I dragged some old T-shirts out of my “Hall of Fame” closet collection recently. One that jumped out at me was the Atlanta Falcons‘ 1998 NFC Championship shirt, which also served as a reminder that it has been 10 years since their best season ever.
I was among those who suffered along with the mediocre to bad teams that Atlanta fielded since entering the NFL in 1966. Only with the arrival of the Leeman Bennett-Eddie LeBaron regime in 1977 did the Falcons ever make the playoffs, and in those years, they still never managed to post consecutive winning seasons.
But Dan Reeves, a Georgia native and successful NFL player and coach, changed everything when he arrived in 1997. He also was director of football operations, thereby maintaining a consistency between the field and front office that the Falcons rarely had known.
In ’98, the Falcons used a ball control attack led by RB Jamal Anderson and a run-stuffing defense led by LB Jessie Tuggle to go 14-2. Still, the Falcons had to play on the road at 15-1 Minnesota for the NFC title, and they were prohibitive underdogs.
But the Falcons forced the Vikings into a rare close game, and the pressure took its toll. Minnesota’s Gary Anderson missed his first field goal of the season in the fourth quarter, opening the door for Atlanta to tie the game and then win, 30-27, in OT.
The Super Bowl was anticlimatic, although it featured the matchup of Denver QB John Elway against Reeves, with whom Elway often clashed when Reeves coached Denver. Atlanta safety Eugene Robinson was caught in a police prostitution sting on the game’s eve, and the deflated Falcons lost to the Broncos, 34-19.
Now, Atlanta is rebuilding again. New coach Mike Smith appears to be in harmony with GM Thomas Dimitroff. Rookie QB Matt Ryan has nailed down the starting job for the season opener, and new RB Michael Turner, the former backup to “LT” in San Diego, is ready for full-time duty. There will be no Super Bowls for the Falcons for awhile, but the franchise is on solid ground for the first time since then. Took long enough.