“It was a fun day for the Falcons and the Atlanta Falcons fans!”
Let’s just stop right there. How often have we heard that phrase uttered during the Falcons’ 45 seasons? How often as the opening remark of the head coach at his postgame press conference?
But there was Mike Smith on Sunday, still soaked from his water cooler contents shower, savoring every moment of the Falcons’ 31-10 win over Carolina. A win that secured a division championship, a bye week in the playoffs, and the Dome field advantage right up to the — dare we dream it — Super Bowl.
All that was big, but this was even bigger: team owner Arthur Blank materialized on the sideline, as usual, during the waning moments. He made his way along the bench, offering a hug or handshake to every employee.
Clearly, the players were enjoying sharing the moment with their owner, and why not? Every team isn’t afforded such an opportunity. What were the Braves going to do, embrace stock certificates?
Then it happened. Suddenly. Unexpectedly. The very dapper, impeccably groomed, well-dressed Arthur Blank found himself under the cascading contents of another water cooler.
Yet he wore a smile that said he wouldn’t have missed the moment for the world. That’s because he’s seen the end of the world with this team.
We certainly don’t want to dwell on the negative at this high-tide Falcons moment. But to appreciate it, you have to remember the low tide.
Was it really only three years ago that the 2007 Falcons finished 4-12, dead last in their division? Had their head coach walk after 13 games? Had their quarterback facing prison?
How bad was it? Those Falcons averaged 16.2 points per game, 29th best in a 32 team league. The defense allowed 25.9, also 29th in the league. Thus, they lost each game by an average of 9.7 points, 30th in the league. That’s a perfect symmetry for a perfectly awful team.
Remember Joey Harrington trying to play quarterback? Mr. Mediocre: seven touchdowns, eight interceptions. Poor Warrick Dunn, running on an empty tank, could only gain 45 yards a game, 3.2 per carry.
And get this: the 2007 Falcons had not a single Pro Bowler. This year’s team led the NFL with seven, including the quarterback and running back.
But two positives came out of that season. Joe Horn arrived to mentor Roddy White, and teach him what it took to become the best receiver in Falcons history. And the entire season proved so dismal that Blank started over from scratch. Enter Smith and general manager Thomas Dimitroff, both first-timers in their new jobs. Soon we welcomed the arrival of Matt Ryan, Michael
Turner, and John Abraham, et al.
From 4-12 to 13-3 in three years.
From totally irrelevant to, well, here’s what Smith said later in his press conference: “We’re very relevant. We’ve worked hard to attain this position. Not only the players, but the coaching staff, and the support staff, and the whole organization.”
Relevance can’t be discounted. In years past, scheduling the Falcons to appear in prime time, against the defending Super Bowl champions, in the 16th week of the season, would have been a high-risk venture, a ratings bomb waiting to happen. But last Monday the Saints and Falcons produced the highest ratings of the season.
Yes, the Falcons lost, but it was a game that meant more to the Saints than the Falcons. And it forced the Falcons into a must-win situation against Carolina for the top seed in the NFC.
Sunday, we saw a team put aside that Saints game and go about beating a lesser opponent in a solid, workmanlike manner.
They never let Carolina in the game, and there was never any doubt as to which was the more professional team.
“We set our goals early, and there were a lot of things that we talked about, and we recalibrated those goals two weeks ago,
once we got into the playoffs,” Smith continued at his press conference. “The next goal was to make sure that we were going to be able to play home games here at the Georgia Dome during the playoffs, and we got that accomplished today.”
Three years ago, it was, “same old Falcons.” A year ago, the buzz centered on the modest achievement of back-to-back winning seasons. Now, the Falcons enter the playoffs as the top team in the NFC.
Fun day, you bet.