My first instinct when I kept seeing Stephen Nicholas pop up as a suggestion for this year’s Forgotten Falcons series was pretty simple: How could anyone forget about Stephen Nicholas?
That’s my own bias showing through. perhaps, because Nicholas was one of my favorite players of the Mike Smith era in Atlanta. A consistent contributor, useful special teamer and one of the team’s best defenders in that magical 2012 season, he was a very useful player and an easy one to like. The story of how Nicholas played a 16 game season while his infant son battled heart problems that eventually required a transplant is a story worth telling in and of itself.
Even if he’s not as forgotten as other players on the list—I hope—I’ll never pass up a chance to remember a favorite. Let’s talk Stephen Nicholas.
Time in Atlanta: 2007-2013
Statistics as a Falcon: 101 games, 50 starts, 378 combined tackles, 8 sacks, 2 interceptions, 12 pass deflections, 5 forced fumbles, 4 fumble recoveries, 18 tackles for loss
What he’s best known for: Being one of the team’s most consistent defenders during the 2012 NFC Conference Championship season
The Falcons scooped up Nicholas in the 4th round of the 2007 draft out of South Florida, picking up a linebacker who had 31 tackles for loss and 14.5 sacks over the 2005 and 2006 seasons. Atlanta had a ton of draft capital that year and wound up snagging the great Justin Blalock at guard, multi-year starter Chris Houston at cornerback, and the legendary Jason Snelling at running back in addition to massive bust Jamaal Anderson, but Nicholas would go down as one of their finest picks of the year.
It took a while for that to come to fruition for Nicholas, who got to “enjoy” a rookie season marred by Bobby Petrino squirming out of town like the gutless worm he is, Michael Vick’s arrest and sentencing and a generally miserable series of games that left the Falcons 4-12 and dead last in the NFC South. He managed a sack but didn’t get any starts, and he continued to toil as a (admittedly valued) reserve in 2008 over 16 games once Mike Smith and company came to town and lifted the team’s fortunes.
His play in 2008 wound up catching Smith’s eyes enough to earn him his first shot at a real starting role in 2009, which is all the more remarkable when you consider what he was dealing with off the field. As Pat Yasinskas at ESPN wrote, Nicholas and his wife Irene spent 2008 agonizing over the fate of their infant son Stephen Nicholas Jr., who was born in January and was discovered to have cardiomyopathy, making it difficult for his heart to pump blood throughout his body, which required medication and eventually a life-saving heart transplant. Mike Smith supported Nicholas by ensuring he could fly to Boston where his son was being treated after every game and take Mondays and Tuesdays off, teammates helped take care of travel expenses, and the great director of player programs Kevin Winston (who was let go from the organization this spring) kept tabs on the family and offered the help they needed.
Happily for the Nicholases, his son’s heart transplant was successful, and the Falcons liked what they saw out of Nicholas enough to let Michael Boley and Keith Brooking walk, giving him a crack at a starting job. Nicholas responded by putting together a quality season, starting 13 games, managing 3 sacks, and generally rewarding the team’s faith in him. Injuries took a bite out of his 2011 season, but Nicholas would play all but 6 games and start 37 from 2009-2012, consistently providing well-rounded play and nose for tackling the ball carrier for a team that needed consistency and reliability. He was twice named the Falcons’ State Farm player of the week
His finest year came at an opportune time. During the 2012 season, Nicholas started a career-high 15 games and led the team in tackles, providing his usual rock solid run defense and finishing 6th on the team in sacks. Nicholas was part of a solid, opportunistic defense that conspired with Dirk Koetter’s finest Atlanta offense to propel Atlanta all the way to the NFC Conference Championship Game. Nicholas would go into the playoffs a bit injured, something that may have impacted him during the game against the 49ers, when he was one of several Falcons to struggle with containing Vernon Davis and company. Still, had the referees not missed a crucial holding call, Nicholas and company might’ve gotten their shot at the first Super Bowl in Falcons history. I’m not bitter at all.
The 2013 season would be Nicholas’ final one with the Falcons and his final in the NFL, as the Falcons picked up Joplo Bartu as an undrafted free agent and elected to start him, meaning Nicholas spent finished his last season as mostly a reserve who made three starts. The Falcons cut him following the 2013 season as part of a rolling two year purge of veterans that unfortunately did not significantly improve the team’s fortunes in 2014, and Nicholas would retire without signing with another team, something that happened far too often to players who were cut by Atlanta.
From there, Nicholas moved into coaching, beginning with a three year stint as a defensive quality control coach with his alma mater from 2015-2017. Even though I was not in any way happy to see the Buccaneers win the Super Bowl, Nicholas has been a defensive quality control coach for them for the past three seasons and got to enjoy a Super Bowl run. At least something good came of that. He’ll remain in that role in 2021, hopefully finding great success, even if the Bucs hopefully don’t.
Nicholas was one of several solid defenders who made the Mike Smith-era Falcons tick, and his sure tackling and habit of being in the right place at the right time to make a play made him fun to watch and easy to root for.