By STEVEN WATKINS
London—What began as a promising start is now in jeopardy of ending in heartbreak—a statement that, for the Atlanta Falcons, holds more meaning than perhaps they’d care to admit.
Mike Smith’s Falcons traveled overseas last month to London, England to play the Detroit Lions as part of the NFL’s International Series, increasing professional football popularity in the UK.
The Atlanta team had higher hopes than what they brought to the field.
After an inspired first half of the football game that ended with the Falcons commanding their largest lead in over a month, the second half arrives. Mistakes lead to miscues, which lead to points for the Lions, and slowly but surely and with each tick of the unforgiving game clock, the Birds watch helplessly as their 21-point lead trickles away.
As the final seconds of the aforementioned clock bring the game closer and closer to fruition, Detroit’s Matt Prater lines up for what will be a 43-yard field goal attempt. This kick would give the Lions a one-point lead and their 22nd unanswered point of the second half.
As they sit helplessly and pray for a timely gust of wind, Falcons players and fans alike are left in the winding moments of what would be a historic collapse—the largest blown lead in team history—to simply wonder what happened.
What happened? This is a question, both valid and complicated, that many would ask in the days that follow. The collapse of the Atlanta Falcons, a team that two years prior had found itself in the unfamiliar circumstance of being one play away from a Super Bowl berth, is one that has raised as much opinion and debate as it has questions.
Experts point to missed draft picks—players the team invested in that never panned out. Words like “soft” and “lack of toughness” have become buzzwords in the ongoing debate. The horrid state of both the offensive and defensive lines are the punch lines in many-a-grim joke shared between bitterly somber followers of the flailing franchise.
Some blame injury, others blame coaching, but all agree whole-heartedly that something is utterly, undoubtedly wrong.
“It’s just awful,” said Brett Richter, a season ticket holder and a Falcons fan for over a decade. “To go from the verge of something great, just to watch it all collapse—it’s just too familiar.”
“On the verge,” “familiar collapses”—words that Falcons fans know all too well.
Historically, Atlanta’s professional football franchise is one of brief glimpses of promise at best, exhausting droughts of failure and futility at worst. Entering the league in 1966, the Falcons were originally owned by Rankin Smith, an executive vice president for Life Insurance Company of Georgia who bought the team for $8.5 million.
The years of the Smith family’s tenure were marked by decades of futility, sprinkled here and there by brief moments of hope that, as though following a script, would quickly be extinguished.
In 1979, following the team’s first playoff appearance the previous season, the Falcons subsequently posted a 7-9 record and missed the postseason.
The following year, a home crowd of nearly 60,000 filed out of Atlanta Fulton County Stadium with their hopes of a championship dashed to pieces after watching the Falcons surrender three fourth-quarter touchdowns and a 17-point lead to the Dallas Cowboys. Another 7-9 year would follow, setting the trend of failure following success that would stick with the team for decades to come.
In 1998, after posting a 14-2 regular-season record and outlasting the highly-favored Minnesota Vikings in one of the most spectacular come-from-behind, overtime postseason victories of all time, the Falcons proceeded to be trounced by the Denver Broncos in Super Bowl XXXIII in a flat, uninspired 34-19 defeat.
“It’s almost expected,” Richter said. “We’ve just seen it happen so many times—I never feel comfortable with any lead. We’re always waiting for the collapse.”
As Prater lines up for his kick, the game clock now momentarily stopped firmly at four seconds following a Detroit spike, another clock continues to tick. Somehow the play clock has found its way to under five seconds with the Lions having yet to snap the football.
The snap comes and players, coaches and fans watch in a shared expectant silence as the football carries through the air—and sails wide right. For the briefest and sweetest of moments, the faithful Falcons are filled with the unexpected euphoria that only a game-winning missed field goal can provide—then comes the dreaded yellow rag.
A penalty flag, heartbreak sewn into a yellow cloth, lies menacingly on the grassy field. Delay of game—having failed to snap the football before the play clock expired, the Lions would be penalized five yards—and forced to re-kick. A rule intended to penalize offenses failing to maintain the pace of the game would inadvertently reward one with a second chance to win it.
Having tasted euphoria, if even for the briefest of moments, the stunned, expectant silence is all the more bitter for the Falcons’ faithful. They watch and wait as collectively they cling to hope, that just maybe the unthinkable can happen twice and this nightmarish collapse can somehow end in bliss.
In 2001, change found the Falcons. After the 35-year Smith-Family tenure, Arthur Blank purchased the franchise for $545 million. The team had new uniforms, a new owner, and an exciting new quarterback in Michael Vick. Hopes were higher than ever as Falcons fans dared to dream of a championship for its long downtrodden franchise—yet the familiar script would be followed.
After a few seasons of the infamous pattern of playoff berths followed by dismal seasons, Falcons fans would once again find their franchise in shambles. Having been arrested and convicted of operating a dog-fighting ring, star quarterback Vick’s football career appeared to be over, and with it, the hope and optimism it had brought.
In the midst of the resulting horrendous 5-11 season, recently appointed head coach Bobby Petrino suddenly resigned from his position to take a college coaching job at Arkansas, leaving behind a note in the locker of each of the players he was abandoning, along with an utterly dejected fan base.
“That was the low point for me as a Falcons fan,” said Paul Adams, a long-time fan who admits to following the team online as he currently serves abroad in the Peace Corps. “We had no quarterback, no coach—everything just sucked.”
With new life and renewed concentration, Prater lines up for his second attempt at a game-winning kick. Although the first kick had missed wide, it had plenty of distance, and the feeble five-yard penalty doesn’t factor too heavily. With a clean snap and a good hold, the Detroit kicker’s foot connects with the football and sends it sailing through the afternoon air with the hopes of Falcons fan everywhere riding with it for the second time in as many minutes.
In the years that followed Vick and Petrino’s disastrous departures, Falcons fans found themselves experiencing an unexpected and unfamiliar period of sustained success.
Newly appointed Quarterback Matt Ryan, head coach Mike Smith and general manager Thomas Dimitroff led Arthur Blank’s Falcons to their first-ever consecutive winning seasons along with four playoff appearances in five years, culminating in a 2012 NFC Championship showdown with the San Francisco 49ers.
Having posted a league-best 13-3 record and subsequently defeating the Seattle Seahawks in a dramatic, last-second division round victory, Falcons fans entered the Georgia Dome with visions of a long-awaited second attempt at the Lombardi Trophy dancing in their heads.
After jumping out to a 17-0 lead, visions became tantalizingly close to reality as fans waited and watched in painful anticipation. Then came the script.
Having led the entirety of the game, the Falcons finally surrendered the lead late in the fourth quarter after giving up 14 unanswered second-half points.
With the game on the line and a little over a minute remaining, the Falcons found themselves with a fourth down from the San Francisco ten-yard-line. When Matt Ryan’s pass bounced off the tips of receiver Roddy White’s fingers, the hearts of every Falcon fan landed with it, thudding sickeningly on the artificial turf before coming to a final resting place.
“Classic Falcons,” said long-time season ticket holder Brad Hanner. “To blow a lead that size, at home, in the playoffs…Classic.”
As Prater’s second kick finally sails through the uprights, Hanner watches a painfully familiar sight from the stands, having flown to London with his wife to watch his team play overseas. The Lions storm the field, celebrating their improbable comeback. Falcons players and fans alike stare at the vulgar uprights as though reliving the game-losing kick in their heads.
Head coach Mike Smith squats on the sideline, a lost, forlorn look on his face.
By many accounts, this will likely be his last season coaching the Falcons. His departure, far from the first of its kind and not likely the last, will indicate yet another period of rebuilding for the limping Falcons franchise. He would leave behind a fan base forced to wonder, once again, if the next regime will be the one that ultimately, finally, breaks from the script.
Despite the bone-chilling lost in London, the Falcons currently find themselves sitting pretty tied for the number one spot in the NFC South after their 19-17 win against the Carolina Panthers Nov. 16.
As peculiar as the season has been, Matt Ryan and the Falcons may overcome all odds and gain themselves a spot in the playoffs – even with a 4-5 record.
The life of a Falcon’s fan is often rocky but every triumph adds another stepping-stone on the path to great victory.