It was plagiarism, pure and simple. On Sunday afternoon all had seemed lost for the Atlanta Falcons, trailing Dallas by one and buried in their own territory with only 1:39 left to play. Until the Birds calmly lifted a page from Tom Landry's own book of miracle finishes.
Directing traffic for Atlanta on this last, heart-stopping drive was a Roger Staubach imposter named David Archer, who was cooler under pressure than any third-year free agent out of Iowa State has a right to be. After being sacked for the sixth time, ground into the Texas Stadium rug by gentlemen with more recognizable names than his—Randy White, John Dutton—Archer picked himself up, cleared his head and went back to work. One minute, two passes and 87 yards later, the Falcons had the ball on the Dallas one. Mick Luckhurst's field goal made it 37-35 and kept the Falcons—that's right, Atlanta, the red helmets with the ugly black birds on them—undefeated.
For only the second time in the 20-year history of the club, Atlanta is 3-0. In a city where football loyalties tend to lie with critters called Dawgs and Yellow Jackets, Falcon Fever is catching on nicely. Not long ago Falcon Fever was more likely to be a malady. Its symptoms were rampant injuries, scorched secondaries, anemic offense and acute apathy. The decline in the team's fortunes can be traced to Jan. 9, 1983, the day the Falcons relinquished an eight-point, third-quarter lead and lost to Minnesota 30-24 in the first round of the playoffs. The Birds went south for three seasons after that, winning a total of 15 games. Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium is among the league leaders in no-shows, a trend club officials hope to reverse and almost certainly will, following Atlanta's second-ever victory over Dallas.
Toweling off in the visitors' dressing room after the game, Archer called Sunday's win "one of the biggest in my career." That places it in the company of some stirring triumphs indeed. In 1979, his senior year at Soda Springs (Idaho) High, Archer starred in a 20-18 win over archrival Marsh Valley. "We hadn't beaten them in 10 or 11 years," he recalls. And who, of those who saw it, can ever forget the time Archer passed Snow (Utah) Junior College to a 55-14 win over Cisco in the 1981 Wool Bowl?
Archer had gone into the Dallas game with a 111.1 rating, better than any other NFL quarterback. Not bad for a guy whose playing days seemed numbered in preseason. When Atlanta obtained Turk Schonert from Cincinnati last spring, it was assumed that Archer would be handing the ball off until Schonert became familiar with the playbook.
That's because in 11 starts last season after replacing the brittle Steve Bartkowski, Archer had "made his share of mistakes," as coach Dan Henning put it. Archer missed receivers, threw into coverages and was intercepted 17 times overall. Granted, his 347 rushing yards led all NFL quarterbacks, but too many of them came, Archer says, "when I was running for my life."
The biggest rap against Archer was that he had a cracker arm. He could scramble and he could run, but he sprayed the ball and put up some wounded ducks. Says Archer, "The way I felt sometimes last year—hesitant, halfhearted—made it easy for people to say, 'He has a weak arm.' " But after an off-season strengthening program, Archer has been throwing crisper passes, and Schonert has been unable to win the job. "I don't think I'm throwing that much harder," says Archer. "But because I know what I'm doing, it probably looks that way." With Archer hitting 55.1% of his passes and Gerald Riggs, last year's NFC rushing leader, averaging 4.2 yards a pop, Henning's offense has piled up 402.3 yards per game, third in the NFL.
At 6'2", 203, Archer is Jim Palmer-handsome, Mike Tyson-tough. In the first quarter against Dallas he took a particularly vicious shot in the act of throwing but bounced up immediately and commenced jawing with his assailant, who was flagged for unnecessary roughness. "I'm used to being hit," explains Archer, who ran a wishbone offense in his first year at Snow, in Ephraim, Utah. Archer enrolled there after being passed over by Division I schools.
After piling up big numbers in Utah, he set out in 1982 to showcase his talents in the Big Eight. His senior season in Ames, Archer passed for 346 yards against No. 1-ranked Nebraska, led the conference in total offense and got stiffed on draft day. Within hours, however, half a dozen teams had phoned Archer and offered him free agent tryouts. One of them was Atlanta.
"Dave believes in himself this year and it's obvious," says guard Bill Fralic. And Archer, 24, has noticed that "it feels different in the huddle" this season. "There's a little more respect."
Archer is but one of the dramatis personae in this unlikely NFL hit production. In three games, Riggs has been incredibly sharp, despite—perhaps because of—a 42-day contract holdout. And who would have guessed that, after two consecutive 4-12 years, head coach Henning would still be around? But Falcons owner Rankin Smith was persuaded by his sons, Rankin Jr. and Taylor, the club's president and executive vice-president, respectively, to stay the course. After finishing 27th in the league in pass defense in '85, Henning and the Falcons spent two first-round picks on defense, collecting All-America noseguard Tony Casillas from Oklahoma and linebacker Tim Green from Syracuse.
The club's wisest off-season acquisition, however, was their defensive coordinator, Marion Campbell, a former defensive tackle and Buddy Ryan's predecessor in Philly. Campbell has been largely responsible for the Falcons' reversed fortunes so far this year. In '85, Atlanta ran an imitation of Chicago's gambling defense, a poor man's 46. Campbell, who brought three assistants with him, has installed a 3-4, with only one starter from last season's porous unit still at the same position. The Falcon defense is now rated seventh in the league.
In fact it was the defense that kept Atlanta in the Dallas game for two quarters while Archer and Co. repeatedly stalled. Three Falcons' take-aways resulted in 17 points. Then with two minutes to play, Dallas's ball, the Falcon defense held, ensuring its offense one last crack.
The Cowboys led 35-34 when Atlanta took over on its own 20-yard line for the final drive. Archer called two plays in the huddle and was promptly sacked—for the sixth time that afternoon. A 21-yard completion to tight end Ken Whisenhunt gave the Falcons some breathing room, but they had no time to breathe. There were no more timeouts.
Rookie wideout Floyd Dixon lined up against rookie Cowboy cornerback Johnny Holloway on the next play on the 33. "I ran a nine route, a fly all the way," said Dixon. "For some reason I knew Dave was going to come to me." Looking downfield, then feeling pressure from his right, Archer rolled left. "Holloway and I turned at the same time and saw him rolling out," recalled Dixon, who seized that moment to get behind Holloway.
"Maybe he thought I was going to come back to the ball—that's what I probably should have done," said Dixon, who slid to gather in Archer's 60-yard pass, regained his feet and was dragged down finally on the Dallas two-yard line. "I wanted that TD so bad," Dixon later lamented. "I would have spiked the ball so hard it would have deflated." Instead it would be Luckhurst's chip shot later that would flatten Dallas.
Celebrations broke out prematurely on the Atlanta sideline; the Cowboys were not dead yet. Danny White had 20 seconds left and one timeout. On the first play Dallas's Herschel Walker ran for eight yards; the second was an incomplete pass. And on the third White passed to Tony Hill on a play that went 63 yards before Hill was run out of bounds at the Atlanta nine. Time had expired.
Earlier in the week Smith Sr. had given Henning a semivote of confidence. And with upcoming games against Tampa Bay and Philadelphia, Atlanta could be a gaudy 5-0 by early October. Maybe Henning should try to get his contract extended while Smith is feeling expansive. After Oct. 5 the Falcons' schedule reads: Rams, 49ers, Rams, Patriots, Jets, Bears, 49ers, Dolphins.
Bring 'em on, says inside linebacker Buddy Curry. Curry, who made everybody's all-rookie team in 1980 and has led the Falcons in tackles every year since, has seen his efforts overshadowed by Atlanta's larger futility. He was ecstatic after the Dallas win.
"You know, we might get the breaks this year," he said. "This might finally be the team."