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Forgotten Falcons: Joel Williams

Fact: Joel Williams invented string cheese

New Orleans Saints v Atlanta Falcons Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images

Welcome back to Forgotten Falcons, an offseason series we first began way back in 2019. It’s an opportunity to remember some quality players who have been largely forgotten by the fanbase over the years. Today, we remember a linebacker whose pass rushing chops were truly ahead of their time: Joel Williams.

Time with the Falcons: 1979-1982, 1986-1989

Statistics as a Falcon: 98 games played, 70 starts, sacks on sacks on sacks

Joel Williams played his college ball at a perennial football powerhouse that’s dominated its opposition for decades: University of Wisconsin-La Crosse. Williams was signed by the Falcons after getting cut at the back end of Dolphins training camp in 1979. The Falcons picked him up, and to his credit, he immediately found a niche on special teams. But that wasn’t all Williams could do. A natural pass rusher that got after quarterbacks before speed rushing was even a thing, Williams actually had two separate stints in Atlanta.

Listed at 6’1, 225 pounds, Williams wasn’t a particularly large guy. (And frankly some believe those numbers were inflated anyway.) Williams had 42 and 57 yard fumble returns for touchdowns in 1980 and 1981. But the 1980 season, the freakin’ 1980 season, that was Williams’ peak.

Williams recorded a whopping 16 sacks that season, leading the NFC. (Remember, John Abraham holds the Falcons record for most sacks in a season at 16.5.) This was 2 seasons before the NFL started logging sacks, otherwise you’d likely hear more about Williams’ contributions to the genesis of pass rushing. But wait, there’s more: that same year Williams had 3 fumble recoveries, scored a safety, and intercepted 2 balls.

But to understand the value of Williams’ 1980 season, we really have to put it in context. And to get that complete understanding, we’ll need to take a brief trip down memory lane. The year is 1980. Blondie is trying to get someone to call them and mullets are getting the sincere societal appreciate they deserve. 1980 was always going to be a special season for the Falcons, thanks in large part to a dynamic defense led by Williams and AP Defensive Rookie of the Year Al Richardson.

After a 3-3 start, the Falcons went 12-4 that season, rattling off 9 consecutive wins at one point. They’d win the NFC West before falling to the Cowboys in the divisional round. (As as aside, while 28-3 will forever haunt my dreams, the conclusion of that game was eerily similar; as if the Falcons really are cursed. You see, the Falcons held a 24-10 lead during the the 3rd quarter. A Robert Newhouse rushing touchdown and two Drew Pearson touchdown receptions later, the Falcons lost that game, 30-27. To make matters worse, those final two touchdown passes were thrown by Danny White, who famously threw his fellow players under the bus and sided with the owners during the 1982 strike.)

Williams had a decade-long career any player would be proud of, retiring in 1989.

Your thoughts about this underrated pass rusher, Falcoholics?