Missing Rings: The 1980 Atlanta Falcons

After years of mediocrity you can have a team that rises from the depths and come within inches of joining the elite. Some even become more than contenders as the stars seem to align and the team matures into a once in a lifetime meteor. Back in the years before free agency in the NFL, most teams were built by implementing a 5 year plan. Down in the land of Dixie, one such would be champion was being groomed in Atlanta. Could Cinderella really break through and win that elusive Super Bowl before the clock struck midnight??

Wiliam Andrews ran with thunder.

Wiliam Andrews ran with thunder.

Borne out of expansion in 1966, the Atlanta Falcons became the 2nd NFL franchise to be started below the Mason Dixon line. Although the New Orleans Saints franchise would begin play a year later, it was just the Falcons and the Dallas Cowboys as most teams were platooned in the northeast U.S. Ironically the southeast had been a Washington Redskin television market in the years preceding the Falcons. However the Cowboys gained more fans as Tom Landry’s teams dominated in the late 60s and appeared in 5 Super Bowls in the 1970’s.

The Falcons struggled for years just to field a competitive team. Very few stars outside of LB Tommy Nobis, the franchise’s 1st ever draft pick, played with any distinction. It took the team nearly a decade to field their 1st 1,000 yard rusher in Dave Hampton. Even that was an odyssey as he fell less than 10 yards short of 1,000 in successive years before eclipsing the feat in 1975.

That same year Atlanta landed 1st overall pick in QB Steve Bartkowski out of Cal. Giving the offense credibility with the team’s 1st legitimate franchise signal caller.  However they had to throw him into the fire and play him as a rookie. The results were less than impressive as Bartkowski completed less than 50% of his passes while throwing 30 TDs to 55 interceptions over his first 4 years.

New Head Coach Leeman Bennett came in ’77 and brought with him Defensive Coordinator Jerry Glanville. With a young developing QB and a hodge podge set of runners, the Falcons through caution to the wind and employed a gambling blitzing scheme defensively.

Known as “The Gritz Blitz” they actually set the league record for fewest points in a 14 game season with 129 and finished ranked 2nd to the World Champion Cowboys. However with the NFL’s 25th ranked offense and 25th scoring offense, they could only muster 179 points to finish with a 7-7 record. They used this recipe to sneak into the ’78 playoffs where they nearly upset Dallas in the divisional playoffs. Once there they knocked out starting QB Roger Staubach and had Dallas on the ropes. Second string QB and team punter Danny White led the Cowboys to a 27-20 come from behind triumph over an incomplete team that had to get better.

One of the best passing combinations in 1980.

One of the best passing combinations in 1980.

Getting by on gimmicks wasn’t enough. If the Falcons were to compete for a championship they needed some blue chip talent ready for prime time play. For the ’77 and ’78 seasons they finished 25th and 26th on offense and only had DE Claude Humphrey, CB Rolland Lawrence and P John James as the lone Pro Bowl representation after the ’77 campaign. They were that anemic. Yet with a developing QB in Bartkowski going into his 5th year, he was to take a giant step forward in his maturation. So the Atlanta brass went looking for offensive firepower to surround him with in the 1979 draft.

Atlanta struck gold in the draft when they nabbed William Andrews and Lynn Cain in the 3rd and 4th rounds respectively. Cain was a solid halfback but it was the bruising Andrews that gave the offense an identity. He bludgeoned defenders rushing for 1,023 yards averaging 4.3 yards per carry in his rookie campaign. With defenses having to put 7 and 8 in the box to stop Andrews everything opened up.

In 1980 everything came together as Cain and Andrews nearly became the 3rd tandem in NFL history to each rush for 1,000 in the same season. Andrews had a career year with 1,308 yards and 4 TDs while Cain pitched in with 914 yards and 8 scores. Bartkowski came of age in 1980 throwing for more TDs than any quarterback in the NFL with 31 and 3,544 yards… both team records. Wideout Alfred Jenkins (1,035 yds / 6TDs) teamed with rookie TE Junior Miller (584 yds / 9TDs) to make the Pro Bowl as Bartkowski’s top downfield targets. Everyone of these players had the best season of their careers to this point with all but Cain making the Pro Bowl.

National pundits lauded the exploits of “Air Coryell” with the Chargers of the AFC however it could be argued this was a more complete offense. The Falcons finished 9th in passing, 5th in rushing, and ranked 3rd overall behind the Chargers and the Rams in offensive statistics. Who do you stop?? Where do you begin to defense an offense with nearly every skilled player worthy of Pro Bowl recognition?? Oh the other wideout?? Wallace Francis, who also nearly went for 1,000 yards with 862 yards and another 7 trips to the endzone.

Curry and the defense held their own in 1980.

Curry and the defense held their own in 1980.

Defensively the Falcons weren’t quite as effective in years past with the blitz yet fielded a decent defense with ILB Buddy Curry, OLBs Al Richardson (7 ints.) and Joel Williams leading the charge. Curry and Richardson were rookies where Williams was acquired in ’79 but didn’t hit the field until 1980. They finished in the middle of the pack in terms of defensive ranking yet were 5th in pts allowed with 272. Head coach Leeman Bennett’s team hurtled through the heavens finishing with a 12-4 record winning 9 of their last 10. For the 1st time in their history finished as the NFC Western Division Champs.

The entire season was a campaign battling for respect. As the playoffs beckoned they would get their chance facing the team that was always there to knock the Falcons back to also-ran status… the Dallas Cowboys.

However coming into this NFC Divisional Tilt the Cowboys would have to travel to Atlanta for the first time. While the Cowboys offense had broken numerous team records in their 1st season under Danny White, their defense had aged as the 70s drew to a close. They were still America’s Team but gone was “Hollywood” Henderson, Cliff Harris, Hall of Fame CB Mel Renfro, S Charlie Waters due to injury from the defense. The team that was #1 in 1977 and #2 in 1978 fell to 17th in 1980 overall and 17th against the pass going into the playoffs. Could the Cowboys keep pace with the high flying Atlanta offense?? Would the young Falcons be ready for primetime playoff football or would the moment be too great?? After all most of these players weren’t there in the 1978 playoff meltdown against Dallas but they were still young…would they be affected??

The Falcons scored 1st on a Tim Mazetti field goal then struck deep with a 60 yard bomb from Bartkowski to Alfred Jenkins to go up 10-0. Tom Landry’s charges weathered the storm and tied it up midway through the 2nd. However a closer look reveals Landry’s Flex Defense was controlling the game. They sacked Bartkowski 4 times and held the Falcons to 86 yards rushing for the game. This is a team that averaged 150.5 yards per game with 2 backs that almost had 1,000 yards each!! So when the Falcons went up 24-10 late in the 3rd and tried to lean on their running game to get them to the NFC Championship & couldn’t produce, they allowed Danny White to keep firing. Could they just get to the finish line…??

They couldn’t hold off the playoff pressure ready Cowboys who outscored them 20-3 in the 4th quarter to steal the game 30-27. White came of age completing 25 of 39 for 322 yards and 3 touchdowns. Danny White to Drew Pearson and Dallas knocked Atlanta back again. Well with the youngest team in the NFL lead by a franchise QB this was only the beginning  for Atlanta…right??

Would you believe they never returned to the playoffs after the 1980 playoff collapse?? They fell to 7-9 in 1981 as the San Francisco 49ers came out of nowhere to win the NFC West. Andrews rushed for 1,300 yards and Bartkowski threw for 30 touchdowns again but the defense totally broke allowing 355 points. Injuries and an inability to mesh complete seasons from Lynn Cain, Junior Miller and company led to Head Coach Leeman Bennett’s departure following the 1982 season.

They did make it to the 1982 playoffs when a strike shortened season allowed 8 teams per conference in a single elimination tournament. Atlanta went in with a 5-4 record and lost in Minnesota 30-24… is that really making the playoffs?? Their once great offense slipped to 14th in scoring and led to Dan Henning being hired from the Air Coryell coaching tree in 1983. Yet they looked up in the division to the San Francisco 49ers the rest of the decade just as they had the Los Angeles Rams in the 70’s.

For one brief moment in 1980 it all came together and they let it slip away.

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Drew Pearson Should Be In The Pro Football hall of Fame

When you think of the great NFL teams of the 1970’s, the team that usually comes to mind first are Tom Landry’s Dallas Cowboys. Now Pittsburgh Steeler fans will argue they were the team of the decade and most fans and pundits should think of their team first. Yet think about it… Whenever the 1970’s Steelers are brought up, everyone points to the 2 Super Bowls when they defeated Dallas. Very rarely are the Super Bowls brought up over the Rams or Vikings. Therefore, Dallas was the most visible team. One of the most visible performers on the NFL’s most visible team was standout WR Drew Pearson.

pearson1To the casual observer, Pearson only had two 1,000 yard seasons, 3 All Pro & Pro Bowl seasons. In 1974, only Drew and Cliff Branch topped 1,000 yards that year in receiving in the NFL. Yet if you were cheering against the Cowboys, as many of us were in those years, no one struck more fear in you when the game was on the line.

From playing every year on Thanksgiving, to numerous appearances on Monday Night Football, and annually making the playoffs, we were always watching the Cowboys. The moment Pearson burst onto a nation’s conscience was the 1974 Thanksgiving tilt vs the hated Washington Redskins. Roger Staubach had been knocked from the game thrusting rookie Clint Longley into his 1st significant action.

In a nationally televised game, the Cowboys appeared headed for a loss down 16-3 in the 3rd quarter. Then out of nowhere Longley and the offense got hot. Two touchdown marches gave the Cowboys a 17-16 lead before the 4th quarter began. What gave the game a unique quality was the fact a rookie QB and Pearson, in only his 2nd season, were drawing up plays in the dirt. It was not Landry’s intricate precise passing game leading the charge.

After a Duane Thomas touchdown put the Redskins back on top, Landry’s unknown players had a chance to win it late. As they had turned this game around playing shoot from the hip football, Longley and Pearson drew up another play in the dirt with just seconds to go in the game. George Allen’s Redskins and Landry’s Cowboys coaching staff’s had been in place for 5 years at this point. They knew each other’s playbook. It took Pearson making an adjustment on a “16 Route” in Cowboys terminology, to what amounted to an in and up. The safety bit and Pearson blew by as Longley hit him with a last minute 50 yard bomb and a 24-23 triumph.

Millions of fans digesting Thanksgiving turkey fell out of their Lazy Boy’s as they watched a game still revered in Cowboy lore. Pearson had 5 rec. 108 yards and the game winning touchdown. Bolstered by the heroics performed and notoriety of this game, Pearson was voted All Pro and made his 1st Pro Bowl. In 1975 Pearson was a marked man and had less receptions and yardage yet combined with Staubach for 8 touchdowns during the regular season.

So what makes Drew Pearson Hall of Fame worthy?? The moments. To turn in clutch performances in the final minutes when many players shrink at the moment of truth. How many times have you heard a coach describe how they have to get their player into the game with play calling to keep him engaged?? Well the 10-4 wildcard Cowboys of 1975 made the trip to play the Minnesota Vikings in an NFC Divisional Playoff Game. Against one of history’s best defenses and on target to play in their 3rd straight Super Bowl, the Vikings had held Pearson without a catch. With the game on the line… it was 4th and 17 from their own 25 down 14-10 with :44 left when…

 

The Hail Mary to win the ’75 playoff in Minnesota not only propelled the Dallas Cowboys to Super Bowl X, it marked Pearson as one of the NFL’s best clutch performers. The next two seasons he was voted to the Pro Bowl and the All Pro team. The second of which the Cowboys won Super Bowl XII to conclude the 1977 season.

As the late ’70’s beckoned, Pearson shared more of the spotlight with newcomers Tony Dorsett and fellow wideout Tony Hill. His numbers suffered but they were a better team as they appeared in back to back Super Bowls in 77 & 78. Everyone thought the magic would be over with the retirement of Hall of Fame QB Roger Staubach after the 1979 season. Pearson had a mediocre season in ’80 (43 rec 568 yds 6TDs) as the Cowboys adjusted to new QB Danny White. Yet when the 12-4 wildcard Cowboys found themselves down 27-17 to the favored Atlanta Falcons in the divisional playoffs, it was Pearson to the rescue again. First he scored to close the gap to 27-24 midway through the 4th quarter.. then this happened with :49 left in the game.

 

Unfortunately this miracle touchdown didn’t propel the Cowboys to the Super Bowl as they fell in the first of 3 straight NFC Championships. However if you’re keeping count, from 1975-1982 Dallas played in at least the NFC Championship in 6 of 8 seasons and Pearson was the only featured performer on all 6. Staubach was only there for 3 of them. They played in 3 Super Bowls in a 4 year span and Pearson was able to make magic moments happen with 3 different quarterbacks.

Over the length of Drew’s 11 year career, he only scored 48 touchdowns. Yet he seemed to always score the money touchdowns that ruined opponent’s seasons. His career ended after a horrific car accident after the 1983 season and the Cowboys were never the same. In fact the very next year (1984) marked the first non playoff season for Dallas since 1974. In an era where the Dallas Cowboys became America’s Team, how can you talk about that era without mentioning his heroics??

For induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, I present Drew Pearson.

Epilogue 4/29/2017: In Philadelphia during the NFL draft, Pearson stepped to the mic and offered this passionate delivery in announcing Dallas’ 2nd round selection.  He honored every Dallas Cowboy who has ever played along with owner Jerry Jones and coach Jason Garrett:

 

Now it’s time for an induction speech from him.

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The Golden Age of Hating The Dallas Cowboys

Dallas Cowboys helmet design on Facebook.

Dallas Cowboys

It was a feeling that manifested itself sometime during the 1970’s. We can put it on the late George Allen, former coach of the Washington Redskins, who was first to verbalize a total disdain for the Dallas Cowboys. It raised the level of rancor between the Redskins and Cowboys that elevated their rivalry to the national level.

They had a behind the scenes rivalry that was based upon the Cowboys becoming the NFL’s most southern most team when they came into the league in 1960. Before that, the Redskins of George Preston Marshall were. It was during the 1970’s when their rivalry was felt between the fans and the players on the field.

However the disdain Allen felt during the early 1970’s was felt by many teams and fans. The feeling was the late Tom Landry and his Dallas Cowboys were given too much publicity by the networks and the print media. CBS was constantly covering the Cowboys and the level of success they had in the 1970’s, with 5 Super Bowl visits, seeded hatred in their rivals. Especially within their division. Yet none of them were good enough to challenge them in the NFC East.

By the time NFL Films made the 1978 Dallas Cowboys yearbook and labeled it “America’s Team” hatred was at an all time high. Even jealousy if you will. It was the arrogance and air of supremacy the Cowboys organization painted during those CBS days that fueled two schools of fans.

You had those who thought of themselves as beautiful and carried themselves with a sense of arrogance  and identified with the team. Then you had the regular meat and potatoes folks who loved when the Pittsburgh Steelers punched them square in the mouth during Super Bowls X and XIII. They were also fans of all other teams. Yet when your team is no longer in it, they cheered for whoever was facing Dallas in the playoffs or Super Bowl.

Ironically, this is where the Steelers gained their nationwide fans. It had nothing to do with the fact they won 4 Super Bowls in the 1970’s, it was the fact they beat the Cowboys in two of those Super Bowls that made them remain as fans.

As the 1980’s beckoned, many of the teams that Dallas had sat on for the previous decade began to grow anew.  A fresh generation of coaches and players started to internalize the disdain for the bully on the block and began their ascent. It was known that you had to take out Landry’s Cowboys if you really want to be recognized as champions. Although the Redskins were the one with the more acknowledged rivalry, it was the Philadelphia Eagles under Dick Vermeil that got the first crack at the boys from the Lone Star State.

Much of the animosity started at the beginning of the week, when the Eagles were cast as underdogs against Landry’s Cowboys in the 1980 NFC Championship Game. Although they were hosting, the Eagles were made underdogs by Vegas. Right on cue, the Eagles were being treated as bit role players even though they split their games with Dallas that year.

An upset Dick Vermeil made a declaration that ratcheted feelings up when he vowed “Never allow anyone to take you for granted! I get the feeling the Dallas Cowboys are taking us for granted right now. We’re here because we earned the right to be here. If the Dallas Cowboys are going to take us for granted, we’ll whip their ass!”

To further irk Tom Landry, Vermeil opted to play in their white uniforms forcing the Cowboys to play in the blue jerseys, which they felt were jinxed. Dallas complained to the league office yet for once the powers that be didn’t allow Gil Brandt and Tex Schramm to get their way. The crowd at Veteran’s Stadium was unforgiving as the two teams emerged from the tunnel.  It was 4* and -17* windchill when on the Eagles second play from scrimmage:

The roar of the crowd during Wilbert Montgomery’s touchdown was the loudest ever at Veteran’s Stadium. Cowboy haters everywhere delighted as the Eagles held the early upper hand on the Cowboys 7-0. As the game wore on and Landry’s charges behind 17-7 late in the fourth quarter, they were able to punt and pin the Eagles to their own 5 yard line. From their own 5 yard line the Eagles ended fading hopes for Dallas when in 3 runs Philadelphia moved the football to the Dallas 25. Montgomery was putting the finishing touches on a signature day when he struck with this 54 yard masterpiece.

The Eagles vanquished the Cowboys 20-7 on their way to Super Bowl XV. Wilbert Montgomery etched his name into  Philadelphia lore with a 194 yard performance. They had destroyed the Flex Defence, rushing for 263 yards on 40  carries averaging 6.575 yards a pop!! Cowboy haters everywhere rejoiced in hearing Landry, Danny White and Cowboy apologists have to answer the questions as the defeated football team. In fact many Cowboy haters pulled for the Oakland Raiders in the Super Bowl two weeks later. People weren’t cheering for the Eagles as much as they were for Dallas to lose.

The following year the Cowboys had revamped their secondary &  national press covered the exploits of rookies Everson Walls (who should be a Hall of Famer), Michael Downs, and Ron Fellows. Although the publicity was on this group in Big D, they were overshadowing an even greater group in San Francisco. Where Bill Walsh had drafted and started rookie CB Ronnie Lott, CB Eric Wright, and S Carlton Williamson to go along with scrappy veteran S Dwight Hicks.  Yet through most of the 1981 season, you didn’t hear about the 49ers. Even after a 45-14 devastation of the Cowboys in week 5 with Ronnie Lott scoring the decisive touchdown.

Did you know the 49ers didn’t make the Monday Night Football highlight package?? Don’t tell our CEO there was no media bias. Nor can you say the coverage of Dallas’ rookie trio of defensive backs didn’t motivate the group by the bay. Was it borne from the Cowboys propaganda and success of the 1970s?? Or was it borne from Tom Landry’s ties to the New York media since his pro coaching career started there??

Did you know the late Pat Summerall who broadcast many of the Cowboys games in that era, was a teammate and friend of Landry back in New York?? So when they didn’t make the ABC Monday Night package it fed into the hating Dallas mantra that much more by the 1981 NFC Championship Game.

There had been a history between the San Francisco 49ers and Dallas. In fact you could say the 49ers were who Dallas had built their reputation on with wins over them in the 1970 and 1971 NFC Championship Games. At that point the Cowboys were called “Next Year’s Champions” for four straight playoff defeats to Vince Lombardi’s Packers and the Cleveland Browns. As a new decade beckoned it was the Niners and the Cowboys who stepped to the fore.

Once Dallas emerged and won Super Bowl VI, their prestige soared where the vanquished 49ers went into a tailspin the rest of the decade. Yet before that happened, there was the 1972 NFC Divisional playoff where a measure of revenge was going to be exacted against Landry’s troops when Roger Staubach led a furious 4th quarter rally. Staubach led Dallas to a 30-28 win after they were behind 28-13 with 5:00 to go in the game. This is when he earned the nickname Captain Comeback.

Fast forward to the 1981 NFC Championship where the resurrected 49er franchise, now under Eddie DeBartolo, were preparing for the game. Still smarting from the lack of respect afforded his group after the 45-14 win and no media coverage, set the tone of a franchise when talking to a reporter. “They ate it once and they can eat it (defeat) again.” Reminiscent of Dick Vermeil the year before, Cowboy haters were all pulling for the 49ers in this game when they took the field.

The final stint came when the Washington Redskins had their turn to climb over Dallas to make it to the summit of pro football. After a strike shortened season where the 8-1 Redskins entered a playoff tournament to make it to Super Bowl XVII, most pundits picked the media darling Cowboys to win the NFC Champoinship citing the Redskins only loss was courtesy of the Cowboys. Our CEO can remember being fired up for the NFC Championship between Washington and Dallas and knew it was going to be a thing of beauty.

It actually started when the Redskins were putting the finishing touches on a 21-7 win over the Vikings to set up the NFC Conference final when the chant “We want Dallas!!  We want Dallas!!” resonated from the jam packed crowd at RFK.   Just moments before, John Riggins who had rushed for 185 yard was in the midst of a curtain call, turned and gave a bow to the crowd sending them into a frenzy.  Those sights and sounds reverberated throughout the stadium and CBS chose instead of showing the final plays of that game, panoramic views of the raucous fans.

As for the rest of the Cowboy haters who gathered to watch this team go down again. Look no further than another bulletin board comment that jump started the festivities. It started with Dexter Manley professing in the paper that he “hated Dallas” that Monday that got the ball rolling.  Then back and forth in the newspaper ensued from Danny White of the Cowboys, to Redskin owner Jack Kent Cooke, EVERYONE was stoking the fire.  How bad did it get?  There was even a heated argument about the game within the House of Representatives the Friday before the game and the late Thomas “Tip” O’Neill adjourned session an hour early.  It was on!!!!

Over a football game? Yes over a football game. The hating of Dallas really grew wings in the George Allen era.  He preached it, lived it, and over all the treatment America’s Team received as a media darling kept breeding that hatred within rival teams.  Real Redskin fans will talk with high regard of the fact that they beat Dallas in the ’72 NFC Championship when the Cowboys were defending champions.  So here we were some 10 years later and all that animosity was a thing of the past right?  After all new owner, new coach, new quarterback and cast of characters comprised the Redskins roster.  Right?

With that we were at an end of an era where other NFL teams were able to get their due as the 1980’s moved on. Media coverage transferred from Dallas to new teams coming from Chicago, the New York Giants, Denver Broncos, of course the 49ers and the Redskins who were dominant the rest of the decade. From this era came the nationwide fan base of the San Francisco 49ers much like the Steelers. The backlash of the “America’s Team” name and over favorable coverage brewed hatred from the majority of NFL fans and players.

Notice in these videos, the look in their eye and the description of elation for vanquishing the Dallas Cowboys of that era. In all three cases before the NFC Championship, where decorum was to be quiet, and not give the Cowboys bulletin board material. Coaches and owners in these instances were doing it let alone players. It set the table for things to come and put their organizations on high alert of what was expected of them.

The hatred for everything Dallas began to dissipate at this time. There was some animosity left when the ’85 Bears bloodied them 44-0 in Texas Stadium after 9 straight losses to them. Yet by the time of Tom Landry’s departure, people felt bad about what happened to the Cowboys and watched the dismantling of a franchise with mixed emotions.

You were almost mad that they were 1-15 in 1989, because the villain from Texas was gone. The Jimmy Johnson Cowboys of the 1990’s were an envied team, not a hated one. To be hated you had to be more than a good  football team, and in retrospect that was what made hating the Dallas Cowboys worthwhile.

The way they were marketed, branded, and packaged. The way their coach was treated like a God and their quarterback in Roger Staubach was the idol which gave way to Danny White. Their cheerleaders were even made famous. All of this tapped into the inferiority complex of many players and fans of other teams. When it came time to beat them for a championship or a game of importance, it was the Holy Grail.

NEXT: 2013 Indianapolis Colts Preview

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Taylor Blitz Times new logo!!

Taylor Blitz Times new logo!!