Tonight, the Atlanta Falcons will play in the second Super Bowl in the team’s history and go for their first championship. As they stand on the precipice of this historic moment, I think ti’s important to realize that as critical as fans can be, we should sometimes turn our critiques towards ourselves, and admit when we were wrong.
Last season, when Matt Ryan was totally off his game, I lamented that he had peaked and that he would never be more than a solid, unremakrable quarterback. Last night, he won the MVP and deservedly so. He’s been lights out. His growth this season has also highlighted how he reached where he has come now. He wasn’t a leader in the early days of the team as he let veterans take on that role. Now he’s finally stepped up, taken that leadership role, and it’s paid huge dividends.
I also said last season that Kyle Shanahan was the root of the team’s offensive woes, and that it was insane to keep him around. But as it turns out, Ryan and Shanahan just needed a season and some long talks to get on the same page. Combined with the right personnel and Ryan understanding this new system, the Falcons offensive has been outstanding. I’ll be bummed to see him leave to go coach the 49ers, and I hope that his replacement is as good at play-calling and working within the scheme that has given the Falcons unprecedented success.
After the Falcons imploded after last year’s 5-0 start, I wondered if this was the same old team. I couldn’t contain my fury after the home loss to the Chargers, crying out on Twitter how this was the same old team and that they couldn’t go the distance.
Yes, some things broke the Falcons way. When Julio Jones got injured, we had two of the easiest teams up on the schedule. The Seahawks lost the #2 seed, which made room for the Falcons to get a bye week and have home field advantage throughout the playoffs after the Cowboys lost to the Packers. But those are ultimately just opportunities, and the Falcons made the most of them. Even without Julio, the Falcons dominated the Niners and the Rams. They didn’t play down to their opponent. They destroyed them. When it came to home field advantage, they didn’t just squeak by the Seahawks and Packers. They won in decisive fashion.
I became a Falcons fan at the beginning of the Mike Smith era, which conditioned us to experience games the following way:
- First 2 quarters: The Falcons are doing great!
- 3rd quarter: Everything goes to hell.
- 4th quarter: Can Matt Ryan pull out a last-second win?
It’s become clear that the problem was both coaching and personnel, and that both have been remedied thanks to Dan Quinn’s clear vision on what kind of team he wanted.
I don’t know if the Falcons will win the Super Bowl. I think they have a real shot to do so. But either way, I’m sorry I doubted them, and I’m grateful for this amazing season.
Being a sports fan is so dumb. You get invested watching millionaires play a game, and forget that billionaires profit from it. You just see it play-by-play, game-by-game, season-by-season. And then you cheer anyway because home runs, touchdowns, slam dunks, and goals are exciting. It’s appeals to the lizard brain, and I fully admit it.
I write that preface to acknowledge that it’s somewhat silly to complain about the Braves. I’m not a sports expert. I have an emotional connection to the team since they hit their hot streak when I was growing up, but I can’t tell you everyone who ever played for them or even what certain stats mean (I’ve had slugging explained to me more than once, and I still don’t understand it).
But I love listening to the Braves on the radio. It’s what helps define my summer. It passes the time. Watching them on TV isn’t so bad either. I rarely attend games because it’s expensive, more time-consuming, and scheduling conflicts mean it’s hard to find someone to go with.
However, I didn’t let those obstacles stop me from going to tonight’s game. I hadn’t seen the Braves play at all this season, and the game would be followed by Weezer, whom I’d never seen in concert. It was win-win, at least until the Braves lost, at which point it became win-loss-win.
I wasn’t surprised that the Braves lost. I recently read an article where a Falcons fan described the team thusly: “They are bad at being good.” It’s a sentiment that could also apply to the Braves and to a lesser extent the Hawks. Even when the Braves were in first place, they didn’t seem remarkable. When our pitching dominated in April to save our crappy offense, it felt like a stroke of good luck rather than a formidable team. After all, we go through starting pitchers like toothpicks.
Eventually, the flaws became obvious, insurmountable, and after tonight, the Braves will be five games back in the division without only about six weeks left to play. Theoretically, they could claw their way back, but after watching tonight’s game, I’d be surprised if they put in the effort.
Tonight I learned that what the radio doesn’t tell you and what the radio doesn’t show you are details. Radio and TV is made of highlights. The little moments can be far more telling, and during tonight’s Braves game, I saw a team absolutely devoid of hustle. I know “hustle” is a word sports pundits like to throw away to lazily describe intangibles, but I think it fits the play I saw tonight. Throughout the game, the Braves’ defense refused to scrap for the ball. They lackidazically ran for balls, and refused to dive, sprint, or slide to try and make the out. Instead, they were content to just make sure the ball didn’t get behind them. They played conservatively and like they would get extra points if they didn’t get their uniforms dirty.
It’s dumb that I should feel like I want them to win more than they do. But a sense of lethargy pervaded the entire game. No one was enthused about Mike Minor’s pitching (he was fine tonight; his defense let him down); no one expects anything from this weak offense; and now there’s nothing going on in the field. The team exists.
When I looked at the upper deck of tonight’s game, it was pretty packed. It was packed with fans who found a way to get relatively cheap Weezer tickets, and the ballgame was a bonus. I can’t say I blame them. At least Weezer is willing to put on a show.
After a one-two punch of the Falcons losing a close game on Monday Night Football and the Braves being eliminated after the normally reliable David Carpenter gave up the lead in the 8th inning, I’m wondering if it’s time for me to stop being a sports fan.
I know that’s awfully fair-weather of me, and that my attitude is why Atlanta is such a shitty sports town. But at the same time, these are kind of shitty sports teams because they’re bad at the worst possible moments. They don’t consistently suck. I assume fans with consistently crappy teams just accept them as lovable losers, or get a nice pick-me-up if their team should happen to win. Atlantans aren’t so lucky. The Braves and the Falcons have to give the illusion that they could go all the way. They have to give the illusion of a dramatic victory. And then they lose in a spectacular fashion. They lose on the most public stage possible, and the Atlanta fans get crushed.
The teams have been especially vindictive this year. The Braves won the division title for the first time since 2005. I had hope that a younger team might not have the baggage of older Braves teams that could never get past the first round of the playoffs. I was wrong. They were just as terrible. It would be nice to think that they’ll mature into a serious ball club, but that’s not going to happen. Something breaks in the Atlanta Braves when October comes around. And as for the Falcons, their weaknesses have emerged. After years of scraping by with thrilling victories, they’re now on the losing side and proving all their detractors right.
Detractors have plenty to crow about, and they’re not wrong. But as I tweeted both games tonight, I didn’t like myself. I felt like an absolute bastard who was clogging up people’s Twitter feeds with my negativity. A good sports fan is never resigned to failure. They hold on to hope until the last possible minute. They’re indefatigable. I thought I was a good sports fan, but I was wrong. And if I’m going to behave like I did tonight, then I shouldn’t get to call myself a Braves fan or a Falcons fan. I’m a spectator. I can cheer, and I can boo, but I can’t say I’m a fan. I’m as much to blame as the teams I’ve failed to support.
After last year’s painful loss to the Giants, I wrote about how I was proud to be a Falcons fan, and that it was important to be “hometeam”. I almost became a major hypocrite last week as it looked like the Falcons would never get over the playoff hump. As someone who is also a fan of the Braves, that one-two punch of teams that quickly get kicked out of the playoffs is almost too much. But last week, the Falcons performed in Falcons fashion: came on strong, lost the lead, pulled out a victory in the end.
That is both the greatest strength and the greatest weakness of the Atlanta Falcons. As my friend Brad said, “They play up or down to the opponent they’re facing.” Credit to Mike Smith for being the best coach in franchise history, but his style has fried every last nerve of the fans. We “rise up” because we fall down. A lot. With so much talent on the field, it’s peculiar and infuriating to see a pattern where we can cheer a comeback even though it’s from a hole the Falcons dug themselves.
The 49ers are a great team. They were the favorite, and we played them close. It wasn’t a blowout, and it’s always wonderful to see the Falcons fire on all cylinders like they did in the first quarter. I will still root for the 49ers in the Super Bowl because I don’t hold a grudge. They played a good game, and they deserve to win it all (I also don’t have any love for either AFC team).
But this blog post is about the Falcons. The pundits will likely pick them apart, which is fine. This team will probably never get the respect it deserves until it at least goes to the Super Bowl. The fans can wait because the fans will remain. The victory over the Seahawks was more important than the NFC Championship. The Falcons obviously wanted to go all the way, but the support from fans is stronger than its been in over a decade.
I will proudly wear a Matt Ryan jersey every time I watch the Falcons next year (and jerseys are expensive!). He makes mistakes, but he’s clutch. Today was just one mistake too many. But he’s undeniably matured as a quarterback, and I truly believe one day we’ll talk about him with the same respect people show Peyton Manning.
It will be hard to see Tony Gonzalez retire, but he’s earned it many times over. He will go out on top and as the greatest tight end of all-time. I’m honored that he played for our team and that he’ll end his career as an Atlanta Falcon.
We have so much talent on this team, but there’s undeniably more work to be done. I trust Arthur Blank, Thomas Dimitroff, and Mike Smith will do what needs to be done. They’re smart, thoughtful guys who know how to manage a team, and I believe the Falcons will be even stronger next year.
They couldn’t come back in this game, but they’ll come back from this defeat.
Another Falcons season, another crushing disappointment. This is how they’ll write the book on Atlanta sports teams. It almost makes me envy hopeless teams like the Browns or the Cubs. They don’t make it anywhere close to the playoffs but their die-hard fans love them all the same. But when it comes to the Falcons, the Braves, and the Hawks, they’re nothing but (and forgive the following crudeness) cock-teases who give their fans blue-balls. Eventually those fans get frustrated and find a team that might actually fuck them.
But I’m a sucker for punishment. I’m already looking ahead to next season for the Falcons even though my team got butt-fucked on national TV less than an hour ago. What changes will we make? Who gets drafted? Who gets traded? Who on the coaching staff has to commit ritual suicide and can I watch? And will the Falcons front office even figure it out? Last season, we got trounced by the 6th-seeded Packers even though we were the first seed off a 13-3 record and playing at home. The snap action from the front office: “explosive” plays. It was a meaningless buzzword, but they did get an “explosive” player with Julio Jones and in his rookie season he’s shown he’s the real deal.
And yet that’s irrelevant. We had a worse record this season, we played sloppy football where we either put ourselves in a hole or blew gigantic leads, and toyed with my fragile emotions. Something’s rotten in the state of Georgia. If the players are talented (and the offense is, and there are some great guys on the defense although the secondary is garbage) then how come we’re so inconsistent? I’d rather have solid, consistent victory over “explosive” any day. (This is also my approach to bowel movements.)
This year, I started using a phrase that I’m sure irritated everyone I used it around: “Hometeam”. Hometeam, by my definition, meant sticking with your team even when your team was making you cry. You could criticize the hell out of them, but you never wrote them off. You didn’t look at the score at the half and say “They’re going to lose.” You held out hope for as long as possible and if you lost, you looked ahead to the next game and stayed positive.
Every passing season that gets harder. For Atlanta sports fans, it becomes excruciating because our teams pretend like they have a chance. They dangle their potential in front of us, give us a winning season or at least a wild card berth, and then they get demolished in the playoffs. They don’t lose; they lose horribly. It’s almost as if they’re trying to embarrass their fans. They’re Lucy, we’re Charlie Brown, and the football is a championship.
I’m hometeam so I try to keep the optimism alive. I’ll be a blockhead and hope that Arthur Blank and the Falcons organization see this kind of loss and will not only make adjustments, but adjustments that would actually improve the team on a fundamental level rather than building off some meaningless buzzword.
So yeah, I’m the idiot who’s forgetting the nationally televised shit-bucket of a game the Falcons played this afternoon. I’m the sucker who’s dreaming of next season. I’m hometeam.
Obama had to move his big jobs speech up to 7pm (EST) so as not to interfere with the first football game of the season. This speaks to two points:
1.) How far Obama has fallen in the public’s eyes. The President’s approval rating has reached a new low and it’s not tough to see why. The economy isn’t growing new jobs, unemployment remains stuck at over 9%, and people see banks returning to normal while their own lives have fallen apart. Beyond that, it says something that a gifted orator like Obama can no longer command an audience. Part of that speaks to the public’s weariness with politicians in general and the continued disenchantment with Obama and his pro-big business policies with only lip service to small businesses.
2.) We care more about entertainment than we do about our country. Will Obama’s speech be full of big ideas, empty promises, and a vague road map sure to be thwarted at every turn by Republicans? Probably. But this is a Presidential Address. Our country’s leader is speaking. You may not agree with what he has to say but this isn’t Sunday’s weekly, “Hey, how ya doin’ America? Really wish the Republicans would shape up. Oh well.” He wants prime time and the country says, “Sorry, but we’re ready for some football.” So Obama has to move his speech up to 7pm (4pm PST when most people will be in front of a TV), and it sends the message that the speech is less important than a sporting event. The speech is about jobs, it’s about the economy, it’s about putting our country back to work, but unfortunately there are two championship teams squaring off and we don’t want people to miss the first quarter.
And that speaks to the greater character of our country: our entertainment is more important than our nation’s welfare. We are amusing ourselves to death. Even how we perceive our politics is cast in the mold of entertainment. We don’t want to hear policy. We want to hear who’s up, who’s down, who looks good, who looks bad, the latest flub, the soaring rhetoric, and enjoy the horserace.
Even outside this “Football Beats the President” story, we can’t afford to not be plugged into something. I went to the pharmacy today and people waiting for their prescription to be filled were immersed in their mobile device, myself included. I was handling e-mail but there was nothing urgent in my inbox. Our phones are filled with games, music, movies, the Internet and everything to help us dodge the awkward silence and interactions with the people sitting next to us. A guy who looks down and doesn’t talk to anyone at a party is awkward and shy. A guy who looks down and doesn’t talk to anyone but is typing into his iPhone might be awkward and shy, but he looks busy and perhaps even important as he can’t be bothered by the people around him due to his intense game of Angry Birds.
Entertainment is important. It’s our cultural touchstone. It’s how we’ve come to communicate with each other and define our identity through our interests. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that. But when entertainment is deemed more important than a Presidential Address, then our citizenship no longer really matters. We don’t belong to America because we’re now part of the Packers nation or Team Edward or the Browncoats. I was never a big believer in pledging allegiance to the flag, but now we pledge our allegiance to our entertainment. We pledge allegiance, to the entertainment, of the United States of Distraction, and to the Episode, Sequel, or Game for which it stands, one Nation, under fandom, with liberty and justice for all who are on my side.
**Please note that when I say “we”, I’m not using it in the accusatory sense that really means “Everybody but me.” I’m as guilty of these distractions as anyone if not more so since my job is to cover movies, TV, and video games plus I’m a big football fan.**
Professional sports are a funny thing. We somehow become personally invested in a game played by millionaires where the outcome probably won’t affect our lives in any meaningful way. It’s not like art where it can broaden our minds and change our outlook on the world or propose new ideas. It’s entertainment, but entertainment that appeals to our baser instincts of competitiveness and adoration of physical triumph. And there’s nothing wrong with that as I had fun this past year when I became invested in the world of football.
A good friend of mine suggested that a way to become more interested in football was to join a fantasy league. I did and suddenly I cared about players who weren’t on my team. But as much as I was watching how Frank Gore or Hines Ward would perform on a week-to-week basis, I became incredibly interested in the Atlanta Falcons.
My interest in the Falcons originally began in 2008. After Michael Vick’s arrest and the coach quitting in the most dickish manner possible, it felt like the team had reached such a low that there was now a clean slate. It didn’t matter that I couldn’t name all the players or recite the team’s history. The team had a new coach, a new quarterback, and a fresh start. And they played an impressive season and made it to the playoffs. The next year, they fought through injuries and came away with a triumph of back-to-back winning seasons. And then this year, things really started to click into place.
What made the Falcons fun to watch was that they didn’t blow out their opponents. They kept you on the edge of your seat for the full sixty minutes. They weren’t a flashy team, but they had a consistent strategy of conducting long drives and eating tons of play clock. The national media wasn’t paying attention, but I didn’t care, because my team was winning and winning in ways that kept me captivated. Furthermore, the team had versatility. While Matt Ryan, Michael Turner, Roddy White, and Tony Gonzales were the stars, other players like Michael Jenkins, Eric Weems, and Brent Grimes were playmakers at key moments. I found myself counting down the days until Sunday when I could see my team play again. I was leaving the NFL Network on in the background as I worked. I listened to an obscene amount of Sports Talk radio.
As I mentioned in my previous blog post, I was dismayed that the Falcons were being disrespected by the national media in their playoff match-up with the Packers. I felt that this team had done some incredible work this past season and it was unfair to be treated as underdogs when they had the #1 seed, a bye week, and were playing at home. But after tonight’s dismal game, the Falcons are going to have to earn the nation’s respect all over again. I didn’t think the Falcons were going to waltz to a win, but I thought it would at least be close. But when Matt Ryan threw a pick-six in the closing minute of the first half, it seemed to suck all the life out of the team. Even though we were only down by two touchdowns, that deficit somehow seemed insurmountable, and the team that came onto the field in the second half seemed to have already given up. We were trounced and what’s worse, we were trounced on a national stage. Next year, the Falcons still won’t get any respect and it’s because of this game. They’ll have to earn it all again and while I may be disheartened, I imagine what I feel is but a fraction of the emotions felt by die-hard fans and members of the Falcons’ organization.
It was a shitty end to a great season, but it was a great season. Anyone who says that tonight’s loss makes the season a disappointment is re-writing history. Tonight’s outcome doesn’t take away how much fun I had watching the Falcons this season and becoming more interested in football. I still can’t identify different plays beyond broad definitions like “blitz”, “pass”, “run”, etc. and I usually have to wait for an official to announce a penalty rather than being able to spot it myself before the flag is thrown. But football, and most sports, appeal to my competitive nature and it would be disingenuous of me to pretend like this year didn’t matter simply because we sucked in our first-round playoff game.
Sure, it would be nice if my initiation into the world of football fandom was greeted with my team winning the Super Bowl. But that’s not really what being a fan is about. Being a fan means you have to suffer with your team and while everyone likes the ecstasy of victory, there’s only one team that gets crowned champion, and everyone else has to deal with the agony of defeat. The Falcons shouldn’t be ashamed of their season because of tonight’s performance. I know I’m not.
I’m planning to do a longer blog post once the season is over about how this was the year I went from being a casual football fan to a diehard one, but since the Falcons’ first playoff game is coming up on Saturday, I thought I’d write a bit about it.
One of the overarching narratives I’ve heard about the Falcons this year is that the team gets no national respect. While I believe that pretty much every fan believe their team should be getting more respect, it does seem that the Falcons don’t receive as much attention as a 13-3 team deserves. But I admit there’s really nothing sexy about the Falcons aside from Michael Turner’s gigantic ass. The media, whether it’s political, sports, or otherwise, likes easy to construct and the Falcons best one is “We were in the toilet and successfully rebuilt in three years. Boo-ya.” This is a team that isn’t about a highlight reel. Tony Gonzales catching a five yard pass that nets a first down isn’t going to make SportsCenter’s Top Plays of the Hour, but it’s crucial in a winning team because he keeps doing it. Turner doesn’t break out into long-yardage runs, but he’ll beat you to death by making you try and tackle him all day as he constantly pushes for over a hundred yards per game. Matt Ryan is a solid quarterback, but he’s not throwing game-winning Hail Marys. He’s calmly doing what’s necessary to get the win. The Falcons aren’t blowing anybody out, but we’re winning in clutch situations. While the Patriots may get a lot of attention for destroying the Jets 45-3, that’s a boring game to watch. The Falcons not only win, they keep you on the edge of your seat for the full sixty minutes.
And yet looking at the coverage on ESPN and NFL Network of this weekend’s playoff game between the Falcons and the Packers, it looks like the Packers are going to waltz to an NFC Championship game versus the Bears. Why are the Packers, an 11-5 team going up against a 13-3 team that has home field advantage and already beaten them once, the favorites? Because they have a running game now! Rookie James Starks had a great game against the Eagles and so there’s no way the Falcons can win! Becuase Starks had a good game last week, that’s the death knell against the Falcons this week. Forget our versatility, forget Michael Turner, Matt Ryan, Roddy White, Tony Gonzales, the much-improved special teams work especially of Eric Weems, our improved defense, our offensive line that gives Ryan about thirty years to throw a pass, because last week Green Bay found someone who could run the ball besides their quarterback.
Of course, the media is hedging by saying that it will be a close game and a duel of the quarterbacks, even though the game apparently rests on the shoulders of Starks and Turner. I especially like the implication that we’re a bunch of cheaters and that if Green Bay loses, it’s because we rigged the replay system in our favor. I agree that Gonzales didn’t make that catch against them. But later in the game, Aaron Rogers got off a pass on 4th and 1 on what should have been a Delay-of-Game penalty. This argument that the Falcons are, at best, “lucky”, doesn’t hold up to scrutiny. Was it lucky that the Saints kicker missed a game-winning chip shot in Week 2? Absolutely. It was also lucky that during a kickoff to the Saints, the ball took a funny bounce and touched one of the Falcons’ players, thus giving the Saints an advantage.
I’m not saying that the Falcons are the clear favorite to win this Saturday’s game. I do think that with the exception of the Seahawks, the Falcons are going to be the underdog no matter what. If we win and Chicago comes to the Dome, all we’ll hear about is how great the Chicago defense is. Even if the Seahawks manage another miraculous victory, all we’ll hear about is how the Seahawks are “hot” right now (just like Green Bay is “hot”). I understand that the media needs to keep contests interesting so that viewers will stay tuned, but it’s frustrating that the 13-3 home team is somehow playing the underdog.