What is the best jersey number in Atlanta sports history?
That simple question led me on a journey through time to find the answer. Icons can come packaged in every feasible way. Whether it be in a crisp clean single digit like No. 7 (Michael Vick), a classic like No. 21 (Deion Sanders, Dominique Wilkins) or a relatively unassuming numeral like 31 (Greg Maddux), each of these numbers means something in Atlanta sports lore.
Jersey History series: Nos. 1-5 | Nos. 6-10 | Nos. 11-15 | Nos. 16-20 | Nos. 21-25 | Nos. 26-30 | Nos. 31-35 | Nos. 36-40 | Nos. 41-45 | Nos. 46-50 | Nos. 51-55 | Nos. 56-60 | Nos. 61-65 | Nos. 66-70 | Nos. 71-75 | Nos. 76-80
Over the coming weeks, I’ll be unveiling my findings five jersey numbers at a time. I looked at each of the major sports franchises in the city’s history, from the Falcons, Braves, Hawks, Dream, United, Thrashers and Flames, all in order to catalog the definitive list of jersey numbers and whose worn them.
Before we get to the list, a few rules: A player had to play multiple seasons in Atlanta to be considered. I did not include any player who played for a franchise while it was located in another city; they had to have played in Atlanta.
To determine value and talent, I used a value-related stat for each sport such as Wins Above Replacement (baseball) or Point Share (hockey). Sometimes, I will make a subjective call. You may disagree, but that’s the fun of all of this, right? So, feel free to debate in the comments and let’s have a fun walk down memory lane. Let’s go!
Jersey No. 86
Best player: Falcons TE Jim Mitchell (1969-79)
Honorable mentions: Falcons WR Brian Finneran (2000-10)
Total number of Atlanta athletes to wear No. 86: 14
Summary: I don’t blame you if you think I ought to have switched the two players listed here; Brian Finneran was No. 86 for most of my childhood. But I worry there’s some recency bias at work here. Jim Mitchell was the first great tight end in Falcons history, and he was a really good player during an era where tight ends were used very differently. A fourth-round pick in 1969, Mitchell made the Pro Bowl as a rookie after starting every game. Mitchell followed that up with the best season of his career, catching 44 passes for 650 yards and six touchdowns. He made the Pro Bowl for a second and final time in 1972 when he gained nearly 500 yards and scored four touchdowns. Mitchell played in Atlanta for 11 years and finished with 155 starts. During that time, he caught 305 passes for 4,358 yards and 28 touchdowns.
Finneran is a true fan favorite. He was one of the most reliable receivers early in Michael Vick’s career and a good red-zone threat. Although he was a full-time starter really only twice during his nine-year run with the Falcons, Finneran was a key part of the receiver rotation. As a starter in 2002, Finneran put together his best season: 56 receptions for 838 yards and six touchdowns. When he wrapped up his time in Atlanta, Finneran had 3,072 yards and 19 touchdowns.
Jersey No. 87
Best player: Falcons DE Claude Humphrey (1968-78)
Honorable mentions: Falcons WR Bert Emanuel (1994-97)
Total number of Atlanta athletes to wear No. 87: 22
Summary: Claude Humphrey is undoubtedly one of the greatest Falcons defenders to ever play for Atlanta, and he may just be the best. A quick story: Back in the midst of the 2018 offseason, I began researching for some historical pieces I was writing for the upcoming season. That research led me to discover the historical archives in the team office up in Flowery Branch. In this archive (really just a cramped little room) there were books filled with cutouts from newspaper stories dating all the way back to the start of the franchise. I came across several about Humphrey, one even mentioning he was on pace for north of 20 sacks that particular season.
Sacks weren’t an official NFL stat until 1982, so this was my first real notion of how good he was as a pass rusher. Every single article had mention of Humphrey, and it was really eye-opening to see how respected he was during the time he played. The Hall of Famer left Atlanta after recording an unofficial 94.5 sacks and once had 15 in a season. A member of the Falcons Ring of Honor, Humphrey was as good as they come.
Jersey No. 88
Best player: Falcons TE Tony Gonzalez (2009-13)
Honorable mentions: None
Total number of Atlanta athletes to wear No. 88: 18
Summary: I started off the Alge Crumpler portion of this series by saying Tony Gonzalez’s arrival in Atlanta might have been the worst thing that could have happened to his legacy. It may have also been the very best thing that could have happened for Matt Ryan. The Falcons’ franchise quarterback has said many times that Gonzalez was instrumental in his development as a young player both on and off the field. Ryan had one of the best safety blankets in the league during his formative years as a professional, and he made the absolute most of it.
Gonzalez made the Pro Bowl in the last four of his five years with the Falcons, and he was named first-team All-Pro in 2012. He caught 409 passes for 4,187 yards and a whopping 35 touchdowns during those five seasons, and he went into the Hall of Fame representing the Falcons every bit as much as the Kansas City Chiefs. Now that’s saying something.
Jersey No. 89
Best player: Falcons WR Wallace Francis (1975-81)
Honorable mentions: None
Total number of Atlanta athletes to wear No. 89: 15
Summary: Wallace Francis isn’t exactly on the same level as Claude Humphrey or Tony Gonzalez but, hey, who is? Francis was in Atlanta for seven seasons and was a full-time starter for five of them. His best season came in 1979 when he caught 74 passes for 1,013 yards and eight touchdowns. Francis is perhaps known for his role in the famous play “Big Ben Right,” where he purposefully tipped the ball to fellow receiver Alfred Jackson, who scored a 57-yard touchdown. That score helped the Falcons beat the New Orleans Saints in the final seconds and ultimately reach the playoffs for the first time in team history.
Wallace caught 244 passes for 3,695 yards and 27 yards during his time in Atlanta, along with one play that will live forever.
Jersey No. 90
Best player: Falcons DE Chuck Smith (1992-99)
Honorable mentions: Falcons DT Grady Jackson (2006-08)
Total number of Atlanta athletes to wear No. 90: 9
Summary: Chuck Smith is one of the best pass rushers the Falcons have ever had. He had three seasons with double-digit sacks, including a career-high 12 in 1997. Smith was a key part of the Falcons’ 1998 Super Bowl run, and he had a sack that postseason.
I interviewed Smith once for a story, and I remember him talking about the two games he spent with the Carolina Panthers in 2000, his final NFL season. He said the amount of sacks he had on Panthers quarterbacks Kerry Collins and Steve Beuerlein over the years had created some real animosity between him and like half of the locker room. He had made true enemies because he was so dominant against Carolina, which is exactly the type of mentality every fan wants in a player.
Grady Jackson was, at the time I first saw him play for the Falcons, the biggest person I’d ever seen in my life. Jackson was a little bit of a journeyman in his 13-year NFL career, but some of his best seasons came in Atlanta. While he didn’t play a very flashy role, Jackson kept blockers off of Atlanta’s linebackers and allowed them to be very productive. Jackson was also another bridge between the Michael Vick and Matt Ryan eras, which earns him bonus points.
Next up: Nos. 91-95
Who is the best player to wear No. 85-90
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