We are officially less than a month before the start of the NFL season, so it's probably time to start previewing the monster. The key to the NFL's success — other than fantasy football and gambling, of course — is the rabid nature of its fans. That is to say: You don't see a lot of people painting their faces for their favorite golfer.
We asked a gaggle of writers, from the Web, from print, from books, even a TV guy or two, to tell us, in as many or as little words as they need, why My Team Is Better Than Your Team. This is not meant to be factual, or dispassionate, or even logical: We just asked them to riff on why they love their team so much, or what their team means to them, or whatever. We will be running two a day until the beginning of the NFL season.
Right now: the Atlanta Falcons. Your author is Lang Whitaker.
It would be disingenuous of me if I truly believed the Atlanta Falcons were better than your team. After all, your team has probably managed to even accidentally accumulate back-to-back winning seasons, something the Falcons have not accomplished, ever. Even the Buzzsaw Cardinal Buzzsaws, or whatever it is that Will calls Arizona, posted back-to-back winning campaigns in the '80s. The Falcons, though, remain a pendulum, swinging back and forth between mildly dangerous and completely toothless.
Last year was supposed to be the year the pendulum stopped swaying. After a trip to the NFC Finals in 2004, a normal franchise would have looked to build off that success. And the Falcons of late have been aching to be viewed as a healthy, productive NFL franchise. But before they could even move forward into last season, Mike Vick was accused of riding dirty with the whole Ron Mexico fiasco, and after a 6-2 start, the team sort of spiraled out of control. The Falcons finished out 2005 at 2-6 for an 8-8 mark.
I like to think that coach Jim Mora (by the way, it's not Jim Mora Jr. — he and his dad have different middle names, which I find progressive of Mora the Elder) is going to be solid in the long run, but it's still early. He's only been a head coach for two seasons, yet he's already used a cellphone on the sideline to check on playoffs scenarios during a game and thrown a headset during a postgame radio interview. Team owner Arthur Blank blandly addressed Mora's misbehavior publicly, but I got the feeling Blank was too busy sculpting his lazy mustache to really care. If the Falcons are ever to win regularly, Mora will have to be consistent and find some emotional medium.
Despite the mustache, in many ways Blank has been a godsend for the city of Atlanta. The Hawks and Thrashers are owned by a mysterious consortium called Atlanta Spirit, probably best known for repeatedly being dragged to court by disgruntled former partner Steve Belkin. The Braves are on the block, so they're sort of in limbo. Blank bought the Falcons in 2002 and has infused the franchise with energy and the one thing his voluminous Home Depot fortune will never be able to buy: hope. Because forever, particularly during the 1980s, the Falcons sucked and there was no hope. Through some geographical fluke we were in the same division as the 49ers, who just whipped us game after game.
Things at least got exciting in the 1990's thanks to Deion Sanders and Jerry Glanville, and if those two guys being the highlight of your franchise's decade isn't a bad sign, nothing is. Blank, though, has been solid, wearing dashing suits, giving the franchise a public face, being a cheerleader and repeatedly promising fans that he's in this to win — he's a little like Mark Cuban, if Cuban wore cufflinks. Or sleeves.
Of course, Vick is actually the key to the whole thing. He's been in the NFL for five seasons now and had just one really good year (2002, when he threw for 2,900 yards with 16 TDs). We know he can run like hell and throw the ball through a wall, but he's yet to put it all together and consistently play like the highest-paid quarterback in the NFL (which he was last season, if you include his $22 million signing bonus). I'd like to think his erratic performance can be chalked up to immaturity and a learning process, but then I recall that he's related to Marcus Vick and Aaron Brooks, and I get a little nervous.
As a fan, there's no player in the NFL that's more outrageous to watch than Michael Vick, and as each year goes by he pulls off some crazy move or throws a laser pass 50 yards on the run or does something new and amazing. But speaking as someone who's played approximately 1,800 seasons using Vick in Madden's franchise mode, I feel safe in telling the Atlanta coaching staff that Vick will never flourish in the West Coast-style offense they're trying to use him in. You have the most electric player in the NFL, so you ask him to repeatedly throw quick passes? Get him out of the pocket, roll him to his left and let him do his thing. Enough of this square peg-round hole offense.
Defensively, the Falcons signed Lawyer Milloy and get back a healthy Ed Hartwell (who is tremendous on Madden 07). I'm also excited to see rookie corner Jimmy Williams, who the Falcons drafted in the second round out of Virginia Tech after he dropped like a stone thanks to not only "character issues" but also being ejected in the first quarter of the Gator Bowl. We also traded for John Abraham from the Jets, who might or might not have missed two playoff games a few years ago because he was worried about his contract. The Falcons also have this thing about their defense - kind of a "complete inability to stop the run" deal — but hopefully we'll just play the Eagles a lot and it won't be a problem.
The good news is that last season the Falcons finished 8-8, which of course should indicate a winning season is on the way. I'd love a Super Bowl, but first let's worry about back-to-back winning seasons first. Speaking for all Falcons fans, all this swinging back-and-forth is making us dizzy.