It’s a cool seventy-one degrees, humidity hovering around eighty percent on a beautiful summer afternoon in Atlanta. The sun casts a semi-circle silhouette over the lower half of the grass of the field of Atlanta Stadium. Almost a month ago, Nixon axed the ability to convert the U.S. dollar into gold. The economic power-players stared wide-eyed as the president sent a shock throughout the world. The effects are readily apparent as another dreaded increase in inflation is ever encroaching. Even the tickets to Falcons games, once a reasonable six dollars, have risen to seven fifty.
Seven fifty to witness the atrocity that is Atlanta Falcons football? The team that has managed to win only fifteen games out of a total of seventy played since ’66? This inward ironic exchange can be seen on most of the faces entering the stadium, clad in everything from casual day wear to suits. Some have black jerseys, though most opt for just a hat or maybe a foam finger. Some people smile at the carnival of stalls lined with red and black and white products; others look lost, as if they’re trying to figure out where they are and what happened to all the money in their wallet.
The people wearing black jerseys get wry smiles from the (very few) devotees, as their tops have been made obsolete. Just this offseason the team decided to switch to a red jersey with white numbers and black trim. Merchandisers are hawking the new jerseys and hats from every corner. Program hawkers yell from every aisle. The smell of hotdogs, burgers, and beer wafts in and out of the high concrete archways behind the stands. There’s a light buzzing, a murmur really, running through the fans slowly making their way to their seats. It’s almost one o’clock, almost game time.
The San Francisco 49ers have waltzed into town. Despite the overwhelming odds and the Bird’s past ineptitude, the gameday atmosphere has conquered some of the naysayers and doubters. As the two teams take to the field, anticipation eats away at thousands of stomachs. Only the meeting of shoe to pigskin can ease the wanton anxiousness.
Welcome to Falcons football circa 1971.
What many of the likely jaded Falcons fans Atlanta Stadium’s (soon to be Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium, later to be torn asunder and turned into a parking lot for Turner Field) stands that Sunday afternoon didn’t realize at the time was that this season, the season that marked the debut of the red jerseys and the Falcons’ first time winning the national Monday Night Football game, would be a legendary one. Not legendary in the way a Super Bowl-winning season is, or even a playoff season is. No, 1971 marked a lot of baby-steps in the short history of a young franchise. Since 1966, the team had won fifteen out of seventy contests, giving the expansion team a wimpy .214 win percentage for the first half-decade of its life in the NFL.
The 1971 Falcons team had a few notables you would have heard spoken of around here before. Tommy Nobis (Mr. Falcon himself), Claude Humphrey, Jeff Van Note (longest tenured Falcon ever), Cannonball Butler (yes, his real name), George Kunz (he made the pro-bowl that year), Bob Berry, and Harmon Wages. Oh, and some second tier QB whose actual name was Dick Shiner. Can’t make this stuff up, people.
The Falcons would go on to win the season opener against San Fran and then immediately follow that promising win with a tie with the LA Rams and a three game losing skid that saw the team losing to such NFL powerhouses as the Lions, the Cardinals, and the Rams. Suffice to say, things weren’t looking promising for the franchise’s first winning season. It’s easy to imagine the fans, having witnessed the win against the 49ers, growing even more jaded after the next four games. Then the Falcons got to bully their equally dismal rival the New Orleans Saints, destroying the fleur-de-lises twenty-eight to six.
The beating we gave New Orleans woke some sort of fire up because the Cajun-desctructo-fest started a three game winning streak. Granted, the wins came against the Browns and the Bengals, but still, it counted. After a close twenty-one to seventeen loss to the New York Giants, the Falcons bested the Green Bay Packers on Monday Night Football (the franchise’s first national TV win), lost to the Vikings, and beat the Oakland Raiders.
The Falcons, a hapless team if there ever was one, was sitting at 6-5-1 with just two games left. The team that had held a horrid 15-55 record the past five seasons was two games away from posting its first ever over-.500 win percentage. All the team needed to do was beat either San Francisco or New Orleans, two teams they had beaten by a combined twenty-eight points earlier in the season.
I want you to remember back to January 2010. It’s not that hard, it was just last year. The Falcons were staring at a .500 record at the last game of the season. Knocked out of the playoffs, the team still had one monkey to get off its back. For 45 years, the team had never once accomplished back-to-back winning seasons. The only obstacle left? The Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Remember how great you felt after the Falcons won? Remember that feeling as if a weight had been lifted off your shoulders as a fan? "At least they can’t say that about us anymore, that we’ve never won back to back seasons."
Try to imagine the anticipation the fans of 1971 felt when they saw their team on the cusp of grabbing the fledgling franchise’s first winning record. That monkey weighed heavy even after only five seasons; maybe even more so than the monkey we excised in the 2009 campaign.
Now imagine how the fans felt when the Falcons traveled to San Francisco and ended up being beaten by a whopping twenty-one points. The Falcons managed to score only once: a Bill Bell field goal late in the fourth quarter (aka "garbage time" in a blowout). It was a punch to the gut for Falcons devotees and a true awakening to the fact that maybe, just maybe, this team just wasn’t destined to win. This put the Falcons at a record of 6-6-1. "Wait," I can hear you saying. "6-6-1 is a winning record! That'd be a percentage of .590 because the tie would count as a half a win!" Not so in 1971. You see, in 1972, the NFL changed the way it calculated winning percentage to the modern way you all know and love. In 1971, ties didn't factor into the percentage. This meant that the Falcons only had one more shot at having their first ever winning season.
The last game of the year saw the Birds traveling to New Orleans’ Tulane Stadium, where they would fight the Saints on their home Astroturf. The game itself was a teeter-tottering rollercoaster ride for fans of both franchises, though it weighed more on the Falcons as this was their last chance to finally break through the winning record barrier.
In the first quarter, Falcons RB Art Malone and Saints RB Bob Gresham traded six yard TD rushes and keeping the contest knotted at 7-7. In the second quarter, the Saints and Falcons traded field goals, upping the knot to 10-10. The first breakthrough occurred in the third quarter, where Archie Manning (you might know his sons…) decided to get in on the six yard TD rush fad and gave the Saints a 17-10 advantage going into the fourth. A few possessions later, Art Malone said "Nuh uh!" and knotted it all back up with a goaline rushing TD. The Saints countered with a field goal late in the quarter, putting the score at 20-17 Saints with just over a minute and a half left on the clock.
What came to pass would be marked down in Falcons history for good. With forty seconds left on the game clock and standing twenty-two yards away from franchise history, QB Bob Berry dropped back, made his reads, and launched a spiral towards rookie Ken Burrow. Burrow, out of Utah State, watched the pass drop into his cradling arms and hoofed it into the end zone. Falcons franchise history was made. A barrier was broken through. A team would be immortalized. The 1971 Falcons had brought the franchise and the town its very first winning football season.