In the 1990s, NFL free agency was still a relatively modest thing. Eventually it would morph into an annual phenomenon that changed the NFL and its landscape forever, but that was not the case for the time period we’re discussing today.
As you may very well know, the magnitude of it all is potentially seeing NFL stars switching jerseys and possibly making a good team significantly better. The Falcons in 1994, however, were facing the other side of that coin, as they were mulling whether to lose a star and make their team significantly worse. We all know what that decision was.
After five seasons of elite cornerback play for the Falcons as easily the best player on the team, Deion Sanders signed a one-year deal with the San Francisco 49ers that offseason in free agency. A team that was already a contender with the presences of Jerry Rice, Steve Young, Dana Stubblefield, and Eric Davis was considered a major threat that year before signing Sanders. But once Sanders took his talents to the Bay Area, it elevated the Niners. Ultimately, they stood tall by season’s end with a Super Bowl championship.
But I digress. That is not what we are here for today.
Today is about the what if. What if Sanders did not depart the Falcons? What would it have meant for the Falcons? Let’s take a look.
Sanders was fresh off a season that saw him post a career high in interceptions with seven, and his second straight first-team All-Pro placement. But for the fourth time in his five seasons in Atlanta, Sanders and the Falcons were watching the playoffs from the comfort of their own homes.
There was still considerable youthful talent on the team with the 26-year-old Sanders, receiver Andre Rison, and Jessie Tuggle at linebacker. But with the team moving on from head coach Jerry Glanville, it was easy for Sanders to look at the wider scope of things and feel that the future was more cloudy than bright. Just like that, with a $1.134 million dollar contract in tow, Sanders was off to San Francisco to be the missing piece to their puzzle.
Let’s hypothetically say that the Falcons were able to provide that $1 million for Sanders and probably a little more, simply because he was the best corner in football at that time. At the very least, he provides the Falcons defense with an elite cornerstone on the back end. Keep in mind that the Falcons traded for defensive end Chris Doleman that during the NFL Draft that year. It cost the Falcons the 40th pick overall in that year’s draft but they received Doleman and the 45th selection.
At the age of 32, Doleman was coming off a 12.5 sack season in Minnesota and eclipsed at least seven sacks in the previous seven seasons in Minnesota. So there was no doubt that Doleman was still productive and able to produce. Recording 16 sacks in two seasons in Atlanta may not mean much to some, but it’s intriguing to think what the Hall of Famer could’ve done with Sanders roaming downfield and potentially buying him even more time to get home.
Assuming they had done that, there would’ve been a little momentum within the organization after coming off a non-playoff season, it might have been wise to continue that momentum, especially on the defensive side of the ball with a unit that was 25th overall and 28th in scoring during 1993. Originally, the Falcons drafted Anthony Phillips in the third round to help mitigate the loss of Sanders. During that offseason, the Falcons picked up Clay Matthews Jr. off of waivers from the Cleveland Browns. Matthews was flirting with Father Time at that juncture at 38 years of age and while his two seasons in Atlanta were solid, the Falcons could have instead gone the younger route. Lying in the weeds in the third round of the 1994 draft was a versatile linebacker that could have injected more punch into the defense. With the 72nd overall selection, the Falcons instead might’ve selected Jason Gildon out of Oklahoma State.
The Falcons were only 7-9 in 1994 and only a couple of games out of a possible Wild Card bid in the playoffs. Placing the talent in Deion Sanders back in Atlanta in addition to having Doleman in the picture and the maturation of former Falcon great Jessie Tuggle may have been the difference in the Falcons making up ground a little and finding themselves playoff bound.
Keeping Sanders in Atlanta could have set off a domino effect in the offseason prior to the 1994 season. The trade for Doleman probably would have yielded better results in the long term all because of the presence of Sanders in a Falcons uniform. Gildon was an asset in the long run for the Pittsburgh Steelers for 10 seasons and produced 80 sacks during his NFL career, and likely would’ve been at least a solid addition for Atlanta.
The 1994 season was definitely a transitional one for the Falcons under new head coach June Jones. Having favorable results as the Falcons offensive coordinator for three seasons from 1991-93 prompted Jones to get promoted to head coach. Under Jones, the Falcons fielded an entertaining offense that was seventh in total offense and featured a pair of 1,000-yard receivers in Terance Mathis and Andre Rison.
An improved defense and a fast-paced offense would have made the Falcons a solid threat at that present time, and might’ve led to them going into their 1998 Super Bowl season in an even stronger position, roster-wise. But when it comes to the spirit and moxie that Sanders brought to not only that team but the city itself, having him remain as a Falcon for the long term could have been a very beneficial investment.