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A Complete History of Atlanta Falcons Coaches

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With a new coach somewhere on the horizon, it's time to delve into the team's history.

RVR Photos-USA TODAY Sports

Look, the coaching search is tiring for all of us. Every Falcons fans wants a good coach as quickly as possible, so we can all move into free agency and the draft, which we can argue more vociferously about. Good times.

Because we're not sure when the Falcons will actually hire their next head coach, I thought we could turn our focus to the future and past for now. On the past front, I thought it would be especially entertaining to see the history of Atlanta Falcons coaches, a nauseous journey through a rogue's gallery of bumblers, unlucky men and the occasional, always-extinguished bright new hope. If this doesn't make you appreciate how important a good coach is, nothing will.

Let us begin the journey.

Norb Hecker, 1966-1968

True story: Rankin Smith made a play for Vince Lombardi, who (intelligently) decided to stay with the Green Bay Packers. Smith then consulted Lombardi regarding Norb Hecker, an assistant on Lombardi's staff who was considered a riser. Lombardi did not recommend Hecker, Rankin Smith thought Lombardi was, to quote Wikipedia, "trying to pull one over on him," and thus Hecker was hired.

The expansion Falcons were a mess, talent-wise, but Hecker was also in way, way over his head. His coaching tenure with the Falcons ended after three games in the 1968 season, at which point his record stood at a sterling 4-26-1. That record undoubtedly impressed the New York Giants, who then hired him as their defensive coordinator.

It's hard to say if Hecker was the worst coach in Falcons history, given the talent available to him, but he was the first in a long, proud tradition of losers.

Norm Van Brocklin, 1968-1974

Everything you need to know about this man is perfectly encapsulated by Jason Kirk, who wrote one of my all-time favorite articles for The Falcoholic back in 2010. Here's a couple of excerpts:

  • ONCE SAID TO A MOB OF REPORTERS: "IF ANY OF YOU [EXPLETIVES] WANT TO FIGHT, THEN LET'S STACK FURNITURE." THERE'S NO TELLING WHAT THAT MEANS, BUT PERHAPS HE COULD HAVE JOINED BILL FRALIC IN THE WWF.

  • CITIZEN NEWSPAPERMAN FURMAN BISHER CALLED HIM "HITLER WITH A HANGOVER" AND A "BLUNT SOUL" WHO COULD "MAKE HIS OWN MOTHER FEEL THAT THE PAINS OF CHILDBIRTH ARE NOT WORTHWHILE."

You really can't top that, and "stack furniture" has become my favorite expression ever since. Van Brocklin went 37-49-3 and piloted the Falcons to their first winning season, even getting the Falcons to 9-5. His enduring legacy will be his batcrap crazy press conferences, the loathing his own players had for him and the aforementioned decent record, especially compared to some of the coaches who would come after him.

Marion Campbell, 1974-1976

The mere mention of this name will send shivers up the spines of longtime Falcons fans. The Swamp Fox was a University of Georgia standout and fourth round pick, a two-time Pro Bowlers and one of the last two-way players in NFL history. His time as a player is pretty much unimpeachable. His team as a coach is eminently peachable.

Campbell has the third lowest winning percentage in NFL history for a coach who was around for three or more seasons, and it all began in Atlanta, where he went 7-25 over two and  He was the first coach in Steve Bartkowski's career, which really set the tone for some of the things Bart would have to suffer through in Atlanta. Finally, Rankin Smith and the team came to their senses and booted him off the team in favor of interim Pat Peppler, who went 3-6 before his tenure mercifully ended. That would, of course, not prove to be the end of Marion Campbell in Atlanta.

Leeman Bennett, 1977-1982

Bennett would prove to be the team's most successful coach yet, and honestly, he's easily one of the best coaches on this list. His 1977 defense is the legendary Grits Blitz, the unit that allowed the fewest points in NFL history. His 1980 team went 12-4 and lost a close one in heartbreaking fashion to the Dallas Cowboys. He finished with a respectable 46-41 record as the team's head coach, and was dismissed after losing in the playoffs in the odd, strike-shortened 1982 season.

He couldn't lift the Falcons out of mediocrity—and yes, this is nearly 20 years into the team's existence—but for brief, bright moments, the Falcons were better than they ever had been before. Bennett's a guy fans generally remember quite fondly, even if that 1980 season will forever stick in the collective craws of Falcons fans everywhere.

Dan Henning, 1983-1986

Henning was the first Falcons coach of my lifetime, though I was mercifully too young to know who the hell he was. He was in many ways the prototype of an effective coordinator who couldn't hack it as a head coach, as he bombed with the Falcons but served as an OC in the NFL right up until 2010, helping to bring the short-lived Wild Cat craze back in the late 2000's. An illustrious career, in other words, outside of Atlanta.

For the Falcons, Henning went 22-41-1, never managing a winning season in four tries. When you consider he had a terrific offensive line, Gerald Riggs and Steve Bartkowski through at least a couple of those years, that's a little astonishing. Henning, inevitably, would give way to another head coach.

Marion Campbell Redux, 1987-1989

This is easily the most amusing/terribly sad footnote in Falcons coaching history. That's the same Marion Campbell who went 7-25 more than a decade before.

The Falcons chased some very good candidates at this time, but were repeatedly rebuffed. The addled Smith family's solution was to turn back to Marion f***ing Campbell, a man who had proven his ineptitude to the exact same owner before. It was the kind of move that makes you despair whether there is any meaning to or justice in the world. Hint: There isn't.

Campbell went 11-32 before giving way to Jim Hanifan, who capped off the 1989 season by going 0-4. Marion Campbell second round of failure was so crushing that it may have led Rankin Smith to turn over control of the franchise to his son, Taylor Smith, in the following year.

Jerry Glanville, 1990-1993

On paper, this hiring was both smart and nostalgic. Glanville was the defensive coordinator in Atlanta during that Grits Blitz year back in 1977, and he was a respected coach around the NFL. It looked downright brilliant in 1991, when the Falcons went 10-6, crushed the Saints in the Wild Card Round and then lost to the eventual Super Bowl Champion Redskins in the Divisional Round.

Alas, that success was fleeting. Glanville followed it up with two losing seasons, going 27-37 overall over his four years. It really wasn't the on-field product that Glanville was known for, though.

No, he was known as the guy who clashed with Brett Favre and engineered his ticket out of town. He was known for a Run n' Shoot variant he called the "Red Gun," being the guy who helped introduce the (still awesome) black uniforms to Atlanta and leaving will-call tickets for Elvis Presley before every game. Ultimately, a mixed bag of a tenure for the franchise.

Marion Campbell, 1994-1995

No, just kidding.

June Jones, 1994-1996

June Jones was the guy who made the Run n' Shoot a big deal. Under that system, Jeff George blossomed into one of the league's best volume passers for two seasons, and the Falcons went to the playoffs in 1995 with him at the helm. Unfortunately, the very next year Jones was at the helm when the Falcons went 3-13, and he was promptly fired.

If nothing else, Jones presided over passing offenses that were a hell of a lot of fun to watch. The next hire would depart from the attacks Glanville and Jones favored, though.

He finished with a 19-29 record and yelled at Jeff George a lot, something that led to both guys heading out of town after 1996.

Dan Reeves, 1997-2003

If your metric is Super Bowl appearances, Dan Reeves is the best coach in franchise history. He belongs in the conversation, either way.

Reeves was already a well-regarded coach when he took the Falcons job in 1997, but it was the 1998 season that made him a permanent legend in Atlanta. He guided that team to a 14-2 finish, piloted them through the playoffs and past the Vikings in the NFC Championship Game, the single most thrilling game of my life, and brought the franchise to its first Super Bowl 30-plus years after its inception. The Falcons fell short against the Broncos and never got this close again, thanks to injuries and missteps along the way.

He was the man who presided over Michael Vick's first couple of seasons, and the team enjoyed a playoff berth and Wild Card win in 2002 with the electric young quarterback. He asked to be let go after the 2003 season, when the team won just 3 of their first 13 games, and gave way to Wade Phillips, who won two of the last three games.

Reeves' 49-59-1 record isn't all that impressive, but compared to his peers up to this point, he was a damn wizard. That Super Bowl berth means I'll always be fond of Dan Reeves.

Jim E. Mora, 2004-2006

Arthur Blank bought the Falcons in 2002, and while he retained Dan Reeves immediately, he and the team were shopping for a new coach shortly thereafter. Enter Jim Mora.

More was a decent-to-good coach for the Falcons, and during his three seasons, the team was never further than two games below .500. His 2004 team went 11-5 and lost in the Conference Championship Game to the Eagles after a frankly brilliant playoff run by Vick, the ground game and the defense. Comments on a radio show indicating he'd be in favor of taking the Washington Huskies job, plus middling returns in the 2006, led many to call for his firing (including the nascent Falcoholic). Blank obliged, but it's clear from Mora's 26-22 record that he probably deserved a longer leash. Especially given what followed.

Bobby Petrino, 2007

Losing scumbag who would go on to continue to be a scumbag and be handsomely rewarded for doing so, Please see note about justice in the world under Marion Campbell Redux.

Petrino sucked. That's that.

Mike Smith, 2008-2014

If your standards for best Falcons coach are not based on a Super Bowl berth, then Mike Smith is your guy. That's more or less indisputable.

Smith was a steady hand at the wheel for the Falcons, who looked like they'd need to start over after Petrino left. With Matt Ryan finding immediate success, Michael Turner's dominance and an opportunistic defense, the Falcons were in the playoffs in 2008, 2010, 2011, and 2012, making it as far as the Conference Championship Game in 2012. They also posted back-to-back-to-back-to-back-back winning seasons for the first time in team history, after never posting even back-to-back winning seasons in 40 years before that.

Sadly, Smith and the team regressed mightily in 2013 and 2014, going 4-12 and then 6-10 and leading into Smith's firing on Black Monday just a couple of weeks ago. He finished with a 67-48 regular season record and 1-4 playoff record, and while we wait to see if the next coach can take the Falcons to new heights, he belongs in the conversation with Reeves and Bennett as the best in franchise history.

Your thoughts on the history of Falcons coaching?