1 Atlanta Falcons Nobody picked them to reach the Super Bowl a year ago, so now they want to prove it was no fluke. A fallen star intends to help his teammates do just that

August 29, 1999

Ever since that wild night on the eve of last January's Super
Bowl, when Eugene Robinson got picked up on Miami's Biscayne
Boulevard and became a national joke, the Falcons' free safety
has been everyone's favorite bull's-eye. After a sleepless night
following his arrest for soliciting an undercover police officer
posing as a prostitute, Robinson went out and got torched by
John Elway and the Broncos. When the team returned to Atlanta
for a we-still-love-you parade, Robinson stared at the crowd and
saw signs mocking his Miami misadventure. He got lit up in
public and on late-night talk shows, and some of his teammates
worried that the 36-year-old locker room leader would lose his
job. That didn't happen, but only because Robinson, whose
charges were dropped after he completed a court-mandated
diversion program, agreed to take a pay cut (from $1.8 million
to $1 million) and faithfully participate in the team's
voluntary workout program.

Now, after an off-season in which he and his teammates were
often depicted as one-hit wonders, Robinson finally gets to
start hitting back. "I've been out of the nightmare zone for
some time, and now my focus is so keen, I really can't wait for
the season to start," he says. "There'll be a ton of pressure on
the secondary, but that's O.K. I'm ready to go out there and
rock."

No jokes, please--Robinson has heard them all and even laughed at
the funnier ones. But he's serious about disproving a perception
that gained widespread popularity after the Super Bowl: that
Elway and Broncos coach Mike Shanahan, in exploiting the Atlanta
secondary for 336 passing yards, exposed a glaring weakness in
the Falcons' defense. "People seem to think we skated by last
year, that the secondary wasn't really that good," Robinson says.
"I think this team earned a lot of respect last year, but now
we're being asked to do it again."

If Atlanta is to avoid becoming the latest in a series of
upstart clubs (San Diego, Indianapolis, Carolina) whose sudden
rise to prominence was followed by a rapid crash, the Falcons
will have to overcome a choppy off-season that included the
release of two key veteran starters, wideout Tony Martin
(indicted on federal money-laundering and conspiracy charges;
through Sunday his trial was ongoing) and linebacker Cornelius
Bennett (to make way for a younger player); a highly publicized
draft-day conversation with the Patriots in which coach Dan
Reeves dangled star halfback Jamal Anderson as trade bait; and a
contentious contract dispute that kept Anderson out of training
camp until Aug. 12. "You hate to see a guy who's the heart of
this football team treated like that, but it's a business," says
All-Pro cornerback Ray Buchanan.

Anderson will again carry the load, but Buchanan and his fellow
defensive backs have their own burden. "I'm going to put it on
the secondary," Buchanan says. "We're the ones who have to step
up and erase the memory of the Super Bowl."

Was the Falcons' Super Bowl funk a product of Robinson's lack of
focus--or, for that matter, lack of sleep? "We'll never really
know," says Reeves, "but you're always going to have that
thought: Was his mind clear?" Robinson, known for his smart and
steady play, seemed to be in a daze at times, getting over too
late to stop Elway's 80-yard touchdown pass to Rod Smith in the
second quarter and whiffing on an attempted sideline tackle of
Terrell Davis on a 39-yard catch and run late in the game.
"Actually, if anything, I was too pumped up for that game,
because I felt I had so much to prove," Robinson says.

Now Robinson, who says he expects this to be his last season,
has a chance to go out with a bang. The Falcons added punch to
the secondary by signing free agent Marty Carter, 29, the former
Bears strong safety who specializes in throwing his 6'1",
210-pound body into anyone wearing an opposing jersey. "I'm here
for the garbage jobs, the kamikaze missions: taking on
fullbacks, linemen, tight ends, whomever," he says. Robinson
calls Carter "smart and instinctive, a guy who'll knock a hole
in your body." He'll be tested from the get-go. The Falcons open
at home against the pass-happy Vikings in an NFC Championship
Game rematch. To defend its first NFC West title since 1980,
Atlanta will have to hold off the 49ers--winners of 13 division
crowns during that same stretch--and their talented trio of
receivers.

"A lot of people say we're headed for a fall, but those people
don't play football," Robinson says. "Don't go to sleep on us,
because you might get embarrassed."

The man has become quite an expert on the subject. --Michael
Silver

COLOR PHOTO: ALLEN KEE/BRSP REDEMPTION TIME After last season's super embarrassment, Robinson (41) wants to restore his good name and get respect for his game. COLOR PHOTO: GREG FOSTER

SCHEDULE

Sept. 12 MINNESOTA
20 at Dallas (Mon.)
26 at St. Louis
Oct. 3 BALTIMORE
10 at New Orleans
17 ST. LOUIS
25 at Pittsburgh (Mon.)
31 CAROLINA
Nov. 7 JACKSONVILLE
14 Open date
21 at Tampa Bay
28 at Carolina
Dec. 5 NEW ORLEANS
12 at San Francisco
19 at Tennessee
26 ARIZONA
Jan. 3 SAN FRANCISCO (Mon.)

FAST FACTS

1998 Record 14-2 (1st in NFC Central)
NFL rank (rush/pass/total): offense 6/11/7; defense 2/21/8

1999 Schedule strength NFL rank: 19 (tie) Opponents' 1998
winning percentage: .492 Games against playoff teams: 6

SUPER EXCEPTION

The Falcons went all the way to the Super Bowl last season
despite allowing an average of one sack for every nine drop
backs, the second-worst figure in the league (Oakland's
quarterbacks were sacked once every 8.75 drop backs). Atlanta
became only the fifth team since 1978--the year the NFL
liberalized its pass-blocking rules to increase scoring-- to
make the playoffs in a season in which it allowed a sack that
frequently (excluding the strike-shortened 1982 season, in which
16 teams made the postseason).

Team Drop backs Sacks Drop backs/sack W-L
Postseason result

1992 Eagles 493 64 7.70 11-5
Won wild-card game; lost divisional playoff

1985 Rams 460 57 8.07 11-5
Won divisional playoff; lost NFC Championship Game

1983 Steelers 461 52 8.87 10-6
Lost divisional playoff

1989 Steelers 455 51 8.92 9-7
Won wild-card game; lost divisional playoff

1998 Falcons 477 53 9.00 14-2
Lost Super Bowl XXXIII

PLAYER TO WATCH

Keith Brooking is known for his speed, but as far as he's
concerned, his NFL career got off to a slow start. Picked 12th
in the '98 draft, Brooking felt stifled while backing up veteran
Cornelius Bennett at outside linebacker during his rookie year.
"Sundays were the toughest," says Brooking, a 6'2" 242-pounder
who shone on special teams and in the nickel defense. "We were
winning, which was great, but I so desperately wanted to be a
bigger part of it. It made me hungrier." Eager to get Brooking
on the field full time, the Falcons waived Bennett in the
off-season. Coach Dan Reeves compares Brooking to John Mobley,
the Broncos' standout third-year linebacker, who "uses his speed
to make up for his inexperience."

PROJECTED LINEUP WITH 1998 STATISTICS

Coach: Dan Reeves
Third season with Falcons (162-117-1 in NFL)

Offensive Backs PVR*

QB Chris Chandler 20
327 att. 190 comp. 58.1% 3,154 yds. 25 TDs 12 int. 100.9 rtg.

RB Jamal Anderson 4
410 att. 1,846 yds. 4.5 avg. 27 rec. 319 yds. 11.8 avg. 16 TDs

RB Byron Hanspard 272
53 att. 335 yds. 6.3 avg. 6 rec. 53 yds. 8.8 avg. 3 TDs

FB Bob Christian 287
8 att. 21 yds. 2.6 avg. 19 rec. 214 yds. 11.3 avg. 3 TDs

Receivers, Specialists, Offensive Linemen
[PVR]

WR Terance Mathis 48 64 rec. 1,136 yds. 11 TDs
WR Chris Calloway[1] 105 62 rec. 812 yds. 6 TDs
WR Ronnie Harris 241 1 rec. 14 yds. 0 TDs
TE O.J. Santiago 210 27 rec. 428 yds. 5 TDs
K Morten Andersen 130 51/52 XPs 23/28 FGs 120 pts.
PR Tim Dwight 148 31 ret. 8.5 avg. 0 TDs
KR Tim Dwight 148 36 ret. 27.0 avg. 1 TD
LT Bob Whitfield 6'5" 315 lbs. 16 games 16 starts
LG Calvin Collins 6'2" 305 lbs. 16 games 16 starts
C Robbie Tobeck 6'4" 298 lbs. 16 games 16 starts
RG Gene Williams 6'2" 320 lbs. 16 games 16 starts
RT Ephraim Salaam 6'7" 310 lbs. 16 games 16 starts

Defense

LE Lester Archambeau 40 tackles 10 sacks
LT Travis Hall 49 tackles 4 1/2 sacks
RT Shane Dronett 48 tackles 6 1/2 sacks
RE Chuck Smith 47 tackles 8 1/2 sacks
OLB Keith Brooking 26 tackles 1 int.
MLB Jessie Tuggle 86 tackles 3 sacks
OLB Henri Crockett 29 tackles 1 sack
CB Ray Buchanan 61 tackles 7 int.
SS Marty Carter[1] 111 tackles 0 int.
FS Eugene Robinson 68 tackles 4 int.
CB Ronnie Bradford 32 tackles 3 int.
P Dan Stryzinski 74 punts 40.0 avg.

[1] New acquisition (R) Rookie (statistics for final college
year) *PVR: Player Value Ranking (explanation on page 122)

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)