The surprising Atlanta Falcons finally played down to form last Sunday, losing to the previously winless Buffalo Bills 3-0 in Buffalo. It was not a titanic struggle; the real winners were the 2,311 no-shows. Still, for the fifth straight week Atlanta displayed a heretofore well-concealed obsession with victory. Facing fourth and one at the Bills' four-yard line with less than four minutes to play, they shunned a tying field goal and went for the jugular. They came up with a mouthful of dirt. But even in defeat the Falcons, with a 3-2 record, held on to a share of first place in the NFC West with the Los Angeles Rams, whom they upset 17-6 on opening day.
These exalted heights don't shock anybody quite as much as the Falcons themselves. In fact, Eddie LeBaron and Leeman Bennett, Atlanta's new general manager and head coach, wasted the whole summer preparing Falcon fans for the likelihood that their team wouldn't win—at least not this season. Theirs was a carefully calculated public-relations posture designed to buy time for some much-needed rebuilding—several years of time—while avoiding the pitfall common to most new administrations, which is arousing vain expectations. The game plan for the 1977 Falcons was patience. But apparently Quarterback Scott Hunter and Running Back Haskel Stanback and a lot of other players not nearly so well known never got the message. Now the long-suffering fans of Losersville, U.S.A. are expecting miracles from their new heroes. For the team's next home game, against Minnesota on Oct. 30, they have bought more tickets—60,740—than to any previous Falcon contest.
How does Bennett handle this unexpected turn of events? Delicately. "I don't know that we have the coaching to be a contender," says the coach. "I don't know that we have the personnel to be a contender. But we do have the record of a contender." Who can argue?
Yet the Falcons' first-place standing is not totally inexplicable. Much of the explanation for Atlanta's surprising rise, and Buffalo's corresponding decline (Sunday's victory was the first for the Bills in five games), can be found in an area frequently undervalued in the NFL—the operation of the front office. For most of their brief histories the Falcons and Bills have served as primers on how not to run front offices. Most, if not all, of the blame has fallen on the teams' owners, Atlanta's Rankin Smith and Buffalo's Ralph Wilson.
Wilson, who lives in Detroit, has hired all the head coaches and key front office personnel in the Bills' 18 years, and in that entire period has come up with just one sound football man for his organization—Lou Saban. Saban coached Buffalo to two championships in the mid-'60s, then left and wasn't lured back until after the 1971 season, when the Bills slipped to 1-13. Wilson gave him authority over all football matters. Within three years Saban got Buffalo back into the playoffs. But as the team improved, Wilson gradually undercut his coach's authority, most noticeably by taking away control of the draft, which Saban had handled admirably, and turning it over to an old favorite, Personnel Director Harvey Johnson, who failed miserably. Last year Saban resigned in frustration. After he left, Buffalo lost 13 straight games under his beleaguered successor, Jim Ringo, a streak that didn't end until last Sunday.
Smith's meddling with the Falcons' fortunes reached new depths last year. In 1975 Smith had hired a Miami Dolphin personnel man, Pat Peppier, as general manager, without giving him authority over the hiring and firing of coaches. Peppier recommended to Smith that he fire the head coach, Marion Campbell. Smith, loyal to Campbell, refused and never forgave his GM. When the owner eventually did fire Campbell last year after a 30-0 loss to New Orleans, he replaced him with a reluctant Peppier, saying, in effect, that if he knew so much, he should be the coach. None of this was likely to stir the Falcons to greater efforts on the playing field.
Even before the season ended, Smith announced that he intended to sweep the Falcon house clean. Rumors flew. Joe Thomas was supposed to be all set to take control, but he wanted too much money and ended up in San Francisco instead. Former Arkansas Coach Frank Broyles was offered the general manager's job but turned it down. Redskin Coach George Allen and Dallas Personnel Director Gil Brandt were other alleged candidates. Then, off the wall, Smith announced he had picked LeBaron, the former Cowboy and Redskin quarterback who had been practicing law in Nevada for the past 13 years.
Among the prospective coaches were Texas Tech's Steve Sloan, Pitt's Johnny Majors, the Raiders' John Madden and Allen. The job went to Bennett, an assistant in charge of receivers with the Los Angeles Rams, who at 39 thus became the youngest head coach in the NFL. His chief claim to fame was that he had called all the plays in the Rams' 59-0 rout of the Falcons the previous year. The Atlanta Constitution was quick to offer an editorial opinion: "The Atlanta Falcons have done it again. They have hired two men who have no previous experience at the jobs for which they have been hired. Just more reorganizing and rebuilding—like that of an expansion team—after 11 years in the NFL." Season-ticket sales dropped to an alltime low of 33,000.
To close Falcon observers, however, there were encouraging signs from the new hierarchy. For openers, Smith stayed out of the picture and has continued to do so, seemingly serious about turning the whole show over to LeBaron. As one newspaper headline gratefully noted, MR. SMITH GOES TO WATCHING.
More important, LeBaron and Bennett worked well together, something no Falcon general manager and coach had ever accomplished. "Our basic plan," says the new GM, "is to go with the draft. My role is to make sure we're always looking ahead, that we don't make decisions that will only help us today and not down the road. I have to provide the coach with all the tools he needs to win and make sure he doesn't have to look over his shoulder all the time." Along these lines LeBaron gave Bennett five years on his contract.
This front-office harmony hasn't been lost on the Atlanta players. "We never had any contentment in the locker room, because there was never any in the front office," says Defensive End Claude Humphrey, who had asked to be traded and was all set to go to Buffalo this summer before LeBaron convinced him the future was bright in Atlanta. "The front office hassling rubbed off on the team. We were always up tight. There was no job security." Adds Stanback, "This is my fourth year here and in every one I've had a different coach. There was always pressure here because the coach knew he was going to be fired and he was letting us know that he wasn't going down alone."
On the field the job of remodeling the Falcons proved more trying, particularly when the club lost its quarterback, Steve Bartkowski, for the first half of the season and its best running back (some say its only running back), Bubba Bean, for the whole season with knee injuries. Bennett used a conservative approach. In training camp this summer he installed just two plays a day—a running play in the morning and a passing play in the afternoon. He cut down Atlanta's playbook and its game plans, substituting endless repetition.
The approach worked. Atlanta has not made costly mistakes. Hunter, who was waived out of football two years ago and spent 1975 running for county commissioner in Mobile, Ala.—and losing—has thrown only two interceptions. Meanwhile Atlanta has fumbled the ball away just three times, an important statistic since Bennett's Falcons are a running team. Bennett subscribes to the theories of Bud Goode, a computer statistician whom he and several other NFL coaches have on the payroll as consultant. Goode's theory of offense is simple: the more you run, the more you win, regardless of how well you run. After their first four games this season the Falcons were dead last in the league in average yards per rush, a comment on their talent. On the other hand they had rushed the ball more than any other NFL team except Oakland and were the surprise of the league with their first-place standing. But no surprise to Goode. "Leeman," he says, "is my best student."
And for the moment at least, the Falcons are the NFL's best study in instant improvement. Why, last week a Falcon official even answered his telephone saying, "Super Bowl headquarters." It had a nice, official ring to it. But then the official burst out laughing. In Atlanta, the game plan is still patience.