EDITOR’S NOTE: To remind you just how good Falcons fans have it in 2017, we’re taking a look back at the ill-fated 2007 team from 10 years ago. Get your barf bags out.
In spite of the team’s 0-2 start, Falcons fans still had a sense of excitement entering Week 3 of the 2007 season. That was largely due to a pair of roster moves the team made during the week. The day after the debacle at Jacksonville (detailed here), the team released kicking prospect Matt Prater (yes, the same one who now has the NFL record for consecutive 50+ yard field goals, adding two more against us last week).
Field goal duties would once again be turned over to Morten Andersen, who at that point was older than 12 NFL head coaches - including Bobby Petrino.
But it was the other move that really had fans buzzing: Atlanta signed former Jaguars quarterback Byron Leftwich. He would certainly be inactive for a few weeks as he was brand new to the team and needed to get acclimated to the system. But he was here and was sure to take over - and soon - if Bobby Petrino’s offense couldn’t get rolling.
If that wasn’t enough to get everyone fired up, this week’s game would be Atlanta’s home opener, and it was against division rival Carolina. So never mind the 0-2 record or that the offensive line had given up 13 sacks in two games. Football season had finally come to Hotlanta, and it was time to see our Falcons kick some Panther backside.
Michael Koenen took over kickoff duty after Prater’s departure, and he served up the opening kickoff. Atlanta’s defense promptly forced a 3-and-out from Jake Delhomme and the Carolina offense, much to the delight of the Georgia Dome faithful.
Joey Harrington and the Falcons offense took the field for the first time on their home turf. They got off to a great start. Harrington hit Joe Horn on an “in” route for 17 yards, then completed a short pass to Roddy White. Warrick Dunn then broke out a 17-yard run...
... only to have Chris Harris strip the ball and recover the fumble. Just like that, a promising opening drive fell apart.
But Atlanta’s defense came through. John Abraham (in just his second season with the team) sacked Delhomme to force another 3-and-out.
Harrington went right back to work. He found Jerious Norwood for 13 yards, connected with Roddy White for 23 yards, Michael Jenkins for another 13 yards, and then Alge Crumpler for 11 yards to get the ball inside the Carolina 20.
A dicey offensive holding call on Roddy stalled out the drive, but that was okay. After all, the Falcons now had a reliable kicker. While Prater had managed to shank a 23-yarder the week before against Jacksonville, Andersen was money in the bank from anywhere inside 45 yards.
Unfortunately, it was only Michael Koenen’s third game as the team’s holder and his first time holding for a left-footed kicker. Koenen fumbled the snap. And just like that, another promising drive was blown to pieces on another mishap.
Wait, the Falcons are LEADING?
You really have to hand it to defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer. His defense forced yet another 3-and-out to give the ball back to Petrino’s offense for another try. (Technically, Hue Jackson was the offensive coordinator that season. But if you have the stomach to go back and watch the game again, you’ll see Petrino with the card in his hand. It was his offense, and he was calling the plays himself.)
Unfortunately the third offensive possession didn’t last very long. Kris Jenkins got the best of rookie left guard Justin Blalock and sacked Harrington to create Carolina’s first 3-and-out. After that, Delhomme finally got the Panthers offense moving, but the Falcons defense still held them to a field goal for the game’s opening score.
Falcons fans then learned of another change the team made following the Jacksonville game. Before the season, Bobby Petrino had bumped out long time return man Allen Rossum to make room in the secondary for Antoine Harris, one of his former Louisville players. Special teams coordinator Jerry Rosburg had second-year receiving prospect Adam Jennings handle the PR/KR duties for the first two games. He was still returning punts in this third game, but after Carolina’s field goal we suddenly found out that the team had made a change for kick returns.
Speedy running back Jerious Norwood was back deep. He fielded the kick cleanly and very quickly ran it out to the 48-yard line. But...you probably guessed this was coming…a holding call on backup linebacker Marcus Wilkins brought it back to the 20.
(Meanwhile, Allen Rossum had a 98-yard kickoff return that day, scoring Pittsburgh’s first touchdown in their game against the 49ers. Of course, if he had still been with the Falcons, his touchdown would almost certainly have been nullified by a penalty.)
Joey Harrington went right back to work once again, with another short, quick pass to Roddy White followed by a Warrick Dunn run to pick up the first down. This was obviously the team’s main adjustment to giving up so many sacks the previous two weeks. To help the line, they’d go for more quick throws and fewer of the slow developing crossing routes.
The next play was an exception. The Falcons went for a bomb. (Believe it or not, Joey Sunshine actually could throw a deep pass. It just took a long time to get there.) Rookie wide receiver Laurent Robinson had beaten his man, but Dunn missed a block in the backfield. Harrington had to throw early and off balance, and the ball was off target.
They didn’t have to mourn this latest missed opportunity for long though. The very next play was yet another short pass to Roddy on a slant pattern. But this time, White broke the tackle of his defender and was off to the races for a 69-yard touchdown.
It was the longest play of his career to that point. It also put Atlanta ahead by a score of 7-3 following the extra point. It took a moment for that to sink in. Harrington and the Falcons actually had a lead. Things were really looking up in the Georgia Dome.
Well, we can’t have that, can we?
The Panthers promptly marched down the field and scored on their next drive to retake the lead. The Falcons moved the ball well but came up short in the final minute of the second quarter, settling for a field goal attempt.
Koenen held on to this one, and Morten Andersen put it through the uprights. The half ended with the score tied 10-10.
The second half rolls on
Another holding penalty on the second half kickoff, this time on undrafted rookie linebacker Tony Taylor, started Atlanta’s offense in a hole. They failed to move the ball on that first drive, but the defense held firm on Carolina’s possession.
The Falcons had more success on the next series, moving the ball into the red zone. Harrington then hit Alge Crumpler with a short pass. Crumpler was covered well but easily broke the tackle attempt by Marquand Manuel (yes, our new defensive coordinator was part of this game) and ran in 13 yards for the go-ahead touchdown. Atlanta had its largest lead of the game (and the season), 17-10.
And that led to the drive that makes this game part of Falcons lore.
On first down, Delhomme put up a 37-yard pass attempt to Steve Smith. Atlanta had called a safety blitz on the play, so there was no deep safety help behind the cornerbacks. Smith had beaten DeAngelo Hall, who pulled him down and took the pass interference penalty rather than give up even more yards and a likely touchdown.
Side note: Smith went into a huge celebration (of a penalty??), then turned and went back toward DeAngelo to trash talk him more before going to the huddle. Ordinarily, that’s a flag - after the play was over, a player intentionally changed course away from his own team and towards the other team for purposes of taunting. The officials did steer him back towards his own huddle but did NOT throw a flag for unsportsmanlike conduct.
The following play was a run by DeAngelo Williams. Out on the edge, Smith started as if he was going to run a pass pattern. Hall gave him an aggressive jam to both shoulder pads. The side judge threw a flag, and the explanation of the personal foul call was that that Hall had allegedly hit Smith in the head.
Replays showed quite clearly that this did not happen. It was an aggressive, physical jam, but it was a clean shot at the shoulders. It was exactly the type of jam that you want to see from a cornerback. The side judge simply blew it on the call, and it cost Atlanta 15 yards and an automatic first down.
And that doubled the frustration of both Hall and coach Bobby Petrino, who could be seen voicing obscenities about the bad call on the sideline. One play after not assessing a 15-yard penalty against Carolina for unsportsmanlike conduct that did happen, the same side judge did assess 15 yards against Atlanta for a personal foul that did NOT happen.
Still, all was not lost… yet. The defense held for the next two plays, and on third down John Abraham came up with a sack in spite of being held by Travelle Wharton to force a fourth down field goal attempt.
But what happened next can only be described as surreal.
Referee Larry Nemmers announced the holding call against Wharton and that Atlanta had declined the penalty. He paused before saying “fourth down” as he was then made aware of another flag. After getting the explanation from the side judge (yes, the same one), he returned and announced an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty on Hall for being “very abusive to the official”.
Did Hall actually say anything directly to the side judge? The replay showed Smith and Hall in yet another argument. The side judge got between them to keep them separated. The video showed Hall clearly leaning to the side – around the side judge – to say something more to Smith, at which point the side judge threw the flag. It certainly did not appear that Hall was talking to the official at all.
Associated Press writer Charles Odum noted here that Hall complained after the game that he and Smith were both “jawing at each other” and that the call could easily have gone the other way, but that only he was flagged for it. He didn’t even seem aware at the time that the side judge claimed DeAngelo was being abusive towards him.
It should also be noted that the incident occurred well on Atlanta’s side of the line of scrimmage, and well after the play was over. For the second time, Smith was in enemy territory and intentionally going towards opposing players rather than back towards his own team’s side of the line of scrimmage. There should have been an unsportsmanlike conduct flag on him as well as – or perhaps instead of – on Hall.
Hall had completely lost it at that point. He had a heated discussion with defensive backs coach Joe Whitt, Jr. (now with the Packers) on the sideline and then with Petrino. And when play finally resumed, it was first down for Carolina, fifteen yards ahead of the point where Abraham had sacked Delhomme.
This brings up another mental mishap that got lost in all the controversy over DeAngelo Hall and has been long forgotten in the decade since that game. Travelle Wharton had been flagged for holding on the play. Nemmers checked and announced the penalty was declined before being made aware of the second flag. Apparently he didn’t ask Petrino afterwards whether he wanted to accept the holding call in light of the second flag, and Petrino did nothing to bring it to his attention. The Falcons basically threw away ten yards by continuing to decline the penalty against the Panthers.
Two plays later, Delhomme threw a short pass to tight end Jeff King, who reached forward with the football to break the plane of the goal line for the touchdown. The extra ten yards would have given Mike Zimmer’s defense one more chance to make a stand.
That drive is remembered for the 67 yards in penalties against DeAngelo Hall, who allegedly single-handedly cost the Falcons the game. But now that we’ve had a full ten years to let all the emotion of the 2007 season fade away, let’s rethink that. While DeAngelo did have a complete mental meltdown, calling him responsible for 67 yards in penalties is overly harsh. The unsportsmanlike conduct call was questionable at best, and the personal foul call was just plain wrong. Meanwhile, Smith got away with 30 yards worth of unsportsmanlike conduct, and Petrino simply threw away 10 yards by not accepting the holding call.
More importantly, Atlanta didn’t actually lose the game on that drive. Carolina’s touchdown simply made the score 17-17, and it was still just the middle of the third quarter.
Mailing It In
But the wind seemed to be taken out of Atlanta’s sails after that drive. The team simply wasn’t as effective on either side of the ball for the rest of the game.
The offense promptly went 3-and-out. The defense then gave up a 29-yard pass to King. Rookie defensive end Jamaal Anderson was flagged for roughing the passer. Sadly, that was the closest that Anderson would come to a sack all season. DeShaun Foster capped the Panther drive with a 10-yard touchdown run to put Carolina ahead.
Even the coaching staff had mailed it in. Carolina defensive tackle Kindal Moorehead (who would join the Falcons as a free agent the following March) committed a face mask penalty on the extra point.
You be the coach. You’re down by a touchdown. Do you think pushing the opponent 15 yards back on the following kickoff might help your offense?
Well, if you’re Bobby Petrino, the answer is obvious. You have them re-kick the extra point.
No kidding. That’s how it happened. Carolina 24, Atlanta 17.
Fate has a twisted sense of humor, so naturally the ensuing Falcons drive stalled out at Carolina’s 43-yard line. No matter how much you might hate the “what-if” game, you couldn’t help but do the mental arithmetic if you were sitting in the stands or watching at home. Morten Andersen was pretty much automatic from up to 45 yards out. Those 15 extra yards from the face mask penalty would have put the ball at the 28-yard line. That translates to a 45-yard field goal attempt.
No field goal try for us from 60 yards out. Instead, we got a pooch punt from Michael Koenen. Carolina then moved the ball far enough to kick a field goal of their own. Carolina 27, Atlanta 17.
With time becoming a factor, Atlanta’s next offensive series came down to fourth down at Carolina’s six yard line. Down by ten points, the Falcons opted for the field goal rather than going for the touchdown, bringing the score to 27-20. But that was as close as they got, as the Panthers were able to pick up a few first downs and run out the clock.
The Falcons were now 0-3 on the season. Joey Harrington had just completed 31 of 44 pass attempts for 361 yards and two touchdowns with no interceptions. But between Dunn’s fumble, Koenen’s fumbled hold, DeAngelo’s 37 yards in real penalties plus 30 yards in bogus penalties, and Petrino botching 25 yards worth of penalty calls himself, the team still managed to lose.
Even the most optimistic fans were starting to feel the sense of dread. It would be a long, hard season, and we had only just begun.