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Forgotten Falcons: Bert Emanuel

Emanuel was a mighty useful receiver for four years in Atlanta, and never reached those heights again after leaving.

Atlanta Falcons v Washington Redskins Photo by Mitchell Layton/Getty Images

Apparently, all our forgotten Falcons in 2021 are going to be guys who were strong contributors for four years and then moved on to other teams. That was true of Mike Pitts, who we profiled earlier this week, and it’s true of Bert Emanuel.

Emanuel doesn’t get mentioned among the great receivers the Falcons have ever had, which is understandable when you overlapped with Andre Rison and Terance Mathis and you never reached the heights of a Roddy White, Alfred Jenkins, or Julio Jones. While Calvin Ridley and eventually Kyle Pitts seem sure to pass him, Emanuel’s brief peak leaves him 11th all-time in franchise history for receiving yards, 12th for receptions and 12th for touchdowns, the product of being a top option in an extremely pass-happy offense for four straight seasons.

Unlike a lot of the suggestions I’ve received over the years for this series, which tends to feature guys like Kroy Biermann and Thomas DeCoud who are still fairly well-known in the fanbase, Emanuel’s name doesn’t come up very often. Let’s dive into what makes him worth remembering, including both his stint in Atlanta and a very memorable way in which the NFL wronged him.

Time in Atlanta: 1994-1997

Statistics as a Falcon: 62 games, 61 starts, 496 targets, 260 receptions, 52.4% catch rate, 3,600 yards, 13.8 yards per reception, 24 touchdowns; 7 rushes for 13 yards, 1 pass attempt and 1 interception

Notable trivia: A terrible review and overturned catch by Emanuel led to the creation of a rule change that came to be commonly referred as the “Bert Emanuel Rule”

Emanuel joined the Falcons as part of an entirely remade passing game. Jerry Glanville was ousted after the 1993 season in favor of June Jones, who brought his Run n’ Shoot offense to Atlanta with cannon-armed quarterback Jeff George at the helm. The sole major contributor in the passing game to return was leading receiver Andre Rison, as leading 1993 receivers Mike Pritchard, Michael Haynes and Drew Hill all were gone after 1993. In their places, the Falcons signed free agent Ricky Sanders and the legendary Terance Mathis, and added a second round rookie out of Rice.

That was Emanuel, who was Atlanta’s first selection of 1994 and went one pick ahead of Hall of Famer Larry Allen. The Falcons’ passing game needed several capable receivers to fire on all cylinders, and Jones and the front office took a shine to the converted college quarterback, who had just finished a season at Rice where he threw for 12 touchdowns and rushed for nearly 500 yards, but caught exactly zero passes. While it’s not easy to go from not catching a pass in your college career to a productive receiver, that didn’t stop him from being the team’s fourth-leading receiver in 1994, snagging 46 catches for 649 yards and 4 touchdowns.

The next year was arguably Emanuel’s finest, and it helped fuel a playoff run for Atlanta. With Andre Rison out of the picture, Emanuel wound up second on the team in targets and receptions behind Eric Metcalf, and reeled in 74 catches for 1,039 yards and 5 touchdowns. He followed that up with 75 grabs for 921 yards and 6 touchdowns in 14 games in 1996, capping off his Falcons career with 65 grabs for 991 yards and 9 touchdowns in 1997. Over four seasons, Emanuel was a volume target for Atlanta passers and one of the team’s most effective deep threats, complementing Mathis effectively and actually leading the Falcons in targets in both ‘96 and ‘97.

But good things don’t last, especially in Atlanta. In 1998, Emanuel left the Falcons for the Buccaneers in free agency, narrowly missing out on being part of Atlanta’s Super Bowl squad. The team traded for Tony Martin to replace his downfield acumen, and Martin would have a brilliant season as part of one of the league’s best offenses. Emanuel unfortunately struggled with injuries and caught just 63 passes for 874 yards and 3 touchdowns over two years in Tampa Bay, winding down his career as a part-time player for the Patriots, Lions and Dolphins. He finished his career with 351 catches for 4,852 yards and 28 touchdowns, a fine resume that likely would’ve been more impressive if various ailments hadn’t taken a bite out of his speed and availability.

Still, how many college quarterbacks with zero history of playing receiver at the collegiate level wind up having a career like Emanuel’s? Only Antwaan Randle-El and Julian Edelman readily spring to mind, and Emanuel wound up being a foundational piece of some very fun Falcons offenses, even if it was only for a brief while.

Unfortunately, that’s not the whole story for Emanuel. In his post-Atlanta playing career, Emanuel earned fame not for a catch that brought the Buccaneers to the Super Bowl, as he might have expected, but an awful review and overturned catch that led to the NFL making a rule change named after him.

In the NFC Conference Championship Game following the 1999 season, Emanuel made a 12 yard catch on 2nd and 23 with time dwindling and the Bucs within striking distance of a touchdown that would’ve brought them to the Super Bowl over the Rams. Multiple things would have had to go right from there—it’s not guarantee that the Bucs would’ve found their way into the end zone on 3rd and 11 from just outside the red zone—but it kept the drive alive and put Tampa Bay within striking distance. Emanuel was stunned to learn that the officiating crew was reviewing the catch—it was the first season of instant replay in the NFL—and more stunned when they overturned it because they ruled the tip of the ball had touched the ground even though he maintained control throughout the reception.

This story outlines how haunted Emanuel was by that, and it was little consolation to him that the league swiftly changed the rule that cost the Bucs a shot at the Super Bowl, given that it was effectively an admission that the league had screwed him over. It’s a shame that a talented player who did everything he could to give his team a legitimate shot at a Super Bowl was left bitter by the NFL’s mistake.

That offseason, the NFL changed the rule, which came to be known as the “Bert Emanuel Rule,” which meant that the ball can touch the ground as long as the player maintains control of it through the process.

Emanuel’s son, Bert Emanuel Jr., is a high school quarterback who will enter the college ranks in 2022, so there’s always the chance the Falcons will wind up having two generations of Emanuels on the team at some point. For the moment, though, it’s worth remembering the four terrific years Emanuel gave the Falcons back in the 90s, and the way he unwittingly changed the game for the better, even if the NFL still struggles to define what a catch is all these many years later.

Do you have any favorite Bert Emanuel moments?