As the Atlanta Falcons prepare to play in Super Bowl 51 against the New England Patriots, the route taken by the franchise during their existence has been one full of winding roads and precipitous detours. The team has managed to overcome a variety of obstacles over the years and it has led to them being just one win away from getting their very first Super Bowl trophy.
Rewind all the way back to 1966 when the Falcons played in their inaugural game against the Los Angeles Rams. Atlanta lost the game 19-14 and that would become a common theme in their first few seasons in the league as the team lost a combined 35 of their first 42 games played from 1966 to 1968.
The Falcons spent their first 26 years as an NFL franchise playing their home games in an outdoor venue known as Atlanta Stadium (the name of the facility was later changed to Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium in 1976). In addition to playing outdoors, the team also had to share their field with MLB’s Atlanta Braves from until 1992.
Coached by former NFL quarterback and Georgia native, Norm Van Brocklin in 1971, the Falcons ended the season with their first winning record in franchise history. Their 7-6-1 mark was not good enough to get them into the playoffs, but it was still something to be proud of for a team that seemed to be turning a corner.
However, that gleam of hope was short-lived as they were unable to get into the postseason until 1978. When they eventually did finally make it into the playoffs that year, Atlanta ended up winning their first matchup with the Philadelphia Eagles but then fell to the eventual NFC champion Dallas Cowboys the following week.
Their first 20 years of being a professional franchise were not exactly what one would deem as successful. During this time period, the Falcons had more head coaches (six) than winning seasons (five) and playoff wins (one).
Coming off a 3-12 season in 1987, Atlanta was rewarded with the first pick in the upcoming 1988 NFL Draft. For the Falcons, their selection was either going to be used on Auburn linebacker Aundray Bruce or Nebraska defensive end Neil Smith.
Atlanta went with Bruce and although he was an All-American during his college days, the linebacker never lived up to the expectations that came with being the number one overall draft selection. After starting 29 of his first 32 games with the Falcons, Bruce would go on to only start in 12 more games over the final nine seasons of his career.
Just one year later, Atlanta would enter the “Prime Time” era after they selected Florida State cornerback Deion Sanders with the fifth pick in the 1989 NFL Draft. Sanders immediately became the face of the franchise as his mesmerizing smile and flashiness on the football field captured the attention of the city.
Quickly after Sanders became a part of the Falcons, the team seemed to take on a new identity. Atlanta brought in the outspoken Jerry Glanville to coach the team in 1990 and also changed the team’s primary uniform color from red to black.
With new uniforms and a new coach, the Falcons entered the 90s as a much more brash franchise than in years past. The roster featured a number of polarizing players including Sanders, wide receiver Andre Rison, cornerback Tim McKyer, and young quarterback by the name of Brett Favre.
Along with the personalities on the team, the Falcons also saw celebrities wanting to join them on the sidelines for all the fun. Popular musician (at the time) MC Hammer was a frequent attendee to Atlanta’s games as was world champion boxer Evander Holyfield.
During this time, the Falcons also moved into a new home at the Georgia Dome in 1992. No longer would the team have to share a stadium with a baseball team or have to deal with the erratic weather that would sometimes be present during their games at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium.
Despite the new attitude and their new home, no legitimate success was actually achieved during Glanville’s time as the Falcons’ head coach. During his four seasons, Atlanta finished with a winning record just once.
After Glanville was fired and Sanders left the team via free-agency in 1994, the franchise was left scrambling and opted to trade for quarterback Jeff George. Before landing with the Falcons, George had spent his first four NFL seasons with the Indianapolis Colts, who drafted him first overall in 1990.
With a new quarterback and a new head coach in June Jones, Atlanta seemed poised to find their way back into the playoffs.
A trip to the postseason eventually did happen in 1995, but that was then followed up by a 3-13 season in 1996 which led to Jones being shown the door. Their struggles that year likely had something to do with the head coach deciding to suspend George for the remainder of the season after just three games following a heated argument between the two during a nationally televised matchup with the Philadelphia Eagles.
Following the season, the Falcons traded the quarterback away to the Oakland Raiders and hired Dan Reeves to come in and be the team’s new head coach. Reeves had achieved success previously in his coaching career when he was able to help lead the Denver Broncos to three Super Bowl appearances in four seasons.
Atlanta was hoping that the 53-year-old coach could help lead their franchise all the way to the league’s biggest game.
After just two years, the team’s vision actually came to fruition when they managed to win the NFC in 1998 and play in Super Bowl XXXIII against the Broncos. Led by workhorse running back Jamal Anderson (1,846 yards on 410 carries) and his “Dirty Bird” touchdown dance, the Falcons season in 1998 is one that their fans still talk about to this day.
But their success under Reeves did not last very long as Atlanta only managed to win a combined total of nine games in 1999 and 2000. However, their lack of success in 2000 did allow them to land the number one selection in the 2001 NFL Draft after a trade with the San Diego Chargers.
With the pick, Atlanta opted to select Virginia Tech quarterback Michael Vick. The quarterback did not play much during his rookie season, but the speed and quickness he immediately brought to the table was not something that the league had ever seen before from a quarterback.
In 2002, the team was sold to Home Depot co-founder Arthur Blank for $545 million. Blank became the franchise’s third owner in team history and the first to not have any relation to the team’s original founder in Rankin Smith.
Later that year, the 22-year-old Vick was named the team’s starter under center and his ability to throw like Brett Favre and run like Barry Sanders led the Falcons all the way to the playoffs. Atlanta eventually lost in the postseason to the Eagles, but the team knew they had something special in their young quarterback.
However, the franchise’s dream of Vick leading them to years of success would have to wait a little longer as the quarterback suffered a broken leg during the 2003 preseason that kept him out of the Falcons’ first 12 games of the season. Without their top player in the lineup for most of the year, Atlanta finished the season with just five wins and it ultimately led to the team firing Reeves.
Before the start of the 2004 season, the Falcons decided on former San Francisco 49ers defensive coordinator Jim L. Mora to become the 12th head coach in the team’s history. Mora was 18 years younger than Reeves and Atlanta was hoping that his age would do well with their youthful roster.
So with a healthy Vick, a new coach in Mora, and some fancy new uniforms, the Falcons began 2004 on fire, winning nine of their first 11 games of the season. Atlanta finished the year atop their division with an 11-5 record and clinched a first round playoff bye.
The Falcons did manage to make it to that season’s NFC Championship, but the Eagles proved to be too tough of the matchup and sent Atlanta back home with a loss.
After the season ended, the Falcons looked to be on the track for years of success with their coach and player combo of Vick and Mora. To ensure that their quarterback would remain with the team for the entirety of his career, Atlanta signed Vick to a gigantic 10-year, $130 million contract during the offseason.
As it seemed to be for much of the Falcons’ time as an NFL franchise, their success in 2004 was unfortunately not something that would be repeated during their next two seasons. Atlanta missed the playoffs in both 2005 and 2006, despite Vick missing just one game, and it resulted in the Falcons deciding to relieve Mora of his duties as the team’s head coach.
Six days after Mora was fired, Atlanta brought in Bobby Petrino to coach the team. Petrino spent a majority of his coaching career in the college ranks before landing with the Falcons in 2005.
Hired for his ability to build a successful offense, Atlanta felt that Petrino could turn Vick into a more well-rounded quarterback and not just some gimmicky gunslinger.
But the new Falcons coach would never get the opportunity to coach the team’s star quarterback as Vick found himself in the middle of a major dog-fighting scandal that resulted in the quarterback receiving a jail sentence and an indefinite suspension from the NFL.
With their best player unable to play, Atlanta had a an abysmal season in 2007 that their fans are still trying to forget. Not only did the Falcon finish the year with a 4-12 record, but they also lost their brand new coach in Petrino to the University of Arkansas.
13 games into his first year as Atlanta’s head coach, Petrino unexpectedly resigned to become the head coach at Arkansas. It was a move that no one in the franchise saw coming and one that many in the organization deemed as cowardly.
So now with no quarterback and no coach, the Falcons had to basically start from scratch yet again during the upcoming offseason. Luckily for Atlanta, they were able to land a talented young quarterback in Matt Ryan during that spring’s draft and hire a solid new head coach in Mike Smith.
Despite basically having to build a new team, the Falcons managed to achieve a bunch of success during Smith’s first few years as the team’s head coach.
With an offense led by Ryan, running back Michael Turner, and wide receiver Roddy White, Atlanta clinched a playoff berth in four of Smith’s first five seasons. In 2012, the Falcons made it all the way to the NFC Championship with the help of even more weapons on offense in wide receiver Julio Jones and tight end Tony Gonzalez.
Atlanta came up just short of the Super Bowl once again that year, but the future of the franchise seemed to be heading in a positive direction. At least that is what everyone assumed.
But those who have rooted for the Falcons throughout their existence already knew that almost anything could happen during a season no matter how successful the team was in the previous year.
In 2013, Atlanta got off to a horrible start that they just could not recover from as they lost nine of their first 11 games and finished the year with a 4-12 record. The following season was much of the same for the Falcons as they lost six of their first eight games and ended 2014 with an unimpressive 6-10 record.
Their lack of success in both 2013 and 2014 really left Atlanta with no other choice than to fire Smith.
That leads us to the Falcons’ current head coach in Dan Quinn. With their defense ranked near the bottom of the NFL, Atlanta opted to hire a guy in Quinn who was credited for much of the success achieved on defense by the Seattle Seahawks during his time as their defensive coordinator from 2013 to 2014.
In 2015, a change in leadership immediately proved to be helpful for the Falcons as they won six of their first seven games. However, the excitement from the early part of the season eventually turned into disappointment at the end of the year as Atlanta finished with an 8-8 record and missed out on a chance to play in the postseason.
For this most recent season, it was the last year in which the Falcons played their home games at the Georgia Dome. After 25 seasons, Atlanta will be opening the brand-new, state of the art, billion dollar Mercedes-Benz Stadium in 2017.
For the Falcons, their new home will hopefully mark the beginning of a new era. One that amounts to consistent success year after year.
As for this season, Atlanta will be attempting to end their year like no team in the franchise’s history has done before them. One that has them celebrating in a sea of confetti and hoisting the Vince Lombardi trophy in the air.