The NFL doesn't keep official statistics in the category, but
there's little doubt that the 1996 Falcons led the league in bad
mojo. It's one thing to go 3-13. It's something else altogether
for players and coaches to comport themselves like characters in
an Aaron Spelling prime-time soap.
Things got messy by the third game, when quarterback Jeff George
and coach June Jones got into a nationally televised catfight on
the sideline during a home loss to Philadelphia. "Some things
that were said you wouldn't say to your worst enemy," backup
quarterback Bobby Hebert reported. Jones suspended George for
four games, and when a trade couldn't be brokered, the
quarterback was waived. The coach thought the move would save
his credibility, but Atlanta sleepwalked to an 0-8 start, and
mutiny was in the air.
Jones was already looking like a goner when, before Game 16,
defensive end Chuck Smith told reporters that what the Falcons
needed was a coach committed to defense. A media firestorm
ensued, Smith was suspended for the last game, and the black
cloud grew darker. Players dubbed the team dinner before the
season finale against Jacksonville the Last Supper. When
ultrareliable Morten Andersen blew a 30-yard field goal in the
waning moments to lose the game, it seemed a fitting conclusion.
At season's end Atlanta did the only thing it could: clean
house. Goodbye Jones and his run-and-shoot, hello Dan Reeves and
his old-school approach. Reeves, who at 149-113-1 has the most
wins among active NFL coaches, will also run Atlanta's football
operations, a significant departure from his role in four
seasons as coach of the Giants. "I'm much more comfortable
here," says Reeves. "I have the authority to do things. If I
don't get it done, it's my fault."
One of Reeves's first moves was to trade two draft picks to the
Oilers for Chris Chandler, his new starting quarterback. Don't
laugh. Although this will be Chandler's sixth team in 10 years,
he has emerged as a dependable and occasionally spectacular
quarterback--a fact he is happy to elaborate on. "I think in the
last three years I've played as well as anybody in the league,"
says Chandler, who threw 33 touchdown passes and completed more
than 60% of his passes in two seasons in Houston. "I have a lot
of experience, and I have a lot of confidence."
What he doesn't have is Eric Metcalf, the dangerous slot
receiver who left the Falcons for San Diego. But under Reeves
the passing game will take a backseat to what could be a
formidable power running offense. Fullback Craig Heyward moved
on to St. Louis, but the presence of fullback Jamal Anderson, a
5'11", 234-pound wrecking ball, will compensate. The 1994
seventh-rounder broke through last year, leaving trampled
defenders in his wake. "Anytime you talk discipline and running
the ball, I get excited," says Anderson.
The Falcons pulled a heist in April when they picked Byron
Hanspard, a blazing back from Texas Tech, in the second round.
He and Anderson will work behind an offensive line that rates as
one of the team's strengths. It's led by a pair of former
first-rounders in tackles Bob Whitfield and Antone Davis, and by
tenacious left guard Robbie Tobeck.
Defensively, the Falcons have addressed their biggest
weakness--cornerback--with the signing of free agent "Big Play"
Ray Buchanan and the selection of Nebraska's Michael Booker with
the 11th pick in the draft. Last year Atlanta used eight
starting combos at corner and finished 27th in the league in
pass defense--this after allowing the most passing yards in NFL
history in 1995.
It will be up to the linebackers to carry the defense.
Three-time Pro Bowler Jessie Tuggle continues to be a tackling
machine. Mike Croel may finally be ready to put his considerable
physical gifts to use, especially now that he has been reunited
with Reeves, who drafted him in the first round in Denver in
1991. Cornelius Bennett must show more life than he did during
his three-sack campaign in '96.
The line is serviceable, led by the fiery Smith. Of his new
coach, Smith says, "This is an opportunity to have some
structure, to help us rise to higher levels. Dan Reeves knows
what it takes to win in this league."
The Falcons may not win many more games this year, but a season
in which they take out their frustrations on the opposition, not
on each other, would constitute progress.
COLOR PHOTO: TOM DIPACE Reeves's offense, featuring Anderson, will be lots of run and little shoot. [Jamal Anderson in game]
BY THE NUMBERS
1996 Record: 3-13 (fourth in NFC West)
1996 Yards per Game (NFL rank)
Rushing Passing Total
OFFENSE 91.3 (27) 228.4 (9) 319.8 (17)
DEFENSE 127.6 (26) 234.1 (27) 361.6 (29)
Morten Andersen's missed 30-yard field goal attempt in the
closing seconds of the Falcons' 1996 regular-season finale was
significant for three reasons: It cost Atlanta a win, sent
Jacksonville into the playoffs and ended Andersen's NFL-record
streak of 62 consecutive field goals from 30 yards or closer.
Longest Streaks of Successful Field Goal Attempts from 30 Yards
Morten Andersen Nov. 6, 1989, through Nov. 3, 1996 62
Norm Johnson Oct. 21, 1990, through Sept. 16, 1996 58
Pat Leahy Nov. 11, 1984, through Nov. 26, 1989 52
Matt Stover Dec. 22, 1991, through Dec. 15, 1996 48*
Nick Lowery Sept. 28, 1992, through Dec. 14, 1996 42*
PLAYER TO WATCH
"I believe I'm one of the elite corners in the NFL," says Ray
Buchanan, the former Colt who was one of the biggest free-agent
prizes of the off-season. "That's confidence, not cockiness."
Buchanan will need all of his chutzpah as he steps into the
Falcons' beleaguered secondary, which will have three new
starters. An occasional punt returner who in 1994 also used his
moves to return three pass interceptions for touchdowns,
Buchanan says, "I'm the type of player who wants to be around
the ball." That won't be a problem this year in Atlanta, where
he and the rest of the secondary will be tested on a weekly basis.
PROJECTED LINEUP With 1996 Statistics
Head Coach: Dan Reeves
Offensive Backs PVR*
QB Chris Chandler[A] 121[*] 320 att. 184 comp. 57.5%
2,099 yds. 16 TDs 11 int.
RB Jamal Anderson 30[*] 232 att. 1,055 yds. 4.5 avg.
49 rec. 473 yds. 9.7 avg. 6 TDs
FB Bob Christian**[A] 318[*] 41 att. 158 yds. 3.9 avg.
29 rec. 255 yds. 8.8 avg. 1 TD
Receivers, Specialists, Offensive Linemen
WR Terance Mathis 110[*] 69 rec. 771 yds. 7 TDs
WR Bert Emanuel 131[*] 75 rec. 921 yds. 6 TDs
WR Michael Haynes[A] 149[*] 44 rec. 786 yds. 4 TDs
TE Ed West[A] 285[*] 8 rec. 91 yds. 0 TDs
PK Morten Andersen 229[*] 31/31 XPs 22/29 FGs 97 pts.
KR Byron Hanspard(R)[A]124[*] 330 rush att. 2,084 yds. 13 TDs
PR Todd Kinchen[A] 189[*] 26 ret. 11.5 avg. 0 TDs
LT Bob Whitfield 6'5" 310 lbs. 16 games 16 starts
LG Robbie Tobeck 6'4" 295 lbs. 16 games 16 starts
C Roman Fortin 6'5" 297 lbs. 16 games 16 starts
RG Gene Williams 6'2" 306 lbs. 10 games 0 starts
RT Antone Davis 6'4" 330 lbs. 16 games 10 starts
LE Lester Archambeau 55 tackles 2 sacks
LT Travis Hall 51 tackles 6 sacks
RT Shannon Brown[C] 23 tackles 0 sacks
RE Chuck Smith 40 tackles 6 sacks
OLB Cornelius Bennett 60 tackles 3 sacks
MLB Jessie Tuggle 114 tackles 1 sack
OLB Mike Croel[A] 62 tackles 3 sacks
CB Ray Buchanan[A] 62 tackles 2 int.
SS William White[A] 21 tackles 0 int.
FS Devin Bush 59 tackles 1 int.
CB Michael Booker (R)[A] 25 tackles 1 int.
P Dan Stryzinski 75 punts 42.0 avg.
[A]New Acquisition (R) Rookie (college statistics)
[*]*PVR: Player Value Ranking (explanation on page 165)
**1995 Stats [C]1995 College Stats