Paul Newberry, the fine Associated Press writer and a native Atlantan, has this thing he does when we start wondering how the local NFL team managed to mess up this time. He points to the Falcons’ logo and says, “It’s the bird. Don’t underestimate the power of that bird.”
By now, we’re all familiar with this trail of tears. This is the franchise that: Led Dallas by 10 points with 3:05 to play and lost a bitter playoff game; hired Marion Campbell as head coach — twice!; drafted Aundray Bruce; saw the NFL’s leading citizen arrested on the eve of Super Bowl XXXIII; saw its franchise quarterback go to jail and its coach leave for Arkansas in the dark of night.
And then, the iron-clad capper: After 43 years in operation, the Falcons still haven’t had consecutive winning seasons.
More and more people are writing nice things about the Falcons than at any time since … well, 2005, when they were coming off an NFC championship game appearance and were 6-2 at the midpoint and still couldn’t break .500. And this, speaking as someone who has learned not to underestimate the negative power of that bird, makes me nervous. I wondered if I was alone in this angst, so I asked Arthur Blank, who owns the club. Speaking from his ranch in Montana, he said:
“I get nervous, like every fan does, but history has nothing to do with it. There’s no question we have a better team in 2009 than we did in 2008. That said, we do have a tougher schedule, and you always have to be concerned about an injury to the wrong player. But I love our coaching staff and I love our general manager. We’re in a very good place.”
Agreed. I like the Falcons’ management more than I ever have. But still … this is a franchise steeped in the art of the cosmic letdown. Example: In Blank’s first season as owner, the Falcons made the playoffs and beat Green Bay and were widely tipped as a Super Bowl team the next year. Then the franchise quarterback broke his leg.
Blank now: “I don’t think there’s any jinx. That doesn’t enter my mind. I know we’ll be very well prepared and we’ll play with a lot of energy. Now whether that translates [to a winning season], I can’t know. But the press we’re getting seems to be appropriate, and when the season is over I hope people will say, ‘We should have given them even more praise.’
“As an organization, we were facing a lot of questions last season we don’t have now. We didn’t know how our new coaching staff would work together. We didn’t know if Matt Ryan was going to be a terrific NFL quarter in Year 1 or Year 3. We didn’t know if Michael Turner could carry the standard of being a starting running back. We didn’t know if Sam Baker and Curtis Lofton and Harry Douglas could play. We have positive answers to all those questions now.”
Blank doesn’t offer a prediction, but he is by nature an optimist. A year ago we were wondering if the Falcons might go 1-15. “The only person who thought we’d go 1-15 was Kim Schreckengost,” he said, laughing and referring to his longtime aide, who was listening on the other line. “Arthur Blank and Mark Bradley knew that team wasn’t going to go 1-15.”
Indeed, the famous fretter Bradley picked the 2008 Falcons to go 5-11. They went 11-5. This time he’s saying they’ll be 10-6, winners for a second consecutive season. But he’s crossing his fingers. He has learned not to mess with the bird.