“He who believes is strong; he who doubts is weak. Strong convictions precede great actions.” – Louisa May Alcott
“Every adversity, every failure, every heartache carries with it the seed of an equal or greater benefit.” – Napoleon Hill
Two years ago, Falcons’ owner Arthur Blank fired the most successful head coach in the franchise’s history. “This was not a decision based on one season, or even two seasons, and certainly not on one game. It’s about looking forward and having the right structure… to take us to the next level,” Blank said, one day after an embarrassing loss at home to the Carolina Panthers. Although Mike Smith coached the Falcons to five straight winning seasons in his first five years, the Falcons only had one playoff win during his seven-year tenure. Under Smith, the Falcons were usually good and even very good at times, but never quite good enough.
This has been the curse of all Atlanta sports: having very good teams that cower when it counts the most. So dark is the cloud hanging over the city that even a 1995 World Series Championship is overshadowed by the many more times that the Braves just didn’t get it done. The history of failure is so thick that the collective fan base doubts its team’s ability to breakthrough. Failure is feared, and often accepted as inevitable.
Enter Dan Quinn. Before Atlanta’s Divisional Round playoff, Quinn promised former Seahawks’ player Michael Robinson that the Falcons were going to bring the fight to Seattle. “Bullies don’t like to be bullied,” he said. The Falcons delivered, dominating on both sides of the ball for most of the game, but not before taking the first punch from the Seahawks. This was a new look for the Falcons, whose identity under Mike Smith was getting off to a flying start, then hanging on for dear life. Playing not to lose almost cost the team its only playoff win in the Mike Smith era, after losing a 20-point halftime lead, and it arguably cost the Falcons a Super Bowl berth the next game, when they surrendered a 17-point lead. On Saturday, the Falcons displayed the same fight against this Seattle team that they did in Week 6 on the road, this time landing the knockout punch, in what could have been the last game ever in the Georgia Dome.
And this would have been remembered as a very good last game, but it’s not quite good enough. The Dome has hosted some special moments in Falcons’ history, like the playoff win against San Francisco in 1998, but the franchise’s greatest ones have always happened on the road. Atlanta punched a ticket to its only Super Bowl that same year by defeating the Vikings in the Metrodome, the same venue that later witnessed Michael Vick’s electrifying, game-winning, fifty-yard run. During the Vick era, the Falcons’ most legendary win came in Green Bay, when the Falcons became the first team to beat the Packers at Lambeau Field in the playoffs. Hall of Fame QB Brett Favre embracing Michael Vick after the game is one of the most iconic images in Atlanta sports history.
This Sunday, the Falcons will face another future Hall of Fame Packers Quarterback, but this time, in their own backyard. The last time Aaron Rodgers played a playoff game in the Georgia Dome, he beat the Falcons into submission. But this time, this Atlanta team has a different look in its eye. It is much like the look George McFly had when he clinched his fist and punched Biff in the face. It is for moments like this that Arthur Blank made what he called the toughest business decision he has ever made in firing Mike Smith. It is for moments like this that Dan Quinn was hired, because of his vision of a fast and physical team, and it is because of the confidence and mental toughness that Quinn has instilled in his unit that this team believes it will rewrite franchise history.
Its fans are starting to believe, too. And how could they have asked for a more fitting finish for the Georgia Dome? The celebrated Rodgers, always in the spotlight, sporting his characteristic smugness, versus the quiet Matt Ryan, who never raises eyebrows in a press conference, and has always played from the shadows. He, too, has a very different look, eyeing redemption, and it is quite apropos that his story arc is reminiscent of the Falcons’ one as well: a quarterback that has been very good at times, but never quite good enough. This Sunday is a pivotal moment for the franchise, and the franchise’s QB as well. This is the game that can take Ryan and the Falcons to the next level that Arthur Blank envisioned. Blank himself said Thursday that he feels more confident about this team than any of the others in his 15 years as owner of the club. The real question is, “Who doesn’t?”
If anyone still doubts, perhaps he should be reminded that the New England Patriots only had 16 winning seasons in the franchise’s first 41 years. This season was the Falcons’ 15th in 51. But this Sunday, though the lights will be turned off in the Georgia Dome, forever, the Atlanta Falcons will have a chance to change the legacy of their team and their city, by initiating the dawn of a new era of faith in Atlanta sports, and of world class football, fit for a world class stadium. Every adversity has led to this moment. Do you believe?
Top Photo Credit: Movie TV Tech Geeks