You know the Atlanta sporting landscape has changed when the Braves are hungry for playoffs and the Falcons are building on a successful season.
There was quite a bit of buzz Saturday when I got my first look at the Falcons’ facility in Flowery Branch, near Lake Lanier, as they opened practice for the 2009 season. Atlanta rolled into the playoffs last season with an 11-5 record. A new coaching staff and several new players, including QB Matt Ryan and RB Michael Turner, gave the team a solid foundation in the wake of the Michael Vick scandal.
I had not checked on such things in person in many years, not since the Falcons were headquartered along I-85 in Suwanee. That was in the “Grits Blitz” days of Leeman Bennett.
Much has been made of the fact that the franchise never has had consecutive winning seasons. It should be noted that the team at least has had consecutive non-losing seasons: in 1977-78 (under Bennett) and 2004-05 (under Jim Mora). And Bennett still is the only Falcons coach to produce three playoff teams.
I’m glad to see that the Falcons’ current facility … which shames the old one … has kept some of the flavor. Back then, the team also had a hillside berm overlooking the practice field as an amenity for fans. Onlookers are closer to the action.
In ’77, the Falcons won their last game to finish at .500, and set a 14-game NFL record for fewest points allowed. The leadership of Bennett, GM Eddie LeBaron and player personnel director Tom Braatz gave the franchise its first solid feel. And the team continued its momentum with a 9-7 record and its first playoff berth in ’78.
But injuries mounted in ’79, and the team went 6-10. In 1980, things came together as the team went 12-4 and won its first division title. A playoff loss at home to Dallas proved to be more damaging than first realized. The Falcons blew a 10-point fourth-quarter lead. “Danny White threw two interceptions that day,” Bennett later said, “and Drew Pearson caught both of them.”
Again, the team slumped, going 7-9 in ’81. In the strike-shortened ’82 season, the Falcons made the postseason, but Bennett was fired after a playoff loss at Minnesota.
Not until native son Dan Reeves led the team to its first Super Bowl in ’98 did things appear to be righted again. But, the Falcons did not reach the playoffs again until 2002, Vick’s first season as a starter. Mora? His three-year record got progressively worse.
Now the Falcons again appear to be a well-led outfit. Coach Mike Smith is a no-nonsense coach who likes a ball-control offense and run-stuffing defense. And GM Thomas Dimitroff has proven through drafting and trades that he has a sharp eye for talent.
It won’t be as easy in ’09 for the Falcons. Teams now KNOW how good they are. And Atlanta needs additional good fortune with injuries. But the Falcons certainly have confidence and momentum in their favor.