The 2017 season marks ten years since the Falcons lost their star quarterback to legal issues, creating a salary cap disaster that would hinder the team for three years. Michael Vick’s suspension only removed his base salary from the team’s salary cap. His previous signing and roster bonuses would still drain $7 million or more per season from the cap.
Even worse, 2007 was the year of The Bobby Petrino Experience, when a certain hog-sooey nitwit did more damage to Atlanta in 14 weeks than anyone since General Sherman. The team’s draft and roster moves were centered around his wishes, and the outcome of every game would be riding on his game planning and adjustments or the lack of those plans and adjustments.
Two major pain points of the season played out in Weeks 1 and 2. One that should have been a screaming danger signal is that since Michael Vick was a left-hander, former coach Jim Mora’s staff had built the offensive line based on having the blind side on the right. The team’s better pass blockers, Todd Weiner and Kynan Forney (who was trying to come back from a serious injury), were at right tackle and right guard.
Falcons owner Arthur Blank had made it clear early in the summer that the team would suspend Vick for four games (the maximum allowed for a team suspension) regardless of whatever action the league might take. That made it quite clear that the new coaching staff even before training camp that they would have a right-handed starting quarterback for at least the first month of the season.
But Petrino was a first-timer as a head coach. His offensive coordinator, Hue Jackson, was a veteran receivers coach but a rookie as OC. His offensive line coach, Mike Summers (who rejoined Petrino at Louisville this year), had zero NFL experience.
This trio either didn’t recognize the difference that having the blind side back on the left would make or simply decided not to make any changes unless it was proven necessary. They went through training camp and preseason with the oldest man on the entire roster, Wayne Gandy, at left tackle. Next to him at left guard would be rookie second round pick Justin Blalock.
Anyone see the oncoming train in this picture? Our coaching staff didn’t.
The other early storyline was a surprise change at place kicker. In 2008, one of the team’s PR staff members mentioned to me during training camp that the 2007 team could have fared much better if they only had a kicker. Well, don’t blame Rich McKay for that one, because he had signed not one but two kickers during the offseason to compete for the job.
Billy Cundiff won out over Aaron Elling early in camp and went on to handle the place kicking duties for the first three preseason games. He was rock solid, with his only miss coming on a 54-yard attempt to end the first half of a game at Buffalo.
After the third week of preseason, the Dolphins released prospect Matt Prater. Falcons special teams coordinator Jerry Rosburg (now with Baltimore) really liked Prater’s cannon of a leg, and the Falcons worked him out. Petrino and Rosburg liked what they saw, and the team added him to the roster for the final preseason game.
At the time, it wasn’t a surprise that the Falcons had Prater rather than Cundiff handling the kicking duties for the final exhibition game, as all of the starters had the night off. The prospect connected from 33 yards out and then made a 45-yard field goal to give Atlanta the lead. But he then sent a 44-yard attempt wide left, giving Baltimore the ball at their 34-yard line with just under three minutes remaining and needing only a field goal of their own to tie the game.
(If anyone’s curious, rookie quarterback Troy Smith drove the Ravens within Atlanta’s 35 before a sack by Travis Williams and an interception by second rounder Chris Houston sealed the game.)
Still, two out of three was good enough for Petrino and Rosburg. When the final roster cuts came down, the Falcons coaching staff surprisingly opted to release Cundiff and hand the kicking job to the kid with tribal armband tattoos on BOTH arms.
The regular season kicks off
The regular season began with the team on the road for two weeks, starting with a trip to the Metrodome in Minneapolis. Joey Harrington completed 23 of 32 pass attempts, but it was hardly a good day for the Falcons offense. On Atlanta’s first offensive series, receiver Michael Jenkins was unable to bring in a pass, popping it into the air and into the hands of defender Kevin Williams, who rumbled in for a touchdown. Later in the game, another pass intended for Jenkins became another pick-six. In between, Vikings quarterback Tarvaris Jackson connected with rookie Adrian Peterson for a 60-yard catch and run for another Minnesota touchdown.
That was more than Minnesota would need. While grinding out the clock, Peterson set the Vikings rookie debut record with 103 rushing yards (a mark just broken two weeks ago by Dalvin Cook). The Vikings defense would tee off on Atlanta’s offensive line, racking up six sacks for the game. Meanwhile, Atlanta’s longest positive pass play went for a mere 15 yards, the Falcons rushed for only 96 total yards as a team, and Prater missed one of his two field goal attempts.
The final score: Minnesota 24, Atlanta 3. Reality started to sink in for Falcons fans. In his coaching debut, the alleged offensive mastermind Petrino had his offense outscored 14-3 by the opposing defense. Peterson, Jackson and the rest of Minnesota’s offense could have stayed home and still won the game.
The following week saw the Falcons heading to Jacksonville to face the Jaguars. We didn’t know it at the time, but we were getting an early peek at our future. Jack Del Rio had Mike Smith as his defensive coordinator, and Dirk Koetter had joined the staff that year as Jacksonville’s offensive coordinator.
A few things did go better for the Falcons offense, as Harrington threw for 200 yards without any of his passes winding up in Jaguar hands. Warrick Dunn rushed for Atlanta’s first touchdown of the season.
But the rest of the story was the same as in week one. Petrino and Hue Jackson weren’t able to make any adjustments to counter Mike Smith, who dialed up blitz after blitz. (Ground control to Major Bobby: it’s called a “screen pass”.) The Jaguars managed to top Minnesota’s mark from the previous week, finishing the game with SEVEN sacks against Atlanta’s beleaguered offensive line.
After the game, Petrino finally made his first adjustment to Jacksonville’s pass rush. In his post-game comments, he blamed Harrington for holding the ball too long.
Matt Prater had two field goal attempts, including one from only 23 yards out. Both were shanked wide right - and Atlanta lost the game by six points. At that point even Petrino had seen enough, and Prater was released soon after the game.
(Denver also found his leg strength intriguing and signed him as a second kicker for kickoff duty later that season. Their regular place kicker? Jason Elam, who would sign with the Falcons the following offseason.)
When the Falcons had released Billy Cundiff just two weeks earlier, he immediately enrolled in a graduate program, sitting out the 2007 while working towards his MBA degree. Aaron Elling had suffered a knee injury as a member of Browns and was also unavailable. With both other candidates off the table, Atlanta dialed a familiar number and brought 47-year old Morten Andersen back out of retirement for one final curtain call.
At least left tackle Wayne Gandy would no longer be the oldest man on the roster.