This will sound strange, but strangeness and the Atlanta Falcons walk — or, to be more precise, stumble — hand in hand. The 2009 Falcons can’t make the playoffs, and the playoffs are the primary goal every year for every NFL team. Except this team, this year.
The Falcons have made the playoffs before. They were there last season. They’ve been there nine times. Heck, they’ve even graced a Super Bowl. (Though that trip ended disgracefully, what with Eugene Robinson getting arrested.) But the Falcons have worked 43 seasons — this is the 44th — and have yet to break .500 two years running. So long as that curious factoid is attached to this franchise, it will be the first thing we think about when we think about the Falcons.
Among NFL teams that have been around for a while, the Falcons are alone in this ignominy. The Carolina Panthers haven’t been back-to-back winners, but they opened their doors in 1995, not 1966. The Houston Texans and the new Cleveland Browns haven’t, either, but they’re expansion teams. Even the one franchise that could match the Falcons for longstanding buffoonery — the Arizona Cardinals — have just assured themselves of consecutive winning seasons for the first time since relocating in 1987. (They’d done the deed in previous manifestations in Chicago and St. Louis.)
The Jacksonville Jaguars were back-to-back winners in Seasons 2 and 3. The Seattle Seahawks got there in Seasons 3 and 4. The Cincinnati Bengals made it in Seasons 5 and 6. The Tampa Buccaneers did it in Seasons 6 and 7, this after losing their first 26 games. The New Orleans Saints thrashed for more than two decades but finally arrived consecutively in Seasons 21 and 22. The Falcons started before all of the above and still aren’t there.
But they are, wonder of wonders, close. Win two games over bad teams and the cruel characterization goes away forever. And it must go away if we’re ever to regard the Falcons in a serious light. This hasn’t been the year they (or we) hoped it would be, but this can still be an essential season in the grand scheme. It can be the year they make us stop giggling.
Any team can get hot for a year. The Falcons went 12-4 in 1980 … followed by 7-9. They were 14-2 in 1998 … followed by 5-11 after Jamal Anderson hurt his knee in Week 2. Most egregiously they were 11-5 in 2004 and stood 6-2 in 2005 … and still couldn’t get to 9-7. The skid began when they lost in the Georgia Dome to the 1-7 Packers and a running back named Samkon Gado. The skid began not two weeks after Jim Mora trashed Mike Kenn and Jeff Van Note, distinguished Falcons of yore, by saying: “What did they ever win? Never had consecutive winning seasons.”
And then Jimbo didn’t, either. And Karma laughed its head off.
Those 2005 Falcons came the closest to breaking down the back-to-back wall. They were 8-5 with three games remaining, and then they lost on a frigid night in Chicago; lost in Tampa on Christmas Eve when Todd Peterson missed the winning kick in overtime and Mora got on his cell phone to discuss playoff possibilities, and lost 44-11 at home on New Year’s Eve in a game Michael Vick later admitted he hadn’t tried very hard to win.
That team was too flighty. It didn’t deserve to be the drought-breaker. This team does. This team isn’t great — it has scored as many points as it has yielded, which is the definition of so-so — but it tries hard and it’s well coached and it just won a game on which it it might easily have punted, having been eliminated from the postseason the night before.
This team deserves its moment. It can arrive Jan. 3, 2010, in Raymond James Stadium. If it comes (and it should), it won’t quite be a moment to celebrate — when you need 44 years to do something, you shouldn’t get giddy when it occurs — but it’s a moment that absolutely needs to happen. This mocking albatross has hovered decades too long. Time, once and for all, to shoot it down.