I wrote and posted the original of this on the CBS site the morning of the Tampa game that ended the 2009 season – the game that finally put an end to our curse of never having consecutive winning seasons.]
The Atlanta Falcons finished the 1973 season with a 9-5 record, one game shy of making the playoffs. They had one of the top defenses in the entire NFL, featuring Pro Bowl defensive ends Claude Humphrey and John Zook, Tommy Nobis and Greg Brezina in the linebacking corps, and a pass defense that racked up 22 interceptions on the year.
Dave Hampton had his infamous almost-1000 yard season (he made it to 1000 yards, then lost yardage on his final carry to drop back to 997), kicker Nick Mike-Mayer had a career year and made the Pro Bowl, and the team went on a mid-season seven game winning streak to show they were a rising force in the league.
A good draft in 1974 would put Atlanta among the league elite.
Alas, instead we launched our proud tradition of one step forward, three steps back by putting in a draft so bad that it derailed the franchise for years to come.
The seeds of destruction had already been planted in one of the worst trades of franchise history. Before the 1973 season began, the Falcons traded starting QB Bob Berry and their future (1974) first round draft pick to the Minnesota Vikings for QB Bob Lee and linebacker Lonnie Warwick.
Lee had attempted just 6 passes in 1972 as backup to Fran Tarkenton. He did get a little playing time in 1971, before the Vikes got Frantic Fran back from the Giants and were doing their own scrambling to find a starter. But even then he completed 45 of 90 passes, with 4 interceptions to double his 2 Tds. (He was primarily the punter for the Vikings that season.)
Lonnie Warwick was one of the more intimidating linebackers of the 1960s. He was the starting MLB through 1970 and a core member of the original Purple People Eaters. But he was only a backup afterwards, appearing in just 4 games in 1971 and 6 in 1972.
Most of us wouldn't make that trade, but Norm Van Brocklin did. Ironically, Van Brocklin was the head coach that led Tarkenton to demand his trade away from Minnesota to the Giants in the first place.
Bob "General" Lee managed to put up respectable numbers while leading the Falcons 1973 campaign – but really wasn't an upgrade. He completed 52% of his attempts (compared to Berry's 55.6% the year before) for 1786 yards (compared to Berry's 2158) and 10 TDs (vs Berry's 13). Lonnie Warwick didn't start, but he was a useful backup linebacker behind Atlanta's trio of Nobis, Greg Brezina, and Don Hansen.
But after the 1974 season, Lee and Warwick were both off the Falcons roster, leaving the team with nothing to show for their first round pick - and short one quarterback from the trade.
That first round pick became the #17 overall. Coach Van Brocklin's top draft need was a wide receiver. When the #17 came up, the top WR of the draft class was still on the board. But Minnesota had the pick rather than the Falcons, and they used it to select linebacker Fred McNeill.
Instead, the Pittsburgh Steelers snagged that WR four picks later. His name... Lynn Swann.
Van Brocklin took his wideout with Atlanta's first pick (#44 overall in the second round) by taking Gerald Tinker. Tinker was a good athlete - he was a member of the gold medal 4 x 100 relay team in the 1972 Summer Olympics. But the Kent State receiver wasn't a particularly good football player.
He did some PR/KR duty that first year but notched a mere four receptions (total) in two seasons on Atlanta's roster. He went on to spend one more season with the Packers before disappearing into obscurity.
That was how the Falcons used the #44 selection. The #45 was Dave Casper. The #46 was Jack Lambert. Ouch...
Atlanta had two picks in the third round. Van Brocklin used the #69 overall to get a QB to groom for the future. His choice was Kim McQuilken from Lehigh.
McQuilken completed only 39.7% of his pass attempts in his career, which featured a staggering 29 interceptions and 4 touchdowns, giving him a mighty 17.9 career QB rating.
Van Brocklin followed that gem by taking cornerback Mo Spencer two picks later. Spencer never played for the Falcons. (He did go on to make the roster in New Orleans and was their starting right cornerback in 1978. So it could be said he contributed to the Falcons that season - he was in the secondary for "Big Ben".)
Fourth round pick RB Vince Kendrick lasted just one season on the roster. He had 17 rushing attempts for 21 yards.
Fifth round pick TE Henry Childs appeared in only six games for the Falcons and had no stats. He eventually went on to success with the Saints, making the Pro Bowl in 1979.
A second pick in that round produced RB Monroe Eley, who did not play in 1974, had one rushing attempt in 1975, did not play in 1976, and finally had 97 attempts for 273 yards in 1977 to wrap up his career.
Sixth round pick RB Doyle Orange (yes, another RB) never played a game in the NFL. Neither did seventh round pick T James Coode. The next pick, ninth round DT Larry Bailey, appeared in 1 game.
C Paul Ryczek (10th round) stuck on the roster as a backup and special teams player for six years and even started 4 games in 1976. But he was the high point of the rest of the draft. 16th round RB (and yet another RB) Sylvester "Molly" McGee had 7 rushing attempts in his 10 game career. None of the other six players taken in that draft played a single game for the Falcons.
So while the Steelers recorded the best draft class in NFL history and went on to win their first championship and launch a dynasty, the Falcons (who drafted AHEAD of Pittsburgh) racked up what might be the worst draft the NFL had ever seen, utterly self-destructed and launched the franchise's tradition of repeated implosions.
The Falcons started the 1974 season 2-6. Bob Lee was horrid, completing less than half his passes, throwing 14 interceptions and getting sacked 31 times. After a 42-7 embarassment to the Dolphins in the eighth game, Van Brocklin was fired.
Defensive coordinator Marion Campbell took over as head coach (hardly an improvement) and dropped Lee from his starting role. Atlanta finished at 3-11 and followed with a pair of 4-10 seasons in 1975 and 1976. Campbell was fired five games into the 1976 season.
The one shining light... that 3-11 record gave Atlanta the #3 position in the 1975 draft. The team traded up with the Colts to gain the #1 pick and landed future franchise QB Steve Bartkowski.