They keep notching wins — six, seven, now eight in a row. Last Sunday against Dallas they sent enough field goals through the posts to keep it all going.
The Atlanta Falcons, football’s sweetest peach, the last of the unbeatens. But as the Georgia Dome audience hoots and hollers, the rest of the nation soaks the mood with a great ocean of yawns.
The Falcons? Yeah, sure. Tell someone who cares. Something to do with respect, it seems.
Here’s a respect story. I used to work in a steel mill as a foreman, on the late shift, running a crew of seasoned union guys in their 40s and 50s and 60s. I was 23. If they liked you they could make it real easy for you. If not, they’d gang up and grind you down.
One of the bosses I worked for was a little guy named Mike. A cross between Napoleon and the cartoon dog Mr. Peabody. Short man’s syndrome, and a professional second-guesser. Each morning he would wheel in and check the numbers and the inquisition would start.
“Why was the line stopped? Why were you down so long? Did you try this? Did you turn this valve? Look, when I was a turn foreman…”
Same grilling nearly every day. Why? No respect for the young guy, I guess, despite the fact the other bosses around said I was doing a swell job. It got to the point where I wasn’t happy there and I had to do something about Mr. Peabody. Next time there’s a problem I’ll immediately turn to someone who has all the solutions and answers.
That’s when the 3 a.m. phone calls started. Right to the boss’ house. Ring, ring.
“Hey Mike, sorry to wake you but, ah, well, you see, it looks like we have an issue with No. 1 cooling tank and…”
Four or five of those babies, right in the REM sleep sweet spot, and the second-guessing ceased. Ahhh, instant respect.
The respect issue with the Falcons rests in their history, both ancient and current. First, the ancient. It has not been a glamorous franchise. There are no Medici or Vanderbilt bloodlines here. The tapestry stitching depicts days of letdown and armies in retreat. Their only Hall of Famer is Deion Sanders. They have reached the conference championship game twice since entering the league in 1966. Name the greatest Falcons team — the Bartkowski one that blew the big lead in the 1980 playoffs, or the ’98 version that got jammed by Denver in the Super Bowl?
Recent times gives us the era of Mike Smith. In five years as head coach, Smith comes off as dignified and smart but he’s bland so you don’t embrace him that way. But he has posted a 51-21 record, and already it’s the best in team history.
“We’ve done some good things but there are places we have to get better,” you’ll hear him explain in his weekly recap. “On defense, we affected the quarterback.”
QB Matt Ryan registers the same way on the charisma meter. He keeps himself clean and lays it on the money, but he won’t crack you up in the postgame presser. People like a little bit of personality, a little flavor in their coach or their quarterback — the same way nobody wants a skinny Santa.
In the Smith-Ryan era, it has been a winning formula through autumn but there has been no payoff at the end. Ryan throwing and Michael Turner running and Roddy White catching, then Smith explaining what went wrong after a big playoff beatdown.
In ’08 versus Arizona, it was Antrel Rolle on a fumble-return touchdown and Ryan taking a sack in the endzone.
In 2010 with home advantage all the way, they spit up four turnovers and Aaron Rodgers bombed them out of the Georgia Dome.
And last year in New York, you watched Hakeem Nicks take it 72 yards, outracing four Falcons and splitting open a tight game that saw the Falcons' offense produce zero points.
Defensively, the Falcons have never been a gang of hell raisers. There was a time when they were called "The Grits Blitz" and that was fun but it was also 100 years ago.
They never have owned a No. 1-ranked defense in yardage allowed (the 1977 "Gritz Blitz" bunch led the league in points allowed and was No. 2 in yardage). They’ll go through phases at home where they’re wired to the sky and wrecking the pocket and cleaning up the line of scrimmage. Then you hit one deep on them for a quick seven points and all helium leaves the balloon and the offense is back on the job. A lot of dome teams thrive on those kinds of crowd frenzies, all the closed-in noise and the other QB unable to hear.
And, still, these Falcons go about their earthly business. They’re on a no-apology tour.
“We’re not concerned about the doubters,” says Turner, who broke the goal line in the fourth quarter Sunday to get past the Cowboys.
“The buzz will come if we keep doing what we’re doing,” said TE Tony Gonzalez, whose website humbly lists him as “NFL Superstar.”
“We haven’t had any success in the playoffs, so everybody’s like ‘Oh, same story — they’re good during the regular season, but let’s not make a big deal out of it ‘cause they’re going to lose in the playoffs.’
“I understand why. But it’s up to us to keep doing what we’ve been doing, put all that noise out of our minds.”
“We have no respect yet,” S William Moore said. "[Fans] are not going to respect us until we get a ring.”
In other words, it’s time to shake up the boss. It’s time to start making some three-in-the-morning phone calls.
Tom Danyluk is an award-winning freelance writer based in Chicago. His book on pro football, "The Super '70s," is available at Amazon.com. You can contact Tom at Danyluk1@yahoo.com.