur Blank. He’s the kind of owner probably every coach and player dreams about. Supportive without interfering in things that are best left to his coaches and front office. You listening Jerry Jones? It’s doubtful his Cowboys will ever be dousing him with the Gatorade tub.
Taking all of these things into consideration, I’ve decided after much soul searching that it’s time to let go of the past and allow myself to get excited about the Atlanta Falcons AGAIN. Whether they will make it past the first round of the playoffs is anybody’s guess and if they somehow end up playing Philadelphia and our fallen (some would say reborn) son, it will most likely be a media circus Biblical in stature. But I’m not thinking that far ahead this go around. This time, it’s all about relishing the moment and appreciating the fantastic Sundays I’ve enjoyed the last several months cheering on my favorite team to victory. Making it to the Super Bowl with a subsequent trip to Disney World would be grand but for now, lofty aspirations aside, just witnessing what has emerged from the ashes of 2007 is enough to make me feel like a winner.
Football season is NOT over. Go Falcons!