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Forgotten Falcons: Bob Lee

One of the first quarterbacks to helm a winning team in Atlanta, Lee’s career with the Falcons was brief and very weird.

San Francisco 49ers v Atlanta Falcons Photo by Michael Zagaris/Getty Images

Bob Lee is somewhat unusual in the annals of Forgotten Falcons because he spent very little time in Atlanta, something you’ll see more of as we dig into some deep cut fan suggestions over the next couple of weeks. He’s also unusual in the history of the team for another reason: He was the quarterback when the Falcons had a winning season, something that happened just four times in the first 15 years of the franchise and had happened just once before to this point.

Unlike Bob Berry and Steve Bartkowski, who were long-term starters for Atlanta and Pro Bowlers, Lee stuck around for just two seasons and did not get to enjoy any playoff runs with the Falcons. His brief time in the city featured some appreciable highs and epic lows, though, which makes him in some ways the platonic ideal of a Falcons quarterback.

Let’s take a look back at the brief Bob Lee years. Buckle up.

Time in Atlanta: 1973-1974

Stats: 21 games, 19 starts, 198/402 completions/attempts, 49.3% completion percentage, 13 touchdown passes, 22 interceptions, 6.6 yards per attempt, 59 sacks

What he’s known for: Being the only quarterback in NFL history to post a perfect passer rating and a zero passer rating in the same season

The 1973 season defines Lee’s career, not just with the Falcons but overall. A 17th round pick of the Vikings back in 1968, Lee started just 6 games in four seasons with Minnesota and might’ve languished forever as a backup had he not moved to Atlanta following the 1972 season.

Let’s back up to the good stuff, but first, you have to understand about Lee’s 1973 season is the context in which it happened. In 1973, stud quarterbacks Roman Gabriel and Roger Staubach led the NFL in touchdowns...with 23 each, which was 4 touchdowns more than Billy Kilmer and Joe Namath managed the year before when they led the league. Gabriel’s league-leading 3,219 yards were the highest total a quarterback had managed since Sonny Jurgensen put up a then-record 3,747 in 1967. In that context, Lee’s 10 touchdowns and 1,786 yards in just 12 games and 10 starts was pretty damn good, and it put him 13th and 10th respectively in the entire NFL.

Even more remarkable, Lee wasn’t even the starter to begin the year. That was Dick Shiner, he of the perhaps the best name in NFL history and a man who posted a perfect passer rating in the wonderful 62-7 beatdown of the Saints in Week 1, one of the single greatest games in franchise history. Unfortunately for Shiner and the Falcons, the glow of beating a sad sack rival by 55 points wouldn’t last, as Shiner and company lost the next three games by a combined 75-13 margin. Because Dick had lost his shine (I’m sorry), a desperate Norm Van Brocklin took a break from spitting hornets out of his mouth in Week 4 to insert Lee into the lineup, and he at least looked competent out there in his limited action.

Atlanta’s fortunes turned dramatically once they decided to switch to Lee. They won their next two games by a combined score of 87-6, stomping the Bears and Chargers into jelly. Lee was particularly crisp against the Bears, completing 11 of 13 passes for 181 yards and 2 touchdowns and putting up a perfect passer rating, and the Falcons would rattle off seven wins in a row to bring them to 8-3. Lee swung between being a big part of the team’s success Their spot in the playoffs seemed secure, but these are the Atlanta Falcons, so you know what happens next.

Lee and the team were destroyed by the Bills, as the quarterback was sacked 4 times and completed just 9 of 22 passes. Things got worse against a 3-8-1 Cardinals team that Atlanta should’ve blown out of the water, as he completed just 3 of 16 passes for a 0.0 passer rating and St. Louis ran all over a porous Falcons run defense. A win against the Saints in Week 14 capped off a winning season but Atlanta missed the postseason, and those brutal final weeks would foreshadow Lee’s 1974. Following the 1973 season, though, it must have been possible to feel like this team was going somewhere.

To say Lee was bad in 1974 would be an understatement, as he threw just 3 touchdown passes and 14 interceptions in 9 starts, helping to doom Van Brocklin in Atlanta for good in the middle of a 3-11 season. This also kickstarted the Marion Campbell era in Falcons history, which made no sense given that Campbell went 1-5 as the interim coach but whatever. From there, Lee went back to the Vikings for four more seasons, picking up 5 starts and going 4-1 in them before finishing the final two years of his career as a reserve with the Rams. He finished a 14 year run with 77 games played, 30 starts, 30 touchdowns, and 40 interceptions as an NFL quarterback, a fairly unique career that mirrored players like Dick Shiner and Ty Detmer but lasted a lot longer.

We didn’t even mention that Lee punted in a Super Bowl for the Vikings, or that he punted 156 times in the regular season in his NFL career, managing nearly 40 yards per punt. We didn’t mention that he participated in three Super Bowls and threw a touchdown pass in one of them for the Vikings, or that he started an NFC Conference Championship Game for an injured Fran Tarkenton, because those weren’t a part of his Falcons story.

Lee wound up sticking around 12 years in the NFL, had one brief shining moment as a starter, and took part in three Super Bowls as a reserve. It’s not the most illustrious career we’ll profile here by a long shot, but it’s an interesting one, and Lee deserves credit for nearly helping this team to their first playoff berth ever in 1973.