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Atlanta Falcons get rare chance to erase forgettable past

By Ira Miller, The Sports Xchange
Atlanta Falcons get rare chance to erase forgettable past
Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan speaks to the media during Super Bowl LI Opening Night, at Minute Maid Park in Houston, Texas on January 30, 2017. The Atlanta Falcons will play the New England Patriots in Super Bowl LI on Sunday in Houston. Photo by Kevin Dietsch/UPI | License Photo

Rarely can a single championship rewrite the history of an entire franchise, but that is surely what the Atlanta Falcons are hoping for in Super Bowl LI.

They would like to forget the past. All of it.

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Few teams have the miserable history of the Falcons, a franchise that has produced just one Hall of Fame player in a half-century but gave away two others, that fired a coach who produced a .240 winning percentage and then hired him again a decade later. And even when the Falcons did reach a Super Bowl once before, they lost in part because one of their star players was arrested while trolling for prostitutes the night before the game.

Atlanta, which at different times gave the NFL the Grits Blitz defense, the run-and-shoot offense and Jerry Glanville, the run-at-the-mouth coach, now is in the Super Bowl for the second time. The Falcons are among 11 teams added to pro football since the 1960 founding of the American Football League, but that group collectively has managed just five Super Bowl titles -- compared to 45 for the 21 teams that existed in 1960.

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Defensive end Claude Humphrey, who played 11 seasons for the Falcons, is the only player in the Hall of Fame who spent most of his career with Atlanta, and he did not get voted in until 2014 -- 33 years after his final game.

It is not that Atlanta did not have some talent at times. But not enough of that talent was in the coaching staff or front office, which is why the Falcons allowed Deion Sanders to leave as soon as his rookie contract was up and why they traded Brett Favre away without giving him a chance to play. Sanders and Favre are both in the Hall of Fame, of course.

In 1977, with Glanville coaching the defensive backs, the Falcons developed the so-called Grits Blitz, an attacking defense named after the southern food dish. They allowed only 129 points in 14 games, a modern-era record of 9.2 points a game. But without much of an offense, the Falcons finished 7-7 and out of the playoffs.

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Three years later, Atlanta was the No. 1 seed in the NFC playoffs but was eliminated in its first postseason game by Dallas, blowing a 10-point lead in the final four minutes. Atlanta led 24-10 after three quarters, but the Cowboys scored 20 points in the fourth to win 30-27.

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In the mid-'70s, the Falcons were coached by Marion Campbell, who was known for his grasp of defense and an easy-going manner that enabled him to get along with both his bosses and his players. He was the poster boy for assistant coaches who get promoted over their head. Despite his 6-19 record in Atlanta, he was later hired as head coach to succeed Dick Vermeil in Philadelphia, where his record was 17-29-1 -- and after getting fired from that gig, was hired again as the Atlanta coach. The second time around with the Falcons, his record was 11-32.

Atlanta's only previous trip to the Super Bowl came following the 1998 season, when the Falcons had a 14-2 regular-season record. The 15-1 Minnesota Vikings were on the verge of winning the NFC Championship Game, leading by seven points with 2:07 remaining when kicker Gary Anderson -- who to that time had not missed a kick all season, going 51 of 51 in field goals and extra points -- missed a 38-yard field-goal attempt that would have made it a 10-point game.

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The Falcons scored a tying touchdown in the last minute and then won in overtime when their kicker, Morten Andersen, made a field goal, ironically, 38 yards, the same distance from which Atlanta's Anderson missed.

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Of course, even that success was short-lived. Less than two weeks after the Falcons won their first (and, until this year, their only) NFC championship, on the night before the Super Bowl, veteran safety Eugene Robinson was arrested for soliciting prostitution, offering an undercover police officer $40 for oral sex.

The following evening, Robinson blew coverage on an 80-yard touchdown pass from John Elway to Rod Smith that enabled Denver to blow open the Super Bowl shortly before halftime.

Robinson's Super Bowl arrest was not even the Falcons' low point. In 2004, coach Jim Mora (the son of the former Saints coach) mused about wanting to coach the University of Washington instead of the Falcons, so Atlanta fired him. A few months later, quarterback Michael Vick was arrested, eventually going to jail for running a dog-fighting operation. And before the year was over, Bobby Petrino, the coach who replaced Mora, quit without warning late in the season.

That led to the opening that brought in general manager Thomas Dimitroff, who drafted quarterback Matt Ryan, and the fortunes of the franchise turned around.

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But it has not been a steady upward climb. An event that surely still stuck with Ryan and the Falcons until this season occurred in 2012, when, for the first time, they qualified to play the NFC Championship Game at home, jumped out to a 17-0 lead against the San Francisco 49ers and yet blew the game, losing 28-24.

Now, with the league's highest-scoring team, most explosive offense and likely MVP at quarterback, the Falcons have a chance to rewrite their history. It won't be easy; New England had the league's stingiest defense. But nothing ever has come easy for the Falcons.

Ira Miller is an award-winning sportswriter who has covered the National Football League for more than five decades and is a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame Selection Committee. He is a national columnist for The Sports Xchange.

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