The Atlanta Falcons have been around for 49 years, and while we celebrated the best seasons in the franchise's history last month, we're now forced to turn our eyes to the worst ones. There have been, unfortunately, quite a few worthy candidates.
These teams managed to stand out even from the Falcons' typical mediocre teams in the 60's, 70's, 80's and mid-90's by virtue of awful players, godawful play, off-the-field drama and, in the very worst cases, a gaping vortex of crappiness that combined all three. These years serve to caution us about what happens when your coaching staff, players, front office or ownership either don't care or fail to recognize disaster in time to avert a runaway train carrying loads of glowing, enriched dog poop.
Enough. To the list.
Anytime you only win a single game, your team will find itself on this list. The Falcons did just that in their second year of existence, managing a terrible 1-12-1 record that got coach Norb Hecker fired. Out of a cannon. Into the sun.
This was a team that lost close games (38-31 to the Baltimore Colts, 34-28 to the San Francisco 49ers) and blowouts (31-3 to the Los Angeles Rams, 49-7 to the Baltimore Colts again). Quarterback Randy Johnson completed less than half his passes and threw 21 interceptions against 10 touchdowns. Leading receiver Tommy McDonald caught 33 passes. Kicker Wade Traynham converted 38.9% (!) of his field goal attempts. This was a team that had Tommy Nobis and a bunch of guys out of Lousy Football Player central casting. Based on sheer lack of talent and record, you'd be hard-pressed to argue against '67 as the absolute stinkbomb of all stinkbombs for our beloved Falcons.
Of course, talent and record aren't everything, but kindly pour out a little beer for poor Randy Johnson. The man stood no chance.
The 1973 Falcons represented the high-water mark for the franchise, one of only two teams since the inception in 1966 that managed a winning record. Those 9-5 birds were driven onward by a strong defense, the capable stewardship of Bob Lee and Norm Van Brocklin's ability to stack furniture against any fools who challenged him. Fans, for the first time, headed into 1974 with tangible reasons for optimism.
That makes 1974 the first season to lift the expectations of the fanbase over its head and smash them to the ground before urinating noisily all over the shattered remains. The 1974 Falcons were abysmal, going 3-11 and kicking off a three year run where the team never finished with more than 4 wins. Lee put up arguably the worst season in franchise history at quarterback, completing 45% of his passes, tossing 14 interceptions and managing just 3 touchdowns while the ground game struggled mightily. The Claude Humphrey-led defense couldn't save them, Van Brocklin found himself fired after the year and fans found themselves enduring unbelievably bad teams until 1978, when the Falcons finally made the team's first playoff appearance 12 years in.
For all the longtime fans, I'd like to apologize for exhuming this one. Honorable mentions go to other seasons that fit the familiar pattern, including 1992 (following 1991's playoff season), 1981 (following 1980's triumphant 12-4 record and Divisional Game loss) and 1996 (3-13 after a 9-7 Wild Card season).
This was my Waterloo year. I was only eight years old in '92, which meant I was disappointed but a little busy being the worst hitting shortstop on my Little League team to shed tears over that season. In contrast, I was 15 in '99, the perfect blend of hormonal teen angst, elevated expectations following the magical '98 season and powerful investment in my football team for that 5-11 season to absolutely ruin my shit.
Let me count the ways this season disappointed me: Jamal Anderson's career-devastating injury after only 19 carries, Ken Oxendine leading the team in rushing attempts, Terrance Mathis's desperate and single-handed attempt to save the offense, Chris Chandler's mediocre year, Morten Andersen's sad Dutchman face as he toiled away at age 39, Chuck Smith and Shane Dronett offering the only competency in a suddenly old-looking defense, Michael Booker's existence, a 30-7 loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars that I distinctly remember leaving me like this and a season that somehow seems more like 0-16 than 5-11 thanks to the power of my own disappointment.
It may not have been the worst season in the franchise's history, but given the very weighty expectations of the fanbase following the team's Super Bowl berth, it may have been the most crushing.
Bobby Petrino was an odd hire from the very start, but I remember being cautiously optimistic as the team turned the page from Jim Mora Jr., one of my all-time favorite punching bags. Maybe, I thought, this can-do college coach will tailor the offense to Michael Vick's unique strengths, creating the consistently high-powered offense the Falcons have lacked for years.
It didn't take long for those dreams to find themselves under the unforgiving heel of the world's largest jackboot. Vick was arrested for the dogfighting ring, fracturing the fanbase and leaving only Joey Harrington, Byron Leftwich and Chris Redman to fight for playing time under Petrino, who never had a chance to install that offense. There's a legitimate chance that for all his obvious odiousness as a human being, Petrino might have succeeded in Atlanta with Vick under center. The hydra of mediocrity he was left with didn't leave him with much of a chance.
While Vick's suspension from the NFL was the spark that enabled this awful season, Petrino's subsequent actions screamed buttfedora. Warrick Dunn couldn't get anything going, but he still got 220 carries on a team that featured an actual breathing, healthy Jerious Norwood. The team struggled to play defense week-in and week-out despite the presence of a bright coordinator in Mike Zimmer, Petrino was clearly planning his exit all along and he finally went through with it after Week 13, bolting for the Arkansas head coaching job while leaving a note on every player's locker. It was one of the most gutless exits by a coach in NFL history, with players and Zimmer alike blasting him for being the big ol' coward he so clearly was. For sheer drama, it's tough to beat 2007.
The one bright spot? Thank God for Roddy's development.
@TheFalcoholic Sharod was really the only thing that saved the team from needing to be contracted.— AdotPdot (@ap575) July 8, 2014
If you're a relatively new fan, 2013 could be your first brush with a losing Falcons season, incredible as that sounds. For the rest of us, it's simply the latest in a long line of frustrating but inevitable disappointments.
The 2012 Falcons were a couple of plays away from heading to the Super Bowl, so it's safe to say expectations were high heading into 2013. I predicted 10-11 wins, and ignored those sounding notes of caution about preseason, because every year fans are sounding notes of caution based on preseason. Thanks to an ugly combination of injuries, underachieving players and perhaps everyone involved getting a little too comfortable with what they had achieved up to this point, things went south in a hurry.
This is recent history, so I don't need to rehash much, but suffice to say the nightmarish 4-12 season shook the faith of many fans and has the team at a bit of a crossroads in 2014. Let's hope it's a blip on the radar.
Others receiving nominations included the June Jones-led 1996 team:
@TheFalcoholic You didnt include 1996. June Jones, Jeff George, 3-13, worst pass defense in NFL history up to that time.— Tony Blair (@Tonyb2000) July 9, 2014
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