Elegy for a Season: What the Falcons Taught Me
Dan O’Brien, Features Editor
I didn’t actually watch the end of the game. I saw maybe one snap of overtime. By then, I already knew how it was going to end. I had to get out of the house.
To be honest, even at halftime, when my birds were up by 18… I already sort of knew. A week before the Super Bowl, a friend asked for my prediction. I texted back, “We’re up 20 at the half and blow it in the 4th quarter.” So, I was a couple points off.
I remember checking ESPN’s odds as the 3rd quarter was bleeding away. At 28-3, I read an unnerving 99.5% chance of Arthur Blank hoisting the Lombardi Trophy. I started to believe. The Atlanta Falcons, those dirtiest of birds, who had spent the better part of two decades torturing me, might actually pull it off. I moved to Atlanta in summer 1999, months after the Falcons flamed out against the Broncos in Super Bowl XXXIII. That was my first taste of NFL football. I shrugged it off because it wasn’t really my city yet, but before long, I couldn’t leave it alone. Jamal Anderson, key to the Falcons’ ground game in the late 90’s and yin to quarterback Chris Chandler’s lethargic yang, blew out his knee early in the ’99 season, then again in ‘01. We hit bottom.
But then came hope. A kid named Mike Vick marched the Falcons to Lambeau in January 2003, a place where no visiting team had won a playoff game in literally one billion years, and came away with a 27-7 victory. It was then that I believed. If you played Madden 2004, you know Mike was basically a cheat code. You could play franchise mode and rack up 6,000 + 3,000 (passing/rushing) yard, 16-0 seasons without batting an eye.
But then humiliation, ignominy, cruelty, rage. On any given Sunday, with Mike out there, the Falcons were a contender. We believed he could do anything. He was inconsistent at best, but it didn’t matter. If he really wanted to, he could be Superman on the field. I believed it. Even when I watched helicopter footage of federal agents raiding his property in Virginia and my brain told me he was guilty, my heart said he was innocent. I was wrong of course. He pled guilty and did his time. I won’t mince words – I know what he did was terrible. I grew up with dogs, and my 60-pound pit bull shares the bed with me almost every night. Still, I only threw out my Vick #7 jersey last year when I knew we were moving to Manhattan.
My wife was born in western Massachusetts and, of course, grew up a Patriots fan. There’s no denying the fact that football is about more than winning. It brings people together. It helps make memories. Win or lose, you remember who you were with when you watched the game. But god damn it, if you’re under 30 and a Patriots fan, you were born on third base – please don’t act like you hit a triple. I told her that we probably shouldn’t watch the game in the same room – I’d get too amped and be screaming or depressed or some combination thereof. Again, in hindsight, I was right. She took videos of me squealing and dancing through the first half. Mercifully, she stopped in the 4th quarter.
Matt Ryan was always an enigma to me. He was a solid player, but his ceiling was never as high as Mike’s. He was a regular, if perhaps slightly above average, quarterback – the type from whom physics-defying feats of athleticism are neither expected nor common. Hype aside, I don’t think we ever expected as much from Matty as we did from Mike. Somehow, he gave us more. Before Matty, the Falcons had never strung together back-to-back winning seasons. He gave us 5 in a row. When we slumped between 2013 and 2015, we were suddenly back to those incredibly terrestrial Falcons – the kind who, some years before, got a tiny lead and immediately squandered it by handing off to 187-pound Warrick Dunn 3 times and then punting.
Atlanta, frankly, is not an NFL town. The typical Atlanta sports fan prefers the Georgia Bulldogs, 70 miles away in Athens, to the Falcons. Only about half of the kids I went to high school with would even call themselves casual Falcons fans. But Atlanta knows how to rally. These Falcons, not even the best iteration of the last decade (in my opinion), gave us something to rally around. Until they didn’t.
What to do with that kind of loss… the purpose of this article. Tom and Bill’s comeback was the story of the day, cementing both as the GOAT in their respective positions. On the other side –the story drowned in adulation for the Brady-Belichick-Kraft hydra – was perhaps the most devastating loss in the history of the league. What to take away from something like that? What to believe or how to move on?
I fully understand that this is absolutely a “first world problem” – an existential crisis spurred by the televised spectacle of a game – but I still want it to mean something. All I’ve got so far feels trite and hollow.
Lesson 1: Sometimes, even when everything seemed to be going your way, life will punch you in the face for half an hour plus overtime.
Lesson 2: I don’t know. Maybe punch yourself in the face for good measure.
Lesson 3: Don’t be an Atlanta Falcons fan.
Lesson 4: Know that you might never get where you wanted to be.
Lesson 5: If you come up short, make sure the ride was worth it.