Is this the best Falcons team ever? It’s definitely in the hunt

Those dirty, dirty Birds: Jamal Anderson and Dan Reeves celebrate. (AJC file photo)

Oh, those dirty, dirty Birds: Jamal Anderson and Dan Reeves dance in the Metrdome. (AJC file photo)

Jeff Van Note arrived as a Falcon three years after the Falcons came into being. As a player (All-Pro center) and an announcer (color commentator on the team’s radio broadcasts), he has seen every Falcons team worth seeing and many more that were not. And if you ask the grizzled Van Note if the 2010 installment is the best team this franchise, in its 45th season of operation, has ever known, he says:

“I think that would be correct.”

For all the losing seasons this club has endured, there was one shining moment in January 1999 when play-by-play man Jeff Hullinger could intone, without fear of contraction, “The Falcons are going to the Super Bowl!” And sitting beside Hullinger that day in the Minneapolis Metrodome was one Jeff Van Note, who could be heard yelling over the call as Morten Andersen’s overtime field goal sailed true.

Obvious question: These Falcons are better than those Falcons?

Van Note: “I don’t want to take anything away from the ‘98 team. That team was very well-assembled and had big-play potential … [But] I think this team might be a little better defensively.”

Jessie Tuggle was the middle linebacker on the 1998 Falcons, who finished the regular season 14-2 and who stunned the 15-1 Vikings to take the NFC title. He disagrees, if slightly, with Van Note regarding the respective defenses. Said Tuggle: “We had myself, a Pro Bowler, and [defensive end] Chuck Smith and [cornerback] Ray Buchanan and [safety] Eugene Robinson. Overall we might have had more talent on that side of the ball.”

This should not, however, be taken to mean that Tuggle considers his ‘98 team superior to this bunch. “That was a special team,” he said. “But this team is just as special as we were.”

The numbers are fairly similar. Those Falcons started 5-2 and didn’t lose again until falling to Denver in Super Bowl XXXIII. These Falcons started 4-2 and haven’t lost since. The ‘98 Falcons ranked fourth in the NFL in both points scored and yielded; the 2010 team ranks fifth and seventh, respectively. The ‘98 Falcons were seventh in total offense and eighth in total defense; this team stands ninth and 17th.

One difference: The ‘98 Falcons won only three regular-season games against teams that finished above .500; as Van Note notes, this team has won five.

Van Note: “I think this team is better overall. I’ve always been taught that the goal is to get it to the fourth quarter with a chance to win, and this team does that … They do all the little things: The third-down conversions; the defense that keeps the score down even if it gives up yards; they don’t get penalized; they make good adjustments; they play good field-position football, which is vitally important; it’s a very well-coached team that plays 60 minutes.”

As regards overall excellence in Falcons annals, there aren’t many other points of comparison. The 1980 team finished 12-4 but revealed an inherent defensive weakness in the fourth quarter of its playoff opener against Dallas. The 2004 team went 11-5 and played for the NFC title but did only one thing — run the ball — better than the NFL average. The feel-good 2008 team finished 11-5 despite having the NFL’s ninth-worst defense.

Are these Birds better than the '98 model?

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The Falcons’ offense in 1998 was predicated on  Jamal Anderson thumping — he rushed for 1,846 yards on 410 carries — and Chris Chandler throwing long off play-action. This offense has a better wide receiver in Roddy White, a better tight end in Tony Gonzalez and, believes the former lineman Van Note, a better O-line.

At issue is whether these Falcons can defend at a Super Bowl level. Said Tuggle: “They had questions at linebacker and in the secondary coming into the season, but they’ve put it together. [Cornerback] Brent Grimes — he’s a playmaker. There’s something about winning that breeds confidence. Grimes might be playing above his head at the moment, but he’s making plays.”

That’s another factor, perhaps the biggest factor, shared by the Falcons of 1998 and 2010: The more they played/play, the better they got/get. Tuggle again: “It’s a game of momentum, and right now the Atlanta Falcons have it … It’s tangible. It’s in the body language, the belief in yourself.”

And if these Falcons do grace Super Bowl XLV, they’ll need only dip into team history to learn how not to handle a big event. Recalling Robinson’s arrest for solicitation on Super Bowl eve in Miami, Tuggle laughed and said: “If they get there this time, Arthur [Blank, the owner] might lock every door in the hotel himself.”

By Mark Bradley

223 comments Add your comment

Seahawk Pride

December 17th, 2010
9:34 am

Seahawk Pride

December 17th, 2010
9:34 am

Take that rawdawg!

Hank

December 17th, 2010
9:36 am

Enter your comments here

Hank

December 17th, 2010
9:36 am

Dang I hit the wrong button. They got to get there first.

Hankie Aron

December 17th, 2010
9:37 am

Hankie Aron

December 17th, 2010
9:37 am

Hankie Aron

December 17th, 2010
9:39 am

Nice article Mark. Down the road I see our defense holding up their end of the bargain in the playoffs and Roddy White being nearly unstoppable. The only player capable of stopping Roddy White is Roddy White.

Bull Schmitt

December 17th, 2010
9:43 am

I do think this is the best overall team in franchise history. However, I sure would like to bring back the ‘77 Gritz Blitz defense. They only allowed about 9 points per game. This defensive unit needs to step up considerably to match that unit. Times are good in the ATL though. Go Falcons!

GERHART76

December 17th, 2010
9:44 am

I thought the 1980 team was better (more talented) than the 1998 team. VanNote, Kenn, Bartkowski, Alfred Jenkins, etc.

They lost to Dallas because they went into a prevent defense. Dallas lost to Philly in the NFC title game. I think the 80 Birds could have beat those Eagles.

This team still has a few holes on defense.

Benjamin

December 17th, 2010
9:44 am

Poor Eugene… lol

On a serious note, if we get back there, I want the team to act like they belong, even if a lot of people feel like they don’t.

Bandwagon Jumper

December 17th, 2010
9:45 am

This team needs a catchy song or dance before I can get behind them. Where is their “2 Legit 2 Quit”, Falcons Fever or Dirty Bird? I know how about a Ludacris/ Zac Brown mashup about how the Falcons are #1!!!

Connecticut Falcons Fan

December 17th, 2010
9:47 am

I was a little young for the 1980 team but I believe they had the #1 seed? That being said, yes, they did collapse in that game vs Dallas (it was on ESPN Classic last year and still broke my heart!) I have to agree that the 2010 Falcons are better than ‘98. This team reminds me of the Patriots of the early 2000s: they win close games, yes they get some breaks, and they underwhelm you…but at the end of the day they keep making plays and not mistakes and winning. If–a big if–they get homefield, I like their odds to win 2 home games and then take on an overrated AFC team on a neutral field. Yes, I said, the AFC is overrated. The balance of power shifted to the NFC 3 years ago.

Bride of Chucky Knapp

December 17th, 2010
9:48 am

Best Falcon’s team ever? Isn’t that like being elevated one rung in Hell or being the tallest Munchikin?

Heck yeah, this is the best Falcon’s team!

Mark Bradley

December 17th, 2010
9:49 am

Kudos, Seahawk Pride. And condolences, Hank and Hankie.

[...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Mark Bradley, Myron Abernathy, Tw , Ed P, X.J. Brown and others. X.J. Brown said: RT @AJCFalcons: AJC columnist Mark Bradley weighs in: Is this the best Falcons team ever? It's definitely in the hunt http://t.co/Yvh6Oxc [...]

Connecticut Falcons Fan

December 17th, 2010
9:50 am

That being said, I also wouldn’t be surprised if these team was one and done (even with the #1 seed). The NFC is so tough, it’s certainly believable that any one of several teams (Saints, Eagles, Giants) could come into the dome and get a win. And lest we forget, that ‘98 team also had a nail-biter vs San Fran in the first round (a game we dominated early but let them back into…eerily familiar now that I think about it…although I also recall a bad call on a fumble that would’ve put the game away early…)

jarvis

December 17th, 2010
9:54 am

Is this Bradley’s most-gerneralized piece ever?

Prolly not, but I’m not going to go back and re-read any of his old drivel, so I’ll just say “yes”.

Jeff " BOY " George

December 17th, 2010
9:55 am

As an original Falcons fan and who has seen them all, I keep waiting for the Falcons to revert back to old habits and do something stupid. But these guys are different and they are as fun to watch as that Super Bowl team and the 1980 team. Just keep the pedal to the metal and hope we don’t have to witness a playoff return to the dome from old number 7.

Sanford Drive

December 17th, 2010
9:57 am

42-34 ha :) ha :) ha :) ha :) ha :)

Just sayin'

December 17th, 2010
10:00 am

Let’s see what transpires before we jump to any conclusions. Meanwhile, GO FALCONS!!

lanier

December 17th, 2010
10:10 am

enjoyable read Mark

Mark Bradley

December 17th, 2010
10:18 am

Thanks, lanier.

Submariner683

December 17th, 2010
10:22 am

My family moved to Atlanta in December of 1980 and I soon got to watch the Falcons fall to Dallas leading by 10 pts with only 5 minutes left or so. The 80s were some really, really lean years. To talk best Falcons’ team ever, is sort of like talking about being the valedictorian of summer school. That being said, in some ways the 1998 team was better. Their front four of Smith, Dronnet, Hall, and Archambeau, generated a lot of rush every down which allowed them to keep more guys in coverage. I think a little more so than our current D line. I don’t remember any team being able to run on the Falcons that year. Offensively they seemed to have a lot more big play ability with Chandler throwing to Mathis and Tony Martin.
To compare that team with this team by personnel, I think Abraham is a better DE than either Smith or Archambeau, but the rest of the line I think is not as good as the 98 line. I think Roddy White is a better receiver than both Martin and Mathis, but that duo I think was maybe a tad better than White and Jenkins. Chris Chandler had a better deep ball than Matt Ryan does. Jamaal Anderson was as dominate a runner as anybody in history for that particular season. I love Michael Turner, and I like his body of work better, but for that season, I think Anderson was better than this year’s Turner.

Is the 98 team better? In many ways, yes. I do believe that this team has played a tougher schedule than the 98 team did and have had more impressive regular season victories. But unlike 98, I think this team is on firmer ground for future success than that one was.

PMC

December 17th, 2010
10:24 am

I don’t think the defense is quite up to the standard of 98 yet. I do think they are becoming better.

I had no idea that Abe was 3rd in the NFL with 11 sacks.

The Linebackers are youthful for the most part (sorry Mike Pete) but they are making plays.

The Secondary is still a little young at safety, but the corners are every bit as good as Ray Buchannan and company. They tackle very well at the CB position.

The offense isn’t close to being as explosive, but they move the chains, one of the biggest assets is keeping the Falcon defense rested on the sidelines.

The by far best part of this year is that they are playing fundamentally sound football and the ceiling of this group is ridiculously high. They are still building this team and they are winning tough close games.

Love this Falcons team.

Joe Tess Fish House

December 17th, 2010
10:28 am

No way. this teem has 2 many wholes in it. U have fist round busts in Perrier Jerry, Sean Witherspoon and Sam Baker. U have wasted money in Donta Roberson. U have Jerry Norwood is always injrued. U have Matt Ryan who is getting worst as the season wares on. This team is a by produck of luck and super soft scedule.

nola dawg fan

December 17th, 2010
10:36 am

good stuff Bradley… one big comparison left to compare here… coaching staffs. To whom do you give the edge? I have to say 2010… just the way Smitty preaches the little things, 4th quarter etc… Reeves was a good coach… but Smith is acending while 98 was Reeves swan song of sorts.

Thoughts?

Sid

December 17th, 2010
10:37 am

Seahawk Pride………?? Has anyone ever heard of such a thing?

Sid

December 17th, 2010
10:38 am

1980: After a 3-3 start the Falcons fly off to an amazing nine game winning streak as Quarterback Steve Bartkowski has a career season passing for 3,544 yards while connecting on 31 Touchdown passes, as the Falcons won their first ever division Championship. Despite a 20-17 loss to the Los Angeles Rams on the road in overtime in their final game, which dropped them to 12-4 the Falcons, would earn home field through out the playoffs. Playing before 60,022 fans at Fulton County Stadium the Falcons lead the Dallas Cowboys 24-10 in the 4th Quarter. However, the Cowboys would score 20 points to stun the Falcons 30-27.

Joe Tess Fish House

December 17th, 2010
10:42 am

1980 Flacons team…….Same Ol Falcons. Always find a way 2 loose……I see that happening again.

Leeman Bennett

December 17th, 2010
10:43 am

As god as my witness, I was sure the prevent defense was the best way to go.

Walker, Texas Ranger

December 17th, 2010
10:47 am

It’s like saying who is prettier, Catherine Zeta Jones or Megan Fox. I mean Zeta Jones was something else in 1998.

Brad

December 17th, 2010
10:49 am

Mark, what is Kurt Kitner doing these days?

jwilli120

December 17th, 2010
10:54 am

they were all good but the common goal was never reached by
any of the previous teams which is to WIN THE SUPERBOWL, if
this team wins the superbowl then it is the best Falcon Team
EVER! GO 2010 FALCONS AND WIN THE SUPERBOWL!!!!!!!!!
MERRY NEW YEAR TO ALL !!!!!!!

nola dawg fan

December 17th, 2010
10:57 am

Pefect Walker TR…. great metaphor. And CZJ was the ish back in 98.

and glad you didn’t name yourself Dr. Quinn, Medice Woman, Ricky Bobby would have torn you up

mgm

December 17th, 2010
11:01 am

Put in context of the time period the 1980 falcons team was considered the best team in the NFL going into the playoffs. They collapsed in the fourth quarter and the rest was history. But that team should have in a Super Bowl. They were that good. Dallas proved that on a given day, any team in the NFL can go into the playoffs and win. Having said that the debate can only be answered at the end of the season. The Falcon team that goes to the Super Bowl and wins it will be the best team ever. Until then, its the 1998 team because they have gone farther than any other. If this team goes to the SB and loses then we can debate those two teams. Does New England debate the best team by including the one the Giants beat in the SB that would have been undefeated. I sure hope not.

Ted M

December 17th, 2010
11:01 am

The Falcons of 1998 proved to be the Falcons of reputation; they lost the SB grand fashion then went 5-11 in 1999.

If the Falcons go 5-11 next year then we’re the same old Falcons but I don’t think so…so this team is a lot better even if they don’t make the SB.

NO more one year wonders!

Ted M

December 17th, 2010
11:03 am

I’ve been filtered out…darn it!

Big Country

December 17th, 2010
11:04 am

As a longtime Falcon fan, I have plenty of company in being cautiously optimistic about this year’s team. We all hope that this year will be the year, but we are afraid that we will see a 1980 type of disappointment. We will watch them with our full support no matter what happens and hope we see this team blow through the fog of what might happen to what will happen and we all can enjoy the Lombardi Trophy. Then they will be be the best team ever. Great timing on article, Mark and well written.

Ted M

December 17th, 2010
11:08 am

the 1998 team flopped in the SB then went 5-11 in 1999. This team is better. No more one year wonders.

sogadog

December 17th, 2010
11:10 am

It may or may not be the best Falcons team ever, but it is definitely the best Falcons organization ever. (Organization = Coach + Owner + General Manager)

(You know the Dawgs had a bad season when a Dawg fan like me is interested in what the Falcons are doing.)

Shug

December 17th, 2010
11:10 am

1. The 1980 team, its playoff collapse notwithstanding.
2. The 1998 team, its Super Bowl collapse notwithstanding.
3. The 2010 team, its incomplete season notwithstanding.

FalconFan

December 17th, 2010
11:14 am

I would rank this team the best since 1980. That was the team that should have won the Super Bowl that year, no one was even close. Too bad they laid back in the second half and let the Cowboys take one from them.
The 1998 team is up there because they went to the Super Bowl, but I would rank the 98 team third.

Order of best Falcon Teams in my opinion, depending upon final results:
2010 Falcons
1980 Falcons
1998 Falcons

balismith

December 17th, 2010
11:18 am

the dirty birds were great…but things really went south after the superbowl loss. i think the 2010 falcons may not win the superbowl this year but could be in contintion for the next several years…the whole organization is in better shape and i think the team will only get better..would br neat if they make to the superbowl this year

teamguy

December 17th, 2010
11:33 am

The 1980 playoff game was lost because the officials allowed Ed Jones to skip in the neutral zone down the line of scrimmage, with no penalty called, with the Falcons third and two needing a first down to run the clock out. I destroyed a wicker coffee table shortly thereafter. Then our defense couldn’t hold because. .well, Lawrence and Byas couldn’t cover my five-year-old grandson.

Honky Talkin'

December 17th, 2010
11:36 am

To Sanford Drive: You need to get a life. You make every UGA fan look like the web-footed inbred redneck that you are. You were 6-6 you freakin’ moron!

blazerdawg

December 17th, 2010
11:36 am

1980 team was awesome and very talented, but the 1998 Falcons dominated other teams.

98 Falcons ran the ball well, Chandler was very precise, the offense controlled the clock and that defense took away alot of balls. Special teams was also excellent and Reeves always had a trick play at the right time.

2010 Falcons are not quite up to that level yet, which is good because they have the potential to get even better.

Vince Dooley

December 17th, 2010
11:45 am

Hey Mark, can the AJC redirect “Sanford Drive” to the Junkyard Blawg? He seems to be too ignorant to realize this isn’t a story about UGA’s disappointing season.

D man

December 17th, 2010
11:51 am

1980 team was the best ever. Should have won the superbowl with that team. Leaman shouldn’t have gone to the prevent defense. AAaaaaaauuuuuugggggghhhhhhhh!!!!!!

Lamar Maddox

December 17th, 2010
11:58 am

If this team wins the SB, then they are the best team hands down.

FalconsFan284

December 17th, 2010
12:01 pm

Joe Tess——What is your evidence for Matt Ryan getting worse? If a guy finds a way to win then how can he be getting worse? Look at his play, in the fourth quarter, against Tampa Bay. Did he not lead the Falcons down the field and to the win? Against Carolina, the team was up BIG so why would they throw the ball? Just because you want to believe Matt isn’t the right quartback doesn’t mean he isn’t the right quarterback. You just keep making one moronic statement after the next, with no evidence to back it up!