Birds of Prey

In the chaotic NFC West, the upstart Atlanta Falcons are circling in for the kill
December 23, 1991

Jerry Glanville is smirking as he stands on the rubble of all that's left of the old NFC West. He gloats, though, in his smallest voice, the one with the clandestine tone and the vindictive sarcasm. The NFC West, for a decade the NFL's most predictable division—the San Francisco 49ers usually on top, the Atlanta Falcons usually on the bottom, the Los Angeles Rams and the New Orleans Saints usually somewhere in between—lies in shambles. This has been a helter-skelter season for the division, so who better to preside over the chaos down the stretch than Glanville, the mad monk of helter-skelter football.

The rascal in black is back in a position to make high-visibility mischief. For the second time, Glanville has whipped a woebegone team into playoff shape in only his second year as its coach. This lime it's the Falcons. He did the same in Houston in 1987, but the Oilers play in the AFC Central, in which free-for-alls are the custom. In the stately NFC West, a circuit of mostly genteel towns, Atlanta has yet to suitably acknowledge its team's drive to its first NFL postseason berth since 1982—partly because the populace is still emotionally spent over the Braves' remarkable run to the National League pennant and partly because it is so shocked to see the Falcons in such a commanding position.

Why, on Oct. 20, in the midst of the nation's fascination with the Braves-Twins matchup in the World Series, the Saints were 7-0 and killing interest in the NFC West race, which had the 49ers, Falcons and Rams all struggling at 3-4. Three weeks later, despite having lost quarterback Bobby Hebert to a rotator cuff injury in a game against the Bears on Oct. 27, New Orleans was 9-1 and no worse off than before, because second-place Atlanta was 5-5 and coming oft a 56-17 trampling by the Washington Redskins, and once-mighty San Francisco was 4-6. But that's when everything got crazy.

The Saints offense sputtered under the guidance of backup quarterback Steve Walsh, plus their defense lost some of its fourth-quarter nerve, and New Orleans went into a four-game tailspin. Glanville's large birds in black circled overhead, scavenging four wins in a row to tie the Saints for first place at 9-5. And the Joe Montana-less 49ers, who had stumbled out of the gate under the direction of Steve Young, found their legs with third-stringer Steve Bono at quarterback and won four straight to get to 8-6.

Thus, entering last weekend, with only two games left in the regular season, Atlanta, New Orleans and San Francisco all had a chance to win the division, with the Falcons holding the tiebreaker advantage over the Saints and the 49ers. "Ain't it somethin'?" said Glanville with the relish of an anarchist at a riot. As for the plight of the Saints, Glanville sneered and said, "Every morning I wake up feeling sorry for the sonsabitches. The hell with them."

So what happened next? Last Saturday the Niners made it five consecutive victories by blasting the Kansas City Chiefs 28-14 at Candlestick Park to keep alive their long-shot hopes of restoring order in the division. On Sunday the Falcons beat the Seattle Seahawks 26-13 at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium to clinch at least a wild-card spot in the playoffs. And on Monday night the Saints snapped out of their free-fall by dominating the Los Angeles Raiders 27-0 at the Superdome to grasp a wild-card spot of their own. It was the last postseason berth available in the NFC, so San Francisco was eliminated.

What's left to decide on Sunday—when Atlanta (10-5) takes on the Cowboys (10-5) in Dallas and New Orleans (10-5) plays the Cardinals (4-11) in Phoenix—is the division champion. The Saints, however, can win the NFC West only if they beat the Cardinals and the Falcons lose to the Cowboys. The winner of the division will host a wild-card team in the first round of the playoffs, on Dec. 28 or 29, while the runner-up will be on the road in a wild-card game that same weekend.

The way Glanville figures it, if anybody should have had a lock on the NFC West entering the last week of the season, it was the 49ers. And that brings us to his sneaky—if plausible—way of claiming credit for all of this chaos. "You know the difference in the whole damn division for the whole year?" said Glanville. "The 49ers didn't get their usual two wins against us. They get those two 'automatic' wins, they're in first place right now and gone down the road."

Though the Niners doubt that their season-long predicament can be explained so easily—the deeper roots, in addition to Montana's absence because of a torn elbow tendon, include injuries to two cornerbacks early on and a run of injuries along the defensive line—the 49ers admit that they have been haunted by the losses to the Falcons, their first double dip to Atlanta since 1980.

Young was terrific—two TD passes, two TD runs—in rallying the Niners on Oct. 13, but he was at the heart of their self-destruction, with two interceptions, in the final minutes of a 39-34 defeat.

Wideout Jerry Rice can't shake the nightmare of the second loss, which came three weeks after the first. "That Hail Mary—it's constantly on my mind," he says, referring to the last-second touchdown play that gave the Falcons a 17-14 win in Atlanta. "If we'd won that game, there's no telling what type of position we'd be in now."

Imagine, Glanville—probably the league's No. 1 connoisseur of violence, high-risk offense and defense, and general mischief—gets the goat of the cerebral Niners, not once but twice in the same season. "The 49ers call us the Boom Box," says Glanville, "because they can hear us over there [in the other locker room]. We play songs and dance before we come out. They're over there sitting, staring into their lockers. They said, 'How could the Boom Box beat us twice?" Well, isn't that special?"

What causes San Francisco players like tight end Jamie Williams to shudder a bit isn't so much the way the Falcons play as much as the way they think. "They play hard, but it's as if Glanville is giving them some type of spiritual sense," says Williams. "He's like an evangelist, and they're like his followers." And, should the Falcons fail to win the division, Williams adds, "I hope Glanville doesn't put cyanide in their Gatorade and tell them all to drink it, because some of those guys just might do it."

Indirectly, Glanville, through the play of his notoriously violent defense, gave rise to the spiritual leader of San Francisco's stretch drive—Bono. In the teams' second meeting, Young suffered a torn knee ligament when he was tackled by two Falcons on a scramble. Enter Bono, a seventh-year pro who had become resigned to life on the San Francisco sideline. He threw what Rice still calls "the winner." a 30-yard touchdown pass to John Taylor with 53 seconds to go. But then the 49ers gave up the Hail Mary, with the Falcons' backup quarterback, Billy Joe Tolliver, throwing the bomb to Michael Haynes, who caught the ball with amazing case—none of the three San Francisco defenders around him even tipped it.

Stunned as they were when they left Atlanta, the Niners nonetheless had gotten a shot of confidence from their third-string quarterback. The next week, recalls Rice, "We watched the game him and said, 'Wow! Look at this guy stand in the pocket, read the defense, take the shot, deliver the football.' "

In Bono, the 49ers found someone they could count on, like Montana, rather than someone who forced them to guess what he might do next, like the scrambling Young. Bono would hang in the pocket, looking at a second, third or even fourth receiver and giving his primary pass catchers, Rice and Taylor, time to ad-lib. Linemen liked knowing where Bono was. Receivers liked that Bono knew where they were. Why, this guy was Joe!—a compliment that is worn like a medal of honor by any quarterback. "It's almost as if he's been a starter his entire career," says Rice. Actually, before Bono took over for Young, his only other pro starts had come in three games as a replacement player for the Pittsburgh Steelers during the players' strike in 1987.

The Minnesota Vikings drafted Bono out of UCLA in the sixth round in 1985, but they released him in '86. After his fleeting glory during the strike, Pittsburgh let him go after the '88 season. The 49ers brought him into camp as a free agent the next season, and he won the job that until this season was one of the least taxing in the NFL—the one behind Montana, the league's best quarterback, and Young, the league's best backup. Bono played in one game, completing four of five passes, in the '89 and '90 seasons combined.

His baptism by fire was a 10-3 loss to the Saints at the Superdome on Nov. 10, back when the New Orleans defense was still a tidal wave, but he hasn't been beaten as a starter since. On the way to his third and fourth straight wins, he delivered dramatic, game-winning touchdown passes, first in the rematch against the Saints on Dec. 1 (47 yards to Rice with 1:36 left) and then against the Seahawks (15 yards to Taylor with 1:08 remaining). "He may not look exactly like Joe Montana or move exactly like Joe Montana," says tackle Steve Wallace, "but he gets the job done exactly like Joe Montana."

While astride the meteor, Bono maintained one thought: "This could all end at any time." And it did last Saturday.

After a glorious start against the Chiefs—he had fired three TD passes to put San Francisco ahead 21-0—Bono had to leave the game with a sprained left knee in the third quarter. On the play before Bono's third scoring throw, Kansas City outside linebackers Derrick Thomas and Chris Martin shoved 49er tackle Harris Barton, who landed on Bono's left foot and fell back against his knee. Although still not fully recovered from his own knee injury, Young came in and worked off the rust as San Francisco went on to win 28-14.

In the 49er locker room afterward, Bono was subdued. The man who five days earlier had said his brilliant days in the NFL sun could end at any time now said, "I think I've done my job."

At last, the 49ers looked like the 49ers, the dominant team of the 1980s—though they knew their turnaround had probably begun too late. And while the Niners felt that if they could just make the playoffs, they might cut a swath through the NFC—"We're the team nobody wants to play," Wallace said—they sat and waited for help.

But none came from the Seahawks on Sunday, when the Falcon defense once again did considerable damage to the opposition. Five minutes into the game, Seattle quarterback Kelly Stouffer was overrun by a blitz led by safety Brian Jordan. Stouffer was sacked in the Seahawk end zone for a safety and, more important, was knocked out of the game with a sprained right knee. When the day was done, Atlanta had five sacks and three interceptions and had held Seattle to 33 yards rushing. Falcon cornerback Deion Sanders made two of the interceptions and took a lateral from cornerback Tim McKyer after the other and returned it 48 yards for a third-quarter touchdown.

Nor did San Francisco get any help on Monday night. With Hebert playing for the first time in six weeks, New Orleans moved the ball easily against the Raiders and played like the team that started 7-0.

The trials and tribulations of the Saints and the 49ers have mattered not at all to Glanville and the Falcons. They've been in too much of a hurry to get wherever it is they're going. "We've kind of shocked the league this year, haven't we?" says Glanville. "Everybody had predicted us in fourth place again [for the fifth consecutive year and eighth time in nine years]."

"We've been a doormat for years, and suddenly this guy turns us around," says defensive end Tim Green. "Of course, we're going to follow him and believe in him. He said in the preseason, 'We're going to the playoffs,' and he meant it."

What Glanville recalls telling the team is, "We ain't good enough to win this thing [the NFC West], but we ain't got time to wait."

Glanville's system is driven by impatience: the high-risk Red Gun offense (his variation of the run-and-shoot); the high-risk defense, which relics on the blitz and man-to-man coverage; all the "living on the edge," as he loves to put it. His style "definitely has its suicidal tendencies," he says. "As many chances as we take, if things go wrong, you can get beat by 60 points." But he is quick to add, "Isn't that the thrill?"

Boiled down, Glanville's philosophy on both defense and offense is simple: Everybody runs to the ball on every play. Cornerback Bobby Butler says that on defense Glanville wants "11 headgears on the ballcarrier. When he's watching films, if he can only count nine or 10, he's trying to figure out who the other one is so he can get on his case."

On offense, says Glanville, "if we throw the ball on a 10-yard hook, every offensive lineman has to go down and try to knock the tackier off the receiver. Jamie Dukes gets downfield after every throw better than any other center in football. That's demanded. He has to do it."

Butler joined the Falcons in 1981, when Glanville was defensive coordinator under Leeman Bennett. When he heard last year that Glanville would be returning to Atlanta, Butler warned the younger players, "Get ready, we're going to strap it on every day." But he also told them, "If you run to the ball and hit, he'll love you."

Beyond that, Glanville leaves his players alone. "With Jerry, we're so loose," says Butler. Critics call the Glanville phenomenon rah-rah football. Butler calls it "fun football." By style and by Glanville's own analogies, it's biker football.

"What kind of motorcycles do I ride?" he asks, pointing to pictures in his office of him on Harley-Davidsons. "Is that the best motorcycle made in the world?" He shakes his head and says, "But it is the attitude. Is this the best team in the world? No. But we've got the best attitude."

Glanville not only allows loud music in the locker room but also provides the tapes and the stereo system. After Sunday's game with Seattle, the urge upon entering the locker room was to ask the cop on the door what the cover charge was. At somewhere above 120 decibels, enough to make the walls throb, the Falcons were playing a tape by a group called The Escape Club. The song, of course, was Wild, Wild West.

PHOTOJOHN BIEVERStouffer felt the full force of the Falcon defense, which knocked him out of Sunday's game with this sack. PHOTOJOHN BIEVERGlanville's brand of biker football demands that the Falcons travel in packs on every play. PHOTOJOHN BIEVERSanders didn't go far with this kick return, but earlier he ran 48 yards with a lateral for a TD. PHOTORICHARD MACKSONBono's hot run continued against the Chiefs—he had three TD passes—until Barton was shoved into Bono, who injured his knee. PHOTOMIKE POWELL/ALLSPORT USA[See caption above.] PHOTOPETER READ MILLERTwo painful losses to the Boom Box this year still reverberate in the heads of the Niners.