All of this national media attention being foisted on my hometown team, after a regular season of obsessing over the Giants, Jets, Redskins, Cowboys, 49ers, Eagles and Packers — and more or less in that order — is making me very, very nervous.
The Atlanta Falcons have home field advantage in the NFC playoffs, which is anxiety-producing enough. Now the team known more for its litany of losing and the sordid Vick-Petrino saga is in the crosshairs of a sporting press that’s fixated on a singular theme — why success has eluded the Falcons recently.
Yes, the Falcons haven’t won a playoff game under current coach Mike Smith (0-3), who became the franchise’s winningest coach during the regular season.
And so the headlines have gone like this:
• “Falcons hope for something different, a playoff win” — Gee thanks, Atlanta-based CNN and Terence Moore, my former AJC colleague
• “Russell Wilson tops Matt Ryan in playoff trustworthiness” — Adam Schein, NFL.com, trollin’ trollin’ trollin’
• “Falcons primed to rewrite history” — Ashley Fox, ESPN.com, who didn’t go back far enough in time
But hey, no pressure. None at all. Not for a franchise that didn’t even appear in a playoff game until its 13th season of existence. The following week, after that first, glorious, one-point victory, came an especially painful moment, a loss to Dallas in the divisional playoffs. My season-ticket-holding father was hopeful we were fated for better things.
We were, but it took another 20 years.
The elation was off the charts when the Falcons reached the Super Bowl after the 1998 season. John Elway was very, very good in a Broncos rout, but in Atlanta we couldn’t get past the prostitution-related arrest of Falcons cornerback Eugene Robinson the night before the game.
This is how it has gone for the Falcons — from purely awful to rare moments of splendor followed by humiliating, utter devastation, typically coming away from the field.
The absolute lowest moment — lower than drafting Aundray Bruce No. 1 or trading away Brett Favre — was Michael Vick heading off to federal prison after pleading guilty to dogfighting charges in 2007, two years after a glittering ride to the NFC finals and a $130 million contract extension. The Face of the Franchise, in handcuffs, bound for Leavenworth.
The day after that, and after promising Falcons owner Arthur Blank he was staying put, Petrino bugged out for the Ozarks, seen on a midnight “SportsCenter” calling the Hogs.
We all know what eventually happened to Petrino, which is to say he isn’t mourned around here.
“The Falcons, frankly, for 42 years or so didn’t have a lot of big moments. Now they’ve got a lot in the last five years with Mike Smith and how things have gone out there. So, you pick the big moments and you immediately pick the biggest stage they’ve been on and it’s the Super Bowl and that’s number one in there.”
While those aspirations are certainly in the air once again, so is an abnormal amount of unusual tension. Of having to live up to expectations, of all things.
For Falcons tight end Tony Gonzalez, the playoff drought is even more pronounced, since he never won a post-season game during all those years with the Chiefs. Former Kansas City Star columnist Joe Posnanski writes about the future Pro Football Hall of Famer this way:
People keep asking Tony G. if he will REALLY retire after this season, and he keeps saying that he’s 95 percent sure that he will. Why 95 percent? Well, I think he can’t help but wait to see what happens in Sunday’s playoff game at home against Seattle. Gonzalez wants it. He needs it. He keeps saying this is the best team he has ever been on, and they are at home, and, yes, he needs that victory. He wants to retire, of course. He doesn’t even want to think about the pain if he loses in the playoffs again.
Of course, no pressure. None at all. Especially when you’ve been written off by Nate Silver.
Actually, there’s also spirit of celebration here, given the city’s deep rudders of defeat, its historically warm embrace of the college game, nearly two decades of the Braves’ renaissance and the fact that we’re bloody surrounded by neighbors, co-workers and fellow parishioners from somewhere, anywhere, else, whose allegiances are to teams in towns they’ve permanently left behind.
Jason Kirk of SB Nation explains why perceptions of Atlanta as a bad sports town are all wrong.
Atlanta-based Sports Illustrated writer Thomas Lake has professed his Falcons addiction, shared with his brother, in a story apparently fit only for print.
A Falcons fan message board reprints it here:
Maybe we’ll fall short again this year. The experts have already written us off. We have 46 years of losing behind us.
This better not be a back-door jinx.