The Atlanta Falcons have never won a Super Bowl. In fact, the only time they’ve made it to a Super Bowl was in 1998, and between John Elway’s on-the-field antics and Eugene Robinson’s off-the-field ones, well, let’s just say that trip to Miami didn’t work out too well. This year Atlanta is perhaps the least respected No. 1 seed we’ve ever seen. Two more wins, though, and that disrespect and tortured history will morph, for Falcons fans, from a source of despair into funny little anecdotes. So, was this how most expected the season to go? Before the season, for the inaugural issue of TD Magazine, we sent a writer down to ATL to get a feel for the team and its fans. Here’s what he saw.—Ed.
“$40 for Parking.”
The sign says it all. The packed Atlanta streets and plumes of smoke coming from serious tailgating around the block from the Georgia Dome certainly suggest that something’s going on, but it’s not until you see a $40 parking sign that you know something major is happening. And, folks, Justin Bieber ain’t in town.
The funny thing about the price is that you could almost understand it had it been for the Falcons’ September 17 regular-season home opener vs the Peyton Manning-led Denver Broncos or even the November 29 matchup with the rival New Orleans Saints. But this is the August 9 pre-season tilt with the Baltimore Ravens. C’mon, homie! Ed Reed and Ray Lewis aren’t suiting up. Most of the starters won’t even see action after the first quarter.
But the parking lot owner has done his homework. He knows folks will pay just about anything to be a part of a football game—preseason, regular season, doesn’t matter.
Listen, watching Gabby Douglas and Team USA was great for the nation. Seeing the Washington Nationals and Oakland Athletics fight for MLB Playoff spots is kinda cool, too. But around the nation, especially in the Deep South, the gridiron has a grip on the sports world like none other.
Around the Dome on this night, two emotions ring as loud as the anger over parking: excitement and nervous tension. The former comes mostly from fans draped in Falcons black and red, and the brave few who chose to wear Ravens purple. As for the uneasiness, that’s coming from the stadium staff. There’s a Six Flags-like security line that Falcons fans have never experienced before, and ticket checkers who just seem to be on edge. It’s probably nothing, just a league-wide safety initiative or something like that. Still, it feels awkward.
The mood is much more relaxed inside. The field looks great. The $35 fitted caps neatly line the souvenir stand. Personal pizzas and chicken wings smell pretty good. The pre-kickoff stands are their usual 60 percent full. (Atlanta is a notoriously late-arriving city.)
“I have missed football since our last game in January,” explains Deborah Beck, a Falcons season ticket holder the past three years. “But as soon as I walked in the Dome, all felt right with the world again. The atmosphere is great the guys look great, and it feels great to be back in my seats yelling. This is our year. I love my Falcons!”
Deborah’s assessment of the team is spot-on in the first quarter. The Atlanta offense—which many analysts believe will be one of the NFL’s most explosive in 2012—comes out guns hot. Though QB Matt Ryan’s first few handoffs to running back Michael Turner go nowhere, his next four passes hit the all-world receiving duo of Roddy White and Julio Jones. After a Jones TD grab, the second-year wideout offers a quick “Dirty Bird” dance. The Ravens secondary isn’t amused. Falcons fans, and presumably Jamal Anderson, are all smiles.
“Julio did a good job for us,” Ryan would say after Jones’ 109-yard, 1-touchdown performance. “One of the things that we saw from him last year, and saw again in the pre-season game, is his ability to catch a pass a yard down the field and make something out of it. I think he caught a screen pass for something like 25 yards. He’s done a great job. He’s worked really, really hard. I think the sky’s the limit for him.”
The score is 7-0 Falcons at the end of the first quarter. By the start of the second, the seats are about 70 percent full. Too bad for the latecomers Jones and White’s (46 yards on three receptions) nights are over. Good thing for the tardy fans that Baltimore’s Ray Rice (3 carries, 4 yards) and Joe Flacco (88 passing yards, sacked twice) are done stinkin’ it up for the evening as well.
More subs, of course, means more three-and-outs. We get that. What isn’t so cut and dried are all the sloppy moves from other parts of the venue. (And no, smart ass, the replacement refs aren’t the problem; their night of officiating goes mostly flub-free.) It’s the in-house entertainment programmer that ears have the issue with.
The dude flips from Carly Rae Jepsen’s “Call Me Maybe” to Gucci Mane’s “So Icy” in a two-minute window. The Jumbotron also glitches during a lottery-style game that gives prizes away to a winning Dome section. But hey, it is the preseason: Better work out the wrinkles now before stuff gets real.
Baltimore head coach John Harbaugh must have said something similar to his troops in the locker room. Down 17-7 at the break, the AFC title contenders come out with an altogether new level of intensity in the third. Hell, Ravens backup QB Curtis Painter looks like a Pro Bowler, shredding a now-porous backup Falcons D for two TDs. Atlanta’s offense wasn’t much better, getting one first down and scoring 0 points. 24-17 Ravens at the end of three quarters.
As the home team’s fight wanes, so too does the home crowd’s enthusiasm. In fact, at one point late in the contest, a promo video starring Samuel L. Jackson imploring fans to “Rise Up!” nearly startles the placid stands. That sort of thing tends to happen when a team manages just two first downs in the second half of a game.
“I thought it was a good turnout,” Ryan would later say about the overall feel from the sideline. “Our fans have always been supportive. It was loud in the first half. Sometimes it gets a little quiet in the second half, but you expect that in the preseason. It’s good to be back in the Dome.”
Painter would go on to dampen the mood even more by adding another TD pass, making the final 31-17 Ravens. But we all know pre-season scores are like Tyler Perry movies—someone has to record them, but they don’t really mean that much.
“It’s preseason and it took us a little while to get going,” Flacco told the Baltimore Sun after the victory. “We’ve got to look back at some of those plays and miscues, because the Falcons got a couple good pressures. There are a lot of things we can do better on third down in terms of recognizing the man coverage and trying to break away a little bit. But on that last drive, it was good to get into a rhythm and get it going a little bit.”
Coach Harbaugh added, “It was obvious in the first half that we have a lot of things to work on. Really, we need to be better on offense, defense and special teams. There were times we played like Ravens, but we were not consistent.”
That quote could also easily explain the Falcons’ overall performance, an opening night of highs (Julio Jones), lows (just about everyone in the second half) and plenty of kinks to work out over the next week.
Ryan, who was 9-13 with 155 yards and 1 INT, agrees: “We turned the ball over in the red zone. That’s certainly not something you want to do. It’s not conducive to winning in this league. So, there are some things we need to clean up, but there were some positives. When you watch the tape… You hear the old saying, ‘Things are never as good, never as bad as they seem on game day when you watch them [later] on tape.’ I think, even though we were productive moving the ball down the field, there were some mistakes that we made and things that we can do better.”
* * *
Atlanta Falcons training camp is held at the team headquarters in Flowery Branch, GA, which is about 45 miles north of the Dome. On some days of camp the organization opens its doors to fans who want to watch workouts. Oh, and the parking is free.
Today, however, isn’t one of those days with lots of folks walking about. Only media and a special group of gawkers wearing VIP badges are allowed on the campus.
The practice is a spirited one. Lots of energy. A couple of nicks and sprains. One squabble between two third-stringers. But that’s training camp. One minute the whole team is scrimmaging against each other. The next, an air horn goes off and the two sides split into smaller units. The linebackers go one place, the receivers head another and the kickers, well, they just kinda stay to themselves. It’s all an intricate system of routines necessary to make the team better.
“I think we did pretty good [in the pre-season opener],” insists Falcons safety Thomas DeCoud. “It may not have showed. We had a few miscommunications here and there. But we were able to play fast and get off the field. We just gotta keep building on that. If we eliminate those small miscommunications that could have led to something bad, we could play flawless defense.”
Linebacker Sean Weatherspoon also seems to be taking the L in stride. All through practice, in fact, Spoon’s light-hearted sarcasm resonates through the air. “I commend you on your stellar performance,” he yells to a backup lineman. “You guys smell that gum? That’s Wrigley’s,” he informs a bit later to anyone within earshot about the snack production plant down the road.
Matt Ryan isn’t one to burst the free-spirited camp’s bubble, just as long as guys can turn serious at the right times. “One of the things I like about preseason is that it gives you a chance to make sure you’re on top of your rules,” the Pro Bowl QB explains. “You’re not really game planning against someone else. You’re kinda just adjusting to things on the fly. I also think it’s a good indicator of what guys really know. It’s encouraging to see some of the positive things. And the negative things, we’ll just have to keep working on.”
That philosophy applies across the NFL landscape. Preseason or not, the objective is to do your part individually with the hopes it’ll all come together as a team when it matters. That explains why at 6 p.m., the scheduled time for Falcons practice to end today, Ryan and the rest of the first-stringers are still on the field, tightening up their red zone offense.
“As a professional,” DeCoud says, “you always wanna stay on top of the ball. You don’t want to have to start an off-season program or training camp behind the eight ball. You’re just hurting yourself in the end. But you definitely have to get used to game speed. It takes a week, week and a half to get things brewed up to that game speed. Practice is one thing, but the game’s a totally different monster.”
DeMarco Williams is a TDdaily contributor based in Atlanta. Follow him on Twitter @demarcowill.