We’re in the dead period of football (you can read about how much I hate this period here), and with it, we don’t have much to talk about except for some speculation here and there.
I figured this would be a good time to look back on some moments in Falcons history and maybe re-live them while we wait for football to come back.
That idea has given rise to a new series of “Throwback Thursday” articles I’m planning on writing throughout the dead period. Each week, we’ll re-live and discuss a certain moment in this franchise’s 52-year history.
You can find last week’s Throwback Thursday article about Roddy White here.
The Atlanta Falcons went into the new decade of the 1980s with the team’s best roster since inception and a prevalent hope of becoming a perennial playoff contender.
The team had finally found its franchise quarterback in Steve Bartkowski, and the results on the field were starting to show. Throughout the 1978 and 1979 seasons (where Bartkowski took over as the starting QB and played in more than half of the season’s games), the Falcons accumulated a 15-17 record. This isn’t spectacular but is a far cry from the 18-38 record they achieved in the four seasons immediately before 1978.
Atlanta had finally tasted the playoffs in that 1978 season, when Bartkowski had taken a stranglehold of the starting job, getting in as a wildcard and beating the Philadelphia Eagles in the first round, and they were hungry for more.
The offense, specifically the run game, looked like it was going to be carrying the team going into the 1980 season. While Bartkowski was a steadying presence at the quarterback position, he still had never thrown more touchdowns than interceptions in a season and looked to be a game manager (make no mistake, however, “just a game manager” is a significant upgrade from what the Falcons had before Bartkowski). Starting RB William Andrews was coming off of a 1,000-yard season in 1979 and looked poised to lead the offense once again.
When the season started, however, Bartkowski proved to be more than just a game manager, carving defenses up in the passing game as a superb compliment to the run-first mentality the Falcons still employed under head coach Leeman Bennett. The team featured a stout offensive line, which was led by LT Mike Kenn, who would go on to be voted as a First-Team All-Pro selection that season, and would be named a Pro Bowler for the first of five straight seasons. I am willing to die on the “Mike Kenn deserves to be in the Hall of Fame” hill if I have to.
William Andrews would also be voted to his first of four straight pro bowls in 1980, after rushing for 1308 yards in tandem with backup RB Lynn Cain, who would rush for his own 914 yards (they would combine to total 14 touchdowns).
Bartkowski would make a quantum leap relative to what his stats were in the seasons directly before 1980. He would total 3544 passing yards to go along with a league-leading 31 passing touchdowns compared to just 16 interceptions on 7.4 yards per passing attempt. It would be good enough to earn him the first of back to back pro bowl appearances in 1980 and 1981. The four game-winning drives he engineered were also a league high.
Bartkowski’s weapon of choice was Alfred Jenkins, who would total 1035 receiving yards and six receiving touchdowns on his way to the first of back to back pro bowls (he would be a First-Team All-Pro selection in 1981). Tight End Junior Miller would also find himself in the pro bowl after catching nine touchdowns.
The offense had the star power, and they would help the Falcons finish fifth in the NFL in total points scored (after the franchise had never finished better than seventh overall in either offense or defense).
The defense, meanwhile, surprisingly matched the offense, despite starting three rookies and not having nearly as many big names. With the watchful eye of defensive coordinator Jerry Glanville presiding over them, the defense was fifth in the NFL in fewest points allowed. Linebackers Buddy Curry and Al Richardson led the unit and shared defensive player of the year honors at the end of the season as a result.
Following a mediocre 3-3 start Atlanta kicked it into high gear, winning nine straight games between weeks 7 and 15 (including two blowout wins against the New Orleans Saints, who would finish that season in the division basement with a 1-15 record). The Falcons had never won more than nine games in a single season before 1980, and here they were winning nine in a row to give the city its first taste of belief in a championship.
Atlanta would clinch its first-ever division title with a week 15 victory against the San Francisco 49ers and would finish the regular season with a 12-4 record, good enough for the top seed in the NFC.
Unfortunately, the Falcons’ fanbase would suffer its first major heartbreak in those playoffs, in what would be a foreshadowing of things to come for the seemingly snake-bitten franchise. In the divisional round of the playoffs, the birds hosted the Dallas Cowboys and led 24-10 after three quarters. A field goal to go up 27-17 with 5:37 left to play seemed like the dagger, but Dallas would cut through a prevent defense multiple times while the Falcons’ offense failed to truly salt the game away. Dallas would end up snatching a 30-27 victory as 60,000+ fans at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium were left shocked.
The incredibly promising squad of 1980 missed their window to get to the Super Bowl, and it never reopened for them, just showing how nothing in the NFL is ever guaranteed no matter how promising things may seem. Over the next 14 years, the Falcons would achieve just two winning seasons and one playoff victory.
Despite the heartbreak, however, that 1980 team will always live on in the hearts of the Falcons fans who were around to witness and enjoy that incredible season. Four players from that team - Steve Bartkowski, Mike Kenn, William Andrews and Center Jeff Van Note - are all in the team’s ring of honor.
Expect these “Throwback Thursday” articles to be recurring throughout the offseason, to reminisce about the team’s history and to give us some stuff to talk about. Don’t expect them to go in order, however. The next one could look back on a moment that occurred in the 90s or even a few years ago. Between you and me, I’m just making it up as I go along.