The Super Bowl isn’t the only event celebrating a golden milestone this season.
The Atlanta Falcons are also commemorating a landmark occasion this year as the franchise marks its 50th anniversary in the NFL. The festivities begin with a Monday night clash against the Philadelphia Eagles at the Georgia Dome.
The Falcons have experienced more valleys than peaks over the past half century, posting an all-time record of 322-424-6 with a 7-12 mark in the playoffs. They are winless in their sole Super Bowl appearance.
Nevertheless, the team is a cultural fixture in the Atlanta, sitting at the regional dais alongside sweet tea, soul food and spring cotillions. While die-hard Falcons fans are far too familiar with misery, throughout this 50-year period, locals have also had a front row seat to witness some marquee players.
The superior play of these athletes transcended them to iconic status within the city and raised eyebrows among football enthusiasts nationwide.
It’s customary in sports to place an organization’s elite players on the Mount Rushmore of the franchise. Atlanta is no different, showcasing a fearsome foursome which could arguably have their faces engraved on the terrain of several clubs in the NFL. This list includes quarterbacks Steve Bartkowski and Michael Vick along with Hall of Famers Deion Sanders and Claude Humphrey.
Bartkowski was the No. 1 overall pick in the 1975 draft and quickly became the team’s first star player. His inaugural season was capped off by winning Rookie of the Year honors after throwing for 1,662 yards and 15 touchdowns.
Perhaps the signal caller’s best year took place in 1980, when he led the Falcons to a then franchise-best 12-4 record and their first division championship in the NFC West. Bartkowski threw for 3,544 yards and led the league with 31 touchdown passes that season. However, his historic campaign ended in bitter defeat after Atlanta fell to Dallas in the Divisional playoff round, 30-27. The Falcons led 24-10 entering the fourth quarter, but squandered it away in front of record crowd of over 60,000 fans at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium.
Prior to the ascension of current quarterback Matt Ryan, Bartkowski held every major franchise passing record. He now ranks second behind Ryan in passing yards (23,470), touchdowns (154), completions (1,871) and 300-yard games (12). Bartkowski’s No. 10 jersey hangs in the team’s Ring of Fame and he’s a member of the Georgia Sports Hall of Fame.
While Bartkowski’s stint with the Falcons is upheld with high praises, Michael Vick’s tenure in Atlanta is still marred by controversy with conflicting views nine years after his last play under center as a member of the organization.
Vick was the most electric and polarizing figure to sport a Falcons’ jersey since Deion Sanders. His blinding speed and rabbit-like agility baffled defenses while bringing fans to their feet in admiration. He led the team to its first and only road playoff victory in 2003 after defeating the Green Bay Packers, 27-7, at a snowy Lambeau Field. His mesmerizing moves not only made him the posterchild of the franchise with a $100 million-dollar contract, but one of the faces of athletic footwear and apparel behemoth Nike in the early 2000’s.
However, the high esteem in which he was held came to a screeching halt following the 2006 season after reports surfaced of Vick’s involvement in a dog fighting ring. He was eventually released, suspended and sentenced to federal prison.
Vick’s off-the-field drama drew as many headlines as his performance on the field. His case divided the city along racial and cultural lines. He was vilified by animal rights groups and pet lovers alike. Several Falcons fans, who at one point cheered his name and wore his famed No. 7 jersey, spewed racial slurs at him.
Although he’s nine years removed from the organization, and his tenure with the Falcons ended on the worst possible terms, Vick’s name still carries a lot of weight in Atlanta – both positive as well as negative.
People are still split in terms of how he is perceived and their willingness to forgive him. But his spectacular contributions to the franchise are noteworthy and will forever be linked to Falcons lore.
Vick’s and Bartkowski’s accomplishments are indisputable, as are those of Sanders and Humphries, whose career accomplishments ultimately led to enshrinement in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Neon Deion, also known as Prime Time, redefined the cornerback position and celebrity status of a professional athlete.
When he wasn’t busy playing baseball across the street for the Atlanta Braves, partying with MC Hammer, cutting an album or scintillating the crowd with his electrifying pregame entrance, Sanders stood alone as the epitome of a shut-down corner, locking up the opposition’s No. 1 receiver on a weekly basis.
During his tenure with the Falcons from 1989 to 1993, he covered Hall of Fame wide receivers Jerry Rice and Michael Irvin better than anyone else could have hoped to.
Sanders was the main attraction for a team that went to the playoffs only once during time in Atlanta. Along with his dominating presence on defense, he was also remarkable on special teams.
He changed the way teams covered punts and kickoffs en route to re-writing the record books. His career stats during his five years in Atlanta includes 24 interceptions, 789 punt return yards, 3,388 kickoff return yards, three kickoff return touchdowns, two punt return touchdowns and three interceptions returned for touchdowns. Some of those scores were capped off by an end zone celebration that began at the 20-yard line with his famed high-stepping routine.
Sanders and Vick came with flash. Bartkowski brought the heat with his arm. But Humphrey earned his spot on Mount Rushmore with fear and strength. The menacing defensive end abused offensive linemen, quarterbacks and running backs routinely for 10 seasons in Atlanta.
Drafted in the first round with the third overall pick out of Tennessee State, Humphrey bulldozed his way into the team record books, ranking first all-time with 94.5 sacks. He’s third on the list for sacks in a season, with 15.5 in 1976. He was a six-time Pro Bowler, which ranks first in team history, and was twice selected as an AP All-Pro.
From a team perspective, the greatest season in the 50 years of the organization took place in 1998 when the “Dirty Birds” went 14-2. The signature moment of this record-breaking campaign occurred in the NFC Championship Game when the visiting Falcons upset the Minnesota Vikings in overtime, 30-27, to advance to the Super Bowl. A game which included running back Jamaal Anderson leading the team in a collective “Dirty Bird” dance which even included head coach Dan Reeves flapping his wings with his players.
Unfortunately, on the grandest stage in sports, the reoccurring theme of heartache returned. The night prior to the game, star safety Eugene Robinson was arrested for soliciting an undercover police officer who was posing as a prostitute. He was released from jail and allowed to play in the game, but it was a stigma which loomed heavily over the team.
The Falcons were outplayed by the Denver Broncos in Super Bowl XXXIII, trailing 17-6 at the half and then 31-6 in the fourth quarter. Atlanta scored two late touchdowns to make it look respectable but lost, 34-19.
The Falcons’ 50-year flight has navigated through smooth and turbulent skies. The team from "A-Town" was eventually infused with pop culture and Atlanta’s budding music scene in the 1990's and it was commonplace to see acts like Outkast, Usher and TLC in attendance at the Georgia Dome. The two worlds unfortunately collided to make national headlines in 1994 when Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes of TLC threw wide receiver Andre Rison’s clothes in the bath tub and set them on fire, inciting a huge blaze that completely torched his million-dollar mansion. It seemed that everytime the Falcons stepped forward, the "Dirty Birds" took two steps back for the organization.
Although the team has been deprived championship success and sustained consistency, true loyalists continue to ride the wave with unyielding fandom.
With offensive stars like Ryan and wide receiver Julio Jones, combined with the unveiling of a new retractable roof facility, Mercedes-Benz Stadium, set to open in 2017, fans hope the early portion of the next 50 years presents a glorious highlight reel where winning is a common theme.