After being one of the great surprise stories in 2002, the Atlanta Falcons fell apart in 2003. Losing Michael Vick to a fractured right fibula in the preseason ruined what should have been an exciting season. A 5-11 campaign put them in a position to draft a potential game changer with the eighth pick. The opportunity to select one of the most highly regarded defensive prospects ever was there for the taking. There was no looking back after taking DeAngelo Hall.
It was another Virginia Tech player that came with a major pedigree. They couldn’t pass on a first-team All-American, who was a big-play machine. Hall remains as one of the few players in college football history to score a touchdown on offense, defense, and special teams. With cornerback being such a problematic area, the Falcons found their player. They needed someone to replace aging star Ray Buchanan and major free-agent flop Tyrone Williams.
Rise to prominence
Hall wasn’t instantly placed in a starting role. A serious hip injury in August forced him to miss the first month of the season. A revamped cornerback group led by Jason Webster, Kevin Mathis, and Aaron Beasley played the majority of the snaps. As the season progressed, Hall received more opportunities to prove his worth as a future star. His playmaking skills were quickly showcased. After coming down with a game-sealing interception against New Orleans, he picked off Matt Hasselbeck and returned it 48 yards for a touchdown. Watching Jerry Rice fall to the ground after trying to create separation was surreal. Hall ran past the greatest wide receiver ever and glided into the end zone like it was nothing.
That’s what made the flamboyant cornerback so unique. He never backed down from a challenge. Regardless of who the opposing wide receiver was, Hall embraced every matchup. That was evident against Terrell Owens in the home opener of the 2005 season. Facing one of the best wide receivers in the league on primetime is what players like Hall live for. Although Owens was his usual productive self, those yards didn’t come easy. Hall played press coverage for the majority of the game. It created an incredibly entertaining battle, where Hall broke up two passes and interceped an errant deep ball from Donovan McNabb.
That performance thrust Hall into the limelight as one of the NFL’s brightest defensive stars. Hall proved he could hold his own against elite competition. It started what ended up being his best season as a Falcon. By producing six interceptions and ten passes defensed, the ultra-aggressive playmaker lived up to high expectations. A first Pro Bowl appearance validated his outstanding season. The Falcons appeared to have found their long-term number one cornerback. Who would have thought the front office would be forced to trade him three years later?
The Falcons got off to a roaring 3-1 start in 2006. They only allowed one offensive touchdown in the first four games of the season. Hall was at the forefront of their defensive success. With four interceptions in five games, analysts were labeling him as an All-Pro caliber player. That discussion didn’t last long. Hall failed to intercept another pass for the rest of the season. A once-dominant Falcons’ defense collapsed on every level. What looked like a sure playoff team at 5-2 became a group of underachievers at 7-9.
As Michael Vick’s career began to implode, Hall’s ability was being questioned. Big plays were no longer being created on a consistent basis—big plays were instead being allowed on a consistent basis. Despite winning the NFL’s “Fastest Man Competition”, Hall got outran by Hines Ward on a 70-yard touchdown. To make matters worse, Ward had only one shoe on. That was the first of many moments where Hall was on the receiving end of a big play. Chad Johnson and Roy Williams had their way with him. Terrell Owens repeatedly roasted him on primetime and then proceeded to spit on him.
Hall lived up to his reputation as someone that never backed down from any receiver. He also lived up to the reputation of being about himself. Several media outlets reiterated the dreaded “MeAngelo” nickname when writing about him. Hall’s actions left them with no other choice. In a key game against New Orleans, Hall opted to go for the interception rather than bat down a Hail Mary pass attempt from Drew Brees. His failed attempt led to a touchdown that gave New Orleans a 21-6 lead going into the half. Fans viewed him as someone that was more concerned about padding his stats than doing what was best for the team.
His arrogance didn’t help matters either. During the final game of the 2006 season, Hall repeatedly called Donte’ Stallworth a bum and kept bringing up his two Pro Bowl appearances. This would have been (somewhat) understandable if Hall was playing at a high level for a playoff team. To act like this after allowing countless big plays on a losing team was preposterous. Were the Deion Sanders comparisons getting to his head? Nobody will ever truly know, but one thing became clear: Hall’s rapid ascendance to stardom made him a bigger nuisance to his own team than to opposing wide receivers.
Quiet rebound before exiting
With all the chaos surrounding the Falcons in 2007, Hall managed to put together a solid fourth season. A second half meltdown against Carolina will likely be remembered before anything else when looking back on his final season in Atlanta. That shouldn’t overshadow him reaffirming his status as a very good number one corner. Hall produced five interceptions, 16 passes defensed, one forced fumble and a fumble recovery to go along with his yearly touchdown. There weren’t many highlight-reel plays featuring him on the receiving end. Unfortunately, Hall couldn’t build on his bounce-back year.
The enigmatic star didn’t want to play for a rebuilding team. With a new coaching staff coming in led by no-nonsense head coach Mike Smith, it became obvious that a once-franchise cornerstone was headed elsewhere. Hall was traded to the Oakland Raiders for a 2008 second-round pick and 2009 fifth-round pick. It showed how fast things can change in the NFL. Most teams would do everything possible to keep a 24-year-old cornerback with 17 interceptions in four seasons. That wasn’t the case with the Falcons.
It leaves Hall with a confusing legacy in Atlanta. Does an extremely disappointing 2006 season, a fiasco against Carolina in 2007, and an unfortunate exit hold more value than his otherwise terrific on-field play? It shouldn’t be like that, yet Hall’s actions and personality make him an easy target for criticism. Nearly coming to blows with Smith during a sideline melee in his first game back in the Georgia Dome gave critics even more ammunition to bash him.
Hall went on to have a nice career in Washington after the debacle in Oakland. For all the skirmishes and setbacks, he made up for it with timely interceptions and weekly entertainment. That is something skeptics could never take away from Hall. The three-time Pro Bowler knew how to be around the ball. To retire with 43 interceptions solidifies his status as a true ball hawk. His battles against the likes of Owens, Johnson, Steve Smith, and Dez Bryant will forever be cherished.
When looking back at Hall’s 15-year career, it’s remarkable that he was closest to winning a Super Bowl during his rookie season in 2004. For a big-name player to only participate in four playoff games in 15 years is disappointing. It all makes you wonder: what if Hall had stayed in Atlanta? They could have certainly used him in 2008 when they were a few defensive players short during that magical season. Who wouldn’t want to see Hall and Brent Grimes eventually form one of the top cornerback duos in the league?
With the right guidance, Hall could have been a Falcon for the majority of his career. His immaturity does merit blame for things not working out, but playing under Jim Mora Jr. and Bobby Petrino only enhanced his issues. It’s hard to imagine him cursing out coaches and officials if Smith or Dan Quinn were on the sidelines. An organization can’t keep every young talented player they bring in, yet there will always be a sense of dubiousness about trading a former top ten pick with his credentials. Hall may have not lived up to lofty expectations, but he made you want to watch him every Sunday. That’s how the charismatic corner should forever be remembered.