The last 12 months have been a great stretch for the sad sports fan. The Cavaliers brought Cleveland its first title since the 1960s; the Cubs won the World Series for the first time since 1908. But with the Falcons a game away from their first championship, we haven’t heard much about their fans’ suffering, even though the team born in the same year as the Super Bowl has yet to win one.
The story of the Atlanta Falcons isn’t one of tragic failures. They’ve been to the Super Bowl only once, but they’ve also had a record bad enough to seal the no. 1 pick in the NFL draft only once, back in 1987. They have existed somewhere in between.
Their legacy stands in stark contrast to the Patriots’, who have had more consecutive 10-win seasons than the Falcons have ever had 10-win seasons. After the AFC championship game, I joked that Patriots fans see the Super Bowl primarily as an opportunity to exact revenge on Roger Goodell for his mishandling of Deflategate while fans of virtually every other team would be excited just to be on the largest stage in American sports. A few people told me I was rude for painting Patriots fans with a broad brush — fair, that was probably wrong of me — but far more told me that of course that was how they were viewing it and that I was dumb for implying that was weird.
The Falcons don’t need a story line: If they win this Super Bowl, it will be the greatest moment in franchise history.
Rack your mind — what is the coolest, greatest thing you can remember the Atlanta Falcons doing?
There really aren’t a ton of options. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution made a list of the team’s greatest moments last year to commemorate the Falcons’ 50th anniversary. No. 5 was a 1975 draft-day trade for a quarterback who has never been considered for the Hall of Fame. No. 2 was a playoff game in which the Falcons blew a 20-point lead before winning — only to blow a 17-point lead and lose a week later.
So what is the greatest moment in Falcons history? Here’s our attempt at figuring it out.
Being 2 Legit 2 Quit
Deion Sanders was the league’s best cornerback, a touchdown threat on every kick and punt return and even a weapon at wide receiver. And his dynamism looked best when he was in the Falcons’ early ’90s black-on-black. Sanders’s swag got the Falcons heavy placement in MC Hammer’s “2 Legit 2 Quit” video. He and Andre Rison appeared — OK. And so was head coach Jerry Glanville, drawing up a “2 Legit 2 Quit” play on the whiteboard — what?
Nothing about this team was normal: Glanville drove race cars in the offseason; Sanders played baseball. NFL coaches and players aren’t really supposed to do either. Glanville wore cowboy hats; Sanders wore a black bandana. That they existed side by side was Atlanta as hell. “2 Legit 2 Quit” became a team anthem, and the Falcons made the playoffs the same year the song skied up the charts.
But “2 Legit 2 Quit” really had little to do with the team. Its appearance in the video is a relatively small part of one of the weirdest works of pop culture ever produced, a 15-minute disaster featuring an extended Jim Belushi monologue, James Brown sitting on a throne, cameos from Henry Winkler and Tony Danza, and a Michael Jackson impersonator admitting via sequined glove that Hammer was in fact the better dancer. If you’re not doing anything for the next 15 minutes, please watch.
For all their coolness, these Falcons never amounted to much. Jerry Glanville’s distaste for Brett Favre and decision to trade him after his rookie season may have cost the Falcons countless successes. Sanders turned out not to be too legit to quit, leaving the team in 1994 and winning titles with the 49ers and Cowboys. Despite playing five seasons for the Falcons, his most meaningful accomplishment in Atlanta was hitting over .500 in the 1992 World Series.
At least they had a cool video.
The 1998 NFC Championship Game
The NFC championship game following the 1998 season got Dan Reeves to attempt dancing and had a fascinating finish that people from only Atlanta and Minnesota seem to remember.
Remember the principle of Chekhov’s Special Teams. If we establish that a kicker is unbelievably good in the first act, he has to miss a critical kick in the second. And that’s what happened in that NFC championship game, one of the silliest NFL things we don’t talk about as much as we should.
The Vikings should have gone to — and probably should have won — Super Bowl XXXIII. They had a 36-year-old Randall Cunningham throwing to rookie behemoth Randy Moss and an in-his-prime Cris Carter, plus one of the best defenses in football. As a bonus, their kicker had the best season ever: Gary Anderson became the first kicker in NFL history to hit every one of his field goals and extra points, including 14 kicks from 40 or more yards.
And then, after a perfect regular season, he missed a 38-yard field goal with just over two minutes left that would’ve put the Vikings up 10. Atlanta drove down the field, tied the game, and won in overtime on a kick by Morten Andersen. (Andersen: Denmark and the Falcons; Anderson: South Africa and the Vikings.)
Prior to this season, that victory was generally regarded to be the greatest moment the Falcons have ever had — the Journal-Constitution named it that, as did a poll of Falcons fans on the team’s website and the blog The Falcoholic. Falcons fans call it “The Kick,” even though Andersen’s kick was a regular one and Anderson’s miss is the one that changed the course of history. It’s the best thing to ever happen to the Falcons, but the story feels more like the worst thing ever to happen to the Vikings.
Super Bowl XXXIII
Actually, let’s not talk about that.
Let’s talk about this fictional scenario I made up instead. It’s more fun.
Michael Vick’s OT Game Winner Against the Vikings in 2002
Shoulda warned Vikings fans not to read this. Sorry.
After a play fake, Vick dropped back to pass, but he wouldn’t throw the ball until he was celebrating in the end zone. He started running at his team’s own 45-yard line; he wouldn’t stop until he reached the tunnel to the locker room.
The best part is when Vick coaxes two Vikings to smash into each other, shared losers in a game of chicken neither knew they were playing. This is how helpless Vick made defenses look: They could try to tackle him at Point A, but he’d already decided how he was going to get from Point C to D.
That year was Vick’s first season as a full-time starter after being the first-overall pick in the 2001 draft, and he proved to be something the NFL had never seen. This run gave the Falcons an overtime win over the Vikings that extended an unbeaten streak to eight games. It also gave Vick 173 yards on the day, which, at the time, set an NFL record for most rushing yards by a quarterback.
Beating the Packers at Lambeau
Vick’s first full season ended with a trip to the playoffs, where the Falcons faced Green Bay, a team that had never lost at home in the playoffs. Not only did the Falcons win, they torched the Packers, taking a 24–0 lead by halftime and ultimately winning 27–7. Atlanta picked off Favre twice — good trade, I guess! — and Vick shoved Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila off the field during a play.
At the end of that video, Arthur Blank tells Vick, “You made history today, and you did it at 22 years old. Stop and think about that!” I think that’s what we were all thinking. I couldn’t tell whether Vick was about to usher in a new era of NFL quarterbacks, or whether Vick was so freakin’ talented that nobody could replicate him. Either way, I wanted to watch.
Bo Jackson in Tecmo Super Bowl is the greatest manifestation of a real, live human in a football video game. But that came at a time when there was no element of realism in video games. Tecmo Bo is a two-dimensional blip with inaccurate body proportions that might be holding a football. The game’s way of making Jackson a good running back was programming him to be four or five times faster than any defender, and thus capable of running thousands of yards on just one play. His dominance was explained by the unsophistication of early video games.
The Madden series is supposed to display elements of realism. The characters look, act, and move like real humans. If you play zone defense instead of man you might get burned by crossing routes. In the series’ nearly 30 years of video games, it has never created a player as unrealistic as Michael Vick in Madden 2004.
(You guys don’t know how many videos of loud guys playing Madden in their homes I had to watch just to find one that was tolerable.)
Vick, who appeared on the game’s cover, was its fastest runner and best thrower. The result was a player so dominant that even the least-reasonable children in America agreed that using the Falcons was an unfair advantage in a friendly game. Every play, you could roll out and sprint toward the line of scrimmage with Vick, and opponents would have to choose whether to try to stop him or stick with his receivers. Either choice was the wrong one.
Over a decade later, he still stands out. When Madden named its all-time game team in 2013, 2004 Vick was named the quarterback, and pro gamers waxed poetic about Vick’s pixelated brilliance. Madden developers seemed to think that Vick caused an existential crisis for the game. The next year they vastly souped up defenses and two years later they introduced the “vision cone” in a failed attempt to make life harder for running quarterbacks.
Unlike Tecmo Bo, Vick in 2004 seemed like a real attempt at reckoning with a player’s abilities. Madden’s developers reportedly grappled with how good they were making Vick, but couldn’t justify making him slower after grading his on-field performances in his first full season as a starter. His video game capabilities seemed to ask real questions about the NFL — how could defenses stop somebody with such preposterous physical talents?
We never really found out. Vick’s career in Atlanta started with infinite promise; it ended with him paying $6.5 million back to the Falcons to make up for the fact that they paid him for seasons he spent in prison. Vick’s dogfighting conviction ended his Atlanta tenure and cost him two years of his prime. His post-suspension career was actually decent — he made a Pro Bowl and stayed in the league until he was 35 — but he was no longer an undeniable superstar. Nobody wanted him to be the face of their franchise; few even wanted him to be a backup. And as big of a Vick fan as I was when he burst onto the scene, I could never quite love him for torturing and killing dogs. Dogs, man!
In real life, Vick fell short. But video game Vick has none of the real version’s flaws. He always lives up to his talents on the field, and he never steps off of it.
In early December the Falcons were 7–5 with three losses to sub-.500 teams. They were above average, which is better than many Falcons teams have been, but they didn’t seem like potential champions.
Then the switch flipped. They’ve won six straight while averaging 39 points per game. Over that stretch Matt Ryan has completed 72.8 percent of his passes with a preposterous 9.5 yards per attempt. He’s thrown 18 touchdowns and no interceptions. As ESPN’s Bill Barnwell pointed out, this six-game run by Ryan is statistically better than the best six-game stretch from any season in Tom Brady’s entire Hall of Fame–bound career.
The Falcons comfortably won both playoff games they’ve played. The team’s only other trip to a Super Bowl came in the overtime thriller I described above, and while overtime thrillers are nice, it’s much better to just blow the hell out of a team. The highlight of the NFC championship game was Julio Jones waltzing away from the Packers to extend the team’s lead to 31–0 — the way they fell at his feet kinda looked like Vick against the Vikings.
If the Falcons win the Super Bowl, it will obviously be the greatest moment in the history of a franchise with relatively few. But take a look at what they’re already doing: They’ve got one of the best offenses the NFL has ever seen, and they’ve cascaded through every opponent sent their way since December. I started out looking for the best moment the Falcons have ever produced, and then I realized that we’re probably living in it.