My husband got me this book for Christmas called Tales From the Atlanta Falcons Sideline, by Matt Winkeljohn. It contains a wonderful quote from Falcons great Tommy Nobis.
"A man ought to have enough pride to play every game as hard as he can, wringing every bit of energy he has in him trying to win. That's the only thing that matters in football." - Tommy Nobis
The Falcons fan base has been bitterly divided over this disappointing season, with those who endorse the idea of tanking and those who oppose it at each others' throats on a near-constant basis. There's a lot of argument about which perspective makes one a "real fan." Many fans feel that games stopped being meaningful the moment the Falcons were eliminated from playoff contention, and they are certainly entitled to that perspective. Like Tommy Nobis, I believe there are no meaningless games.
Falcons players have played each game after being eliminated from playoff contention with their jobs in mind. The Falcons have several players on the roster who will be unrestricted free agents in 2014, and those players are thinking about whether they'll be in Atlanta or elsewhere next season. The coaches and front office staff are in a similar position, despite votes of confidence for Mike Smith and Thomas Dimitroff from owner Arthur Blank. Yes, the team has dealt with an abundance of catastrophic injuries this season, but it's assumed that someone must pay for deficiencies on both sides of the ball. The front office and coaching staff are motivated to play to win.
While those in favor of tanking point out that it's all about next season now, playing to win and looking toward next season are not mutually exclusive. Because of the injuries the Falcons have suffered on both sides of the ball, the coaching staff--notoriously reticent to play younger players except on special teams--has been forced to see what they have in guys who have lingered down the depth chart. The future is bright for the Falcons--young players like Desmond Trufant, Paul Worrilow and Darius Johnson have impressed, and it's important for the young players to get as much game experience as possible this season. That game experience isn't meaningless.
It didn't matter if the Falcons beat the Packers in a playoff context, but that doesn't mean that we won't remember that Worrilow soccer-style assist to Sean Weatherspoon for a pick six forever. We'll remember the acrobatic catch Julio Jones made against the Jets, despite the fact that he broke a screw in his foot and spent the rest of the season on injured reserve. Knowing that a win over the 49ers did not technically mean anything didn't keep Falcons fans from being encouraged by flashes of the Falcons of old throughout that game. Even in losses, the Falcons have given us reason to believe that they can get back to form next season. Watching Tony Gonzalez spend his last season on the field with the team that we all love--that isn't meaningless.
Even the losses, so many losses, aren't meaningless. This is Atlanta's first losing season since 2007. The fan base, accustomed to ups and downs throughout Falcons history, has been lulled into complacency by sustained success. It becomes easy to take success for granted. This season is a stark reminder that success in the NFL can be a fleeting and fickle thing. It reminds us to truly appreciate what this team has accomplished over the last five seasons.
For Tony Gonzalez, the greatest tight end to ever play the position, these games certainly haven't been meaningless. While some hold out hope that Gonzalez will return for one final year with the Falcons next season, Gonzalez insists that Sunday's matchup at home against Carolina will be his final game as a pro. In a season that didn't meet anyone's expectations, Gonzalez could have demanded a trade before the deadline, and he didn't. Gonzalez has been a picture of professionalism, setting an example for his teammates and maintaining a team-first attitude at all times. Gonzalez doesn't see Sunday's game, or any of these last few games, as meaningless. These will be the memories Gonzalez will carry with him as his storied career comes to an end.
If you're rooting for the team to tank, and winning isn't important to you, I don't think that makes you less of a fan. Everyone is entitled to root for the Falcons and enjoy the game in any way they choose. I certainly have taken comfort in draft position when the Falcons have lost over and over and over again this season. But I must side with Tommy Nobis when it comes to the idea of "meaningless games." Winning is the entire point of football. There's no other reason for players to put in the time that excellence requires. There's no other reason for players to subject their bodies to the physical wear and tear that football guarantees. There are no meaningless games.