You may remember that the last two springs, we took a look back at Falcons the fanbase may have forgotten about, but were terrific contributors and/or fan favorites back when they played for Atlanta. We unearthed names from recent history, like Antone Smith and Rod Coleman, and we dug a little deeper into the past to remember the likes of Ray Brown and Brian Jordan. During the quiet few weeks ahead before training camp, we’ll bring a few more names to the fore.
I’ll admit I was inspired by this year’s draft with our first selection of 2021, given that he was also once a first round pick for the Falcons named Pitts. That’d be former defensive lineman Mike Pitts, a capable and consistent pass rusher who spent four short (but very good) years in Atlanta, and who remains 12th all-time in sacks and wound up carving out a nice career in the NFL. Let’s take a closer look.
Time in Atlanta: 1983-1986
Statistics as a Falcon: 62 games, 33 starts, 25 sacks, 299 tackles, 1 interception, 6 fumble recoveries, 1 blocked field goal, 1 blocked punt, 1 defensive touchdown
Accolades: 1983 All-Rookie team
Atlanta needed pass rush help. This is a familiar lament that echoes back into ancient times, and was found engraved on clay tablets inside the tomb of a frustrated Falcons executive who thought the team was on piece away circa 3000 BCE. It was also true after the strike-shortened 1982 year, a season that saw the team move on from Leeman Bennett in favor of Dan Henning, a move that would prove (in conjunction with many other mistakes) consign the Falcons to mediocrity throughout the 1980s. Now, 1982 was only a 9 game season, but the team’s leading sack artist was nose tackle Don Smith, making the need for more help readily evident.
Enter Mike Pitts. The 16th overall pick of the 1983 NFL Draft, Pitts was immediately one of the biggest players on the roster at 6’5”, 277 pounds, and he showed his power, pass rushing acumen and potential right away in his rookie season. Dan Henning, echoing Terry Fontenot in the modern day, said the Falcons were focused on taking the best player available, and that was Pitts after he somewhat unexpectedly dropped past other teams Atlanta expected to be interested.
‘You have to say Pitts is the man we wanted since he’s the man we took,’ said Henning. ‘Of course, you always go for the best player available, regardless of position. We knew our first choice would be defense if everything was even, but we would have taken an offensive player if a great one was there.’
Though he started just four games that rookie year, Pitts finished the year with 7 sacks, a total that led the team, and made the NFL’s All-Rookie team as a result. It’s hard to look at the 1983 draft, with greats like Dan Marino and Darrell Green and very good players like Joey Browner and Ken O’Brien, and not pine for another player in hindsight. At the time, though, Pitts delivered as the team’s most promising pass rusher right out of the gate, and he’d continue to do so for some lousy Falcons teams.
He was second on the team with 5.5 sacks the next year despite missing the final two games with a knee injury. Henning moved Pitts inside to defensive tackle for 1985 and Pitts didn’t miss a beat, putting up 7 sacks again and finishing second on the team. In his final year with the Falcons in 1986, he once again ranked second on the team with 5.5 sacks despite starting zero games. He would finish his career in Atlanta with 25 sacks, which briefly ranked first in team history until Rick Bryan passed him in 1990.
His fortunes changed after his third season, when he was coming off back-to-back years as a full-time starter. Between 1985 and 1986, defensive coordinator John Marshall was replaced by the deeply cursed Marion Campbell in his second stint with the team, the Falcons drafted Tony Casillas, and Mike Gann was coming into his own, and as a result Pitts moved into more of a reserve role, albeit one where he was still able to have an impact. When Campbell took over as the head coach again the following year and ran Atlanta even further into the ground, Pitts was traded to the Eagles just before the start of the 1987 season for defensive end Greg Brown, a player coming off a 9 sack season and one who had 29 sacks in a two year span from 1984-1985. Brown would predictably put up just two sacks over a pair of quiet seasons for the Falcon before retiring.
Atlanta’s loss was Philadelphia’s solid gain, as Pitts went on to play six more seasons with the Eagles, chiefly as a defensive tackle. He managed 19.5 sacks and 397 tackles there before finishing his long career in New England, starting all but one game over two years with 4 sacks and 118 tackles. In all, Pitts piled up 48.5 sacks and 814 tackles in 12 seasons.
Pitts was just another frustrating example of a good player saddled with a bad team, one who found himself shipped out of town when he still had plenty of quality football in front of him. For those four years with the Falcons, though, he was a fine player who is still impressively (and also depressingly) high on the franchise’s career sacks list.