For a while Sunday against the hapless, hopeless and winless New Orleans Saints, it looked as if the Atlanta Falcons meant to do their teetering trick again. In six of their seven wins going into Sunday's game at Atlanta's Fulton County Stadium they had come from behind, sometimes by means of near miracles. It took a bomb in the final two minutes to beat Los Angeles, and two weeks ago the Falcons trailed St. Louis 24-6 at halftime before tying the Cardinals and then winning in overtime. Now, just four plays into the Saints game, they were behind again, 7-0.
Archie Manning had moved New Orleans 80 yards with ridiculous ease to that score, which came on a 26-yard pass from Manning to Wes Chandler, who found himself wide open behind an obviously confused Atlanta secondary. And after that, the NFC West-leading Falcons, who earlier in the week had been accused in an Atlanta newspaper of behaving like the overconfident hare in another celebrated race, played as though they were determined, this time, to let the opposition stay in front. Twice in the first quarter they reached the Saints' one-yard line. From those two drives, however, they netted only three points. In jeopardy was the one-game lead they held over the Rams' in their division.
But that, as it turned out, was as far as the Falcons were prepared to let the foolishness go. On this day, at least, they would need no miracle finish. They went ahead for good in the second quarter, held a 10-7 lead at halftime and from there on methodically put the Saints away, 31-13. The weapons were the same ones they have been using all season: the passing of Steve Bartkowski, the running of William Andrews and Lynn Cain, and the hard hitting of a young defense that is murder against the run. The victory, Atlanta's fifth straight, made its record 8-3 and, unhappily for the sports desk moralists, left the Falcons every reason to be overconfident about the future. For one thing, league rules say that each conference must send five teams into the playoffs, and at the moment there are only six in the whole NFC with winning records.
Bartkowski is enjoying his finest season. The 6'4", 213-pound, sixth-year quarterback put Atlanta in front to stay with five minutes left in the half on a perfectly thrown 47-yard pass to Wide Receiver Alfred Jackson. In the second half Bartkowski dived one yard for the Falcons' second touchdown and then threw two more scoring passes—five yards to Wide Receiver Wallace Francis and 10 yards to rookie Tight End Junior Miller. Bartkowski's job was made easier by the fact that the Saints were having so much trouble stopping the running of Cain and Andrews, who gained 93 and 79 yards, respectively. Rushing like that made Bartkowski's play-action passes work like magic.
Meanwhile, the Atlanta defense was allowing New Orleans just 82 yards running, the third straight week it had kept an opponent below the 100-yard mark. True, the secondary was giving up 235 yards in the air, but Atlanta has never claimed to have a pass defense. As one Falcon official put it last week, "If we had a secondary, we'd be dangerous."
The defense didn't yield the Saints' second touchdown, meaningless by then, until less than two minutes remained in the game. Most of the crowd of 53,871 had already departed, leaving a banner behind the south end zone that summed up their feelings. It said WE LOVE OUR NO. 1 FALCONS.
That sentiment represents a big turnaround for the Falcons, who were booed mercilessly in the early years of the franchise. In those days fumbles and interceptions often seemed part of the Falcon game plan. Firing coaches in midseason was standard practice, and the front office was the laughingstock of the league. The corporate name of the Falcons is The Five Smiths, Inc., after owner Rankin Smith's five children, but the way management operated, The Three Stooges, Inc. would have been more appropriate.
The football follies in Atlanta came to an abrupt end on Feb. 1, 1977, when Smith turned over control of the front office to Eddie LeBaron, the 5'5" former quarterback of the Washington Redskins and Dallas Cowboys, who was practicing law in Las Vegas at the time. Two days later General Manager LeBaron hired Leeman Bennett, a Ram assistant, to be the Falcons' fourth coach in less than three years. Together with Player Personnel Director Tom Braatz, they quickly reversed the Falcons' fortunes. Atlanta finished 7-7 in '77 and in '78 made the playoffs for the first time, with a 9-7 record. Last year the team slipped to 6-10, but five of those losses were by less than seven points.
LeBaron defines his organizational philosophy this way: "Plan your work and work your plan." His plan, gleaned from his days with the Cowboys, is to concentrate on the draft and be patient while the players develop. Since he took over three years ago, Atlanta hasn't dealt away a single draft choice, while trading for seven belonging to other teams. In fact, both Andrews and Cain, who this season have rushed for more yards than any other tandem in the NFL, were chosen on draft picks acquired in trades.
Before they arrived last year, Atlantans hadn't seen a ground attack since Sherman marched his visiting team to the sea. The two newcomers seemed unlikely candidates to change that situation, because both had spent most of their time in college blocking for real running backs. At Auburn, Andrews had cleared paths for two such: Joe Cribbs, the Buffalo rookie who is the AFC's third-leading rusher, and James Brooks, who last week broke Cribbs' school career rushing record. Cain was the fullback who led the way for Charles White during White's junior year at USC.
However, Andrews was an immediate success, rushing for 100 yards in each of his first two games. He went on to set a Falcon single-season mark of 1,023 yards, and with 843 yards already this year should break that record easily. He also caught 38 passes and has caught 38 more this season—an even bigger surprise because he had only seven receptions total in his college career. Andrews is just six feet, 200 pounds, but he's a punishing inside runner. This year he is third in the NFL in yards per carry, at 5.1, despite the fact that his longest run has been but 33 yards.
In contrast, Cain's first season ended in disaster when he tore up his right knee in the 10th game. Privately, the Falcons doubted whether he could ever come back, but Cain was determined. Instead of going home to Southern California he spent the off-season at the motel next to the Falcons' practice facility. He would jog up to seven miles a day and then work for hours on the team's weight machines. At night he had a recurring nightmare in which his knee once again collapsed under a defender's hit. Cain didn't even have a car to provide an occasional escape from his routine. "Never have I seen anyone pay the price that Lynn Cain did," says Bennett. But that work paid off. Cain returned to the starting lineup at full speed this year and the 6'1", 205-pounder now leads the Falcons in touchdowns with eight.
The biggest factor in Atlanta's offense, however, is Bartkowski. He was already there when LeBaron and Bennett arrived in '77, but his career seemed destined to be a disappointment. When the Falcons made him the first pick of the draft in 1975, he was dubbed "the savior." "I really thought I could walk in here and turn this thing around overnight," he says. Bartkowski tried to live up to the image off the field, too. He was driving a Porsche and frequenting the nightclubs on Peachtree Street.
Then his life went sour. A whirlwind romance with an airline stewardess led to a disastrous 130-day marriage. There was a driving-under-the-influence arrest. Injuries began to cut into his playing time. By his fourth preseason, in 1978, the cheers had turned to boos. After he was hooted off the field following a miserable showing in an exhibition loss to Philadelphia, he cried in the locker room. His confidence gone, Bennett benched him.
"That was the lowest I've been in my life and it was the best thing that ever happened to me," Bartkowski says now. "My priorities were all wrong. Football was the most important thing in my world. It was my god and I was losing the ability to handle it. Those boos totally overturned me as a person. The only way God could get through to me was sitting me down on the bench. I had to do a lot of thinking, but finally I gave everything to God. He's given it back to me tenfold."
Bartkowski reclaimed his job in the third game that season and went on to lead the Falcons to a wild-card berth while setting team single-season records for completions and passing yardage. He broke those records last year and will undoubtedly set new ones this year.
Bartkowski has learned to keep defenses guessing by distributing his passes evenly among his targets. Wide Receivers Francis and Alfred Jenkins, Running Back Andrews and Tight End Miller have all caught between 30 and 40 passes. Bartkowski has never before thrown fewer interceptions than touchdown passes in a season, but this year he has passed for 20 TDs, a club record, while being intercepted just 11 times.
Nowadays, Bartkowski's conversation is sprinkled with references to God and the Bible, but he isn't didactic. "The Lord is my life now," he says, "but because of my leadership role on this team I can't go forcing my views on others." Asked how his faith has actually helped his play on the field, Bartkowski replies: "Matthew 6:33 says, 'But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you.' " Then he concludes with a smile. "Last year the Lord added two running backs."
Wherever the credit belongs, these days the Falcons are on high.