Watching the Atlanta Falcons play football is like watching a big horse pull a heavy wagon uphill—doggedly and with great determination. There's a heroic quality to it.
The Falcons bring the game down to the basics. Here we come, stop us. And when the opposition gets the ball, they're gonna have to work damn hard for everything they get. The Falcons make people play their kind of football; if the other guys are strong enough and tough enough they'll survive—but they won't enjoy the afternoon.
Atlanta, atop the NFC West with a record of 5-1-1, gave a classic demonstration of trench warfare in Sunday's 10-10 tie with the San Francisco 49ers, the first tie game in the NFL since 1984 and only the ninth since the league went to the overtime rule 12 years ago. The 49ers, who came into the game with pro football's second-best offense, did all their scoring in the first 23 minutes. They got inside the Falcons' 25-yard line twice in the third quarter, only to be thrown back. After that San Francisco never mounted a serious threat.
The Falcons have now had a crack at everyone in the division, and no one has beaten them. Their kind of football isn't pretty. They hammer away behind two tight ends, sometimes three, and let their 232-pound tailback, Gerald Riggs, do the work. This Big Eight approach has produced the NFL's No. 1 running attack and the most possession time.
The Falcons test your manhood. A team that can stop their running, e.g., the Philadelphia Eagles, can beat them. A team such as the 49ers, who can play the same nasty kind of defense, can get a standoff. But the Falcons will eat up the fragile and fancy outfits that hide their weaknesses behind glitter and flash.
San Francisco coach Bill Walsh knew what he was in for before the game. He looked at films of the Falcons' 26-14 victory over the Rams the previous week and shuddered. "They just took the spirit from them and dominated the game," Walsh said. "I don't know where we would stand up in that kind of competition."
Walsh's team made him nervous. The 49ers' record was 4-2, and the offense had produced a lot of yards, but the operation was lopsided. The yardage had come in big gulps, thanks to the long-range arm of Jeff Kemp, who took over Sept. 14, the day before Joe Montana underwent a back operation, and the brilliance of Jerry Rice, who was having the best year of any wideout. The relentless nature of the offense that Walsh so dearly loves, the constant moving of the chains, was missing.
O.K., so the Niners were overloading on the long pass. Is that so bad? A year ago they were 3-3, and everyone was ganging up on the short stuff and defying Montana—who may resume practice next week—to go long. The problem for the 49ers in the Atlanta game was that they were facing a defense that took pride in stopping the long pass. The Falcons had allowed only one touchdown pass longer than 22 yards in their first six games. At the same point in 1985, they had given up eight.
Many coaches say that Atlanta's defensive coordinator, Marion Campbell, wrote the textbook on how to play defense in the modern NFL. At Friday's Falcon practice Dick Vermeil, who worked the Atlanta-49ers game for CBS, watched Campbell run his group through its drills and smiled. "The best in the business," he said, referring to Campbell. "In the six years he ran our defense in Philadelphia, we won 53 games, and there were only seven in which we had to score more than 20 points to win."
It's quite possible that Campbell saved the job of Falcon head coach Dan Henning. On Monday, Dec. 16, 1985, Campbell was fired as Eagle head coach, with a game left to play. A day later Henning was on the phone asking him if he was interested in coaching the Falcon defense. "I wasn't even sure of my own job," Henning said, referring to Atlanta's 3-12 record at the time. "I'd been told that the whole situation would be evaluated, but I knew that hiring Marion was the most positive thing I could do for the team, and I think our owner knew it, too.
"The day after the season ended I was called in, and Rankin Smith, our owner, said, 'I understand you've talked to Marion Campbell,' and I said I had. He told me, 'Well, if you can hire him, you've got a one-year extension here.'
"I told him I couldn't offer Marion a one-year contract; it had to be long term, and it would cost him a lot of money. He said, 'Just get him.' So I did—on a three-year contract."
In 1985, after six games, the Falcons had been next to last in the NFL in points allowed and third from last in yards allowed. In '86 they cut the point total almost in half and chopped off nearly 500 yards, moving up to ninth in each category. They get stronger toward the end of each game. Second-half touchdowns were reduced from 17 to 4.
Henning's offense had evolved into ball control, keyed by the powerful Riggs and an offensive line that goes 6'6", 278 pounds, tackle to tackle. It's a concept that works if the defense can keep you in it, but last year it was an approach that broke down as soon as the realities of catch-up set in—like in the third quarter.
In the 49er game on Sunday, the Falcons found themselves in a catch-up situation after three minutes. The 49ers zipped in for six points after their first three plays, catching the Falcons on an end around, a little slip pass underneath and then a one-yard dive by Roger Craig. Atlanta then launched an excruciating 17-play field-goal drive. The Niners matched it with one of their own, and at 10-3 with more than a half left in the game, the argument began in earnest.
Finally, with less than two minutes to go, Atlanta quarterback David Archer hit 5'7", 175-pound Sylvester Stamps on a little circle route over the middle. Stamps faked two Niners, picked up a block from wideout Floyd Dixon down-field and went 39 yards for the tying TD. The overtime was an anticlimax, a study in exhaustion.
Both locker rooms were grim. "Trench warfare, guys trying to grudge it out yard by yard," said 49er strong safety Carlton Williamson, who had been on the field for all 92 snaps the Falcons ran off. In the next locker, free safety Ronnie Lott, who suffered a concussion trying to stop Riggs and then had to return to the game when his replacement, Tom Holmoe, was KO'd while tackling Riggs, needed help getting his pads off. Holmoe was still dazed half an hour after the game.
The Falcons had lost cornerback Bobby Butler with a broken leg. Archer limped noticeably on a twisted knee, and his back bore a large, ugly red welt, the result of a blow from Larry Roberts.
It was a mean, nasty game between two destructive forces. And in five weeks they'll do it all over again.