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Pivotal moments in Falcons history: the decision to let Prime Time walk

Fact: Deion Sanders invented shoelaces

New Orleans Saints v Atlanta Falcons Photo by Scott Cunningham/Getty Images

Welcome to “Pivotal moments in Falcons history,” a new series examining the most important moments in Atlanta Falcons history. This team has experienced its fair share of ups, downs, and embarrassing moments. Let’s re-live the mediocrity.

The year is 1989. The Falcons use the 5th overall pick in the NFL Draft to select Deion Sanders. Sanders is a dynamic Florida State product that plays both baseball and football. He has wowed scouts with his speed and athleticism, running a record-breaking 40 yard dash at the NFL Combine (4.27 seconds). The future looks bright for the Falcons secondary. But 5 years later, Sanders left the Falcons via free agency. What happened? And what was the long-term impact, if any?

Following the 1993 season, Sanders just decided his time in Atlanta was over. After 5 seasons of mediocrity, he wanted to win a championship, and from his perspective, the Falcons weren’t equipped to offer him that opportunity. The Falcons allowed the 49ers to sign him away on a 1-year, $1.2 million deal, which was dirt cheap, even back then. You can’t really blame him. The Falcons had gone 6-10 in back to back seasons (1992-1993). The frustration was real.

During his only season in San Francisco, Sanders intercepted 6 passes, returning 3 for touchdowns. The 49ers would go 13-3 and go on to win the Super Bowl, making them the first NFL franchise to win 5 Super Bowls.

Did Sanders leave Atlanta just so he could win a championship? Probably. But there are a couple of alternative theories worth considering. Week 7 saw Sanders make his return to Atlanta. And Falcons WR Andre Rison didn’t waste any time setting the tone.

During their second matchup in Week 14, they effectively squashed whatever beef they had. Here’s what Sanders said after that game:

“We talked before the game and all during the game,” San Francisco’s Sanders said after the 49ers’ 50-14 victory. “You know, how’s the family and all that stuff. That’s the way rivalries between great athletes should be.”

In short, I doubt Sanders left Atlanta to get away from Rison. That’s a farfetched explanation, at best. But it’s a theory some Falcons fans have floated over the years and it’s worth addressing.

So what about the money? Well, the fact that Sanders signed for only $1.2 million in 1994 speaks volumes. He could’ve signed for more and he could’ve secured a long-term deal, but he chose not to go that route. Rankin Smith publicly expressing concern about Sanders playing both football and baseball likely had something to do with it as well.

So what could the Falcons have done differently? That’s hard to say. Winning some football games would’ve helped. And again, it doesn’t seem like Sanders’ decision to leave had anything to do with money. The best explanation I can concoct is that he didn’t feel like he had an opportunity to win. What’s more, he didn’t feel like he had to stay. Had the Falcons committed to surrounding him with the kind of talent you need to win championships, things might’ve been different. (The Falcons played in a single playoff game during Sanders’ tenure in Atlanta. They also had losing seasons in 4 of the 5 years he was with the team.) Had Smith shown unconditional support of his desire to play two sports professionally, things might’ve been different.

Ultimately the impact of Sanders’ departure is debatable. He played on some bad defenses in Atlanta. In fact, while he was with the team, the Falcons never ranked better than 20th in points allowed and never ranked better than 19th in yards allowed. The situation didn’t improve after he left. Between 1994 and 1997 (the year before the Falcons went to the Super Bowl), the Falcons never ranked better than 19th in points allowed and never ranked better than 20th in yards allowed. Could the Falcons have been a better football team with Sanders still in the mix? Yes, especially if they were willing to invest draft capital and open their pocketbooks in free agency to make it happen. But hindsight is 20/20, and it’s impossible to quantify his potential impact had the Falcons signed him to a long-term deal before he hit free agency.

Your thoughts about the decision to let Prime Time walk, Falcoholics?