It was still dark out when Atlanta Falcons free safety Eugene
Robinson arose last Saturday. Kickoff for his team's NFC
divisional playoff against the San Francisco 49ers was seven
hours away, so Robinson popped a video into his bedroom VCR and
climbed back into the sack. What about his wife, Gia? "Not a
problem," says Robinson. "She loves football, too."
Robinson screened what was, to him, the football equivalent of a
Wes Craven flick: San Francisco's Jan. 3 victory over the Green
Bay Packers, in which Niners quarterback Steve Young beat the
Packers with a last-second touchdown pass. "I wanted to get a
feel for Steve's timing," says Robinson. "I like to lie in bed
and let it marinate. I watch for a while, then fall asleep and
dream about making plays."
Later that day, with five minutes left in the third quarter, a
wide-awake Robinson made the biggest play in the best season in
the 33-year history of the Atlanta franchise. Having wrested
momentum from the Falcons, the 49ers, down 14-10, were driving
for what would have been a go-ahead touchdown. On third-and-nine
at the Atlanta 24, Young took a short drop and looked to his
left. Robinson, playing the deep middle of the field, knew what
was coming next: "I saw him turn his shoulders, and broke on the
Robinson is known among teammates as the Prophet, both for his
familiarity with scripture and his extraordinary anticipation.
He snagged Young's pass, intended for wideout Terrell Owens, at
the three-yard line and returned it 77 yards, setting up a
Falcons field goal and snuffing San Francisco's best chance to
get the upper hand in what wound up as a 20-18 Atlanta victory.
On a day when their high-profile offensive teammates mustered
just two touchdowns and two field goals, Robinson and his
defensive mates were mostly responsible for keeping the Falcons'
dream season alive. Yes, Chris Chandler completed 13 of 19
passes, but none was longer than 22 yards, and he did not throw
for a touchdown. Yes, Jamal Anderson rushed for 113 yards and
both touchdowns, but only 30 of those yards came in the second
half. Moreover, his failure to stay inbounds on an unsuccessful
fourth-down conversion in the final minute gave the 49ers
several extra snaps and an opportunity to get into field goal
range. That was not what the doctor ordered for Atlanta coach
Dan Reeves, who was back on the sidelines less than a month
after undergoing quadruple-bypass surgery.
But the surprise winners of the NFC West survived, which was why
Robinson was in the Atlanta locker room shouting, "Who'da thunk
it? The Atlanta Falcons, one win from the Super Bowl. Next week
[against the Minnesota Vikings] no one will give us a prayer.
That's cool. That's great."
The only team to beat Minnesota this season, the Tampa Bay
Buccaneers, kept the Vikings' high-scoring offense off the field
by running the ball and controlling the clock--the type of game
the Falcons can play. What's more, Atlanta's self-styled Bomb
Squad defense has allowed an average of just 15.3 points in its
last nine games and was also the NFL's second-best against the
run this season, which suggests a tough day ahead for Minnesota
running back Robert Smith. It seems less likely that Robinson
and his fellow defensive backs will contain dynamic receivers
Cris Carter, Jake Reed and Randy Moss (page 54), but it would be
a mistake to underestimate the Prophet, who after the playoffs
is headed for his third Pro Bowl in 14 years and has made a
career of surprising people.
A walk-on at Colgate, Robinson went undrafted in 1985. He signed
as a free agent with the Seattle Seahawks and made the club by
the skin of his teeth. You could say he's done O.K. since then.
His 53 career interceptions lead all active players. He makes up
for his lack of speed with guile and ball hawking instincts.
Before the '96 season Robinson was traded to Green Bay, where he
started and was a key contributor in the Packers' Super Bowl
championship season. Then, as now, Robinson was the closest
thing in the NFL to a player-coach, lecturing and hectoring
younger defensive backs on the fine points of their craft. So
apt a pupil was his backup, Darren Sharper, that the Packers
decided after last season to make the 34-year-old Robinson their
third safety. Robinson, a free agent, wanted to start
Reeves was in the market for a free safety, and after failing to
sign his first free-agent choice, Brock Marion, he landed
Robinson with a two-year, $3.55 million contract. One of the
first things Robinson did in training camp was walk around the
locker room showing his new teammates his Super Bowl ring. The
idea, he says, was "to make it tangible for the guys." Robinson
considers it one of his callings to motivate his teammates. Last
week he sought to deflate any residual fear of the 49ers, who
had won 11 of their last 14 games against Atlanta, by reminding
his teammates of their dominating 31-19 victory over San
Francisco in mid-November.
Fresh off their dramatic defeat of the Packers a week earlier,
the 49ers were riding high last Saturday when they came into the
Georgia Dome. That changed on the first play from scrimmage,
when Pro Bowl running back Garrison Hearst, after picking up
seven yards, was spun around by defensive end Chuck Smith and
fell, his left foot locked into the artificial turf. The torque
fractured Hearst's fibula, ending his season and reducing San
Francisco's game plan to so much scrap paper.
Trailing 14-0 late in the second quarter, the Niners got a lucky
break when running back Terry Kirby recovered a fumbled backward
pass from Young. Smith scooped up an apparent live ball--no
whistle had blown--and took it 45 yards for what first appeared
to be a touchdown. After huddling, the officials ruled that
Kirby had possession and was down by contact before losing the
ball, but they announced Falcons' possession. A moment later
they corrected themselves: San Francisco retained possession.
Four plays later Young hit Jerry Rice for a 17-yard touchdown.
By halftime San Francisco had closed to 14-10.
Often unable to hear their own line calls over the roar in the
Georgia Dome, Atlanta's defensive front four were forced to
abandon many of the stunts they'd planned to use. Their
inability to consistently get to Young--though harassing him
frequently, they sacked him just once--heaped added pressure on
the secondary. That was fine by the secondary. After Robinson's
third-quarter interception, strong safety William White picked
off Young's worst throw of the day, a ball intended for, but
nowhere near, tight end Greg Clark. Still, Young put together an
87-yard scoring drive, and a two-point conversion got San
Francisco to 20-18 with 2:57 left. Then (hit the deck, Jamal!)
the Falcons failed to run out the clock.
As the 49ers broke the huddle and sent three wide receivers to
his side of the field with 11 seconds to play, Robinson flashed
back to the video he had watched that morning: Young winning a
playoff game on the final play. This time Young's pass fell
toward Robinson, who leaped and wrapped his hands around the
ball. White, thinking that Robinson was a 49er, grabbed one end
of the ball as well. As the teammates fell to the turf at the
Atlanta 35, Robinson alertly released the ball to White. "Who
knows, maybe it would've popped up and they'd get a fluke
completion," he said afterward.
Victory secure, the safeties sat on the turf and celebrated. "I
love you, Will," said Robinson.
"I love you, too," said White.
Robinson laughingly recounted the exchange five hours later
while sitting on the couch in his living room in Alpharetta,
Ga., watching a tape of the game. Also watching, naturally, was
Gia, in whose jewelry box Eugene's Super Bowl ring is stored.
"Let's remember to get that ring out," he told her. "I'm wearing
it to work this week."
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY AL TIELEMANS Stretch runner Anderson finished a 34-yard gallop through the 49ers with this dive for his second touchdown of the first half. [Jamal Anderson diving over goal line]
COLOR PHOTO: BILL FRAKES Hands on Robinson (left) and White grabbed the last pass to J.J. Stokes. [Eugene Robinson, William White, and J.J. Stokes]
"Next week no one will give us a prayer," Robinson said of
Sunday's game with the Vikings. "That's cool. That's great."