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.
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