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The 1980 Falcons: Something to learn from.


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For 1980 Falcons, Super Bowl near-miss still stings

By Ken Sugiura

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

7:23 p.m. Monday, January 10, 2011

While Jeff Van Note's memory has begun to fade, some things haven't left him, and may never go away.

"‘Too Tall' comes whistling down the line of scrimmage and he's definitely offsides," Van Note said last week, words that carry the heaviest resonance for longtime Falcons fans and are easily explained.

Atlanta players from the 1980 team are excited for the current Falcons' divisional playoff game on Saturday night against the Green Bay Packers. They see similarities between this team and theirs: a quarterback on the rise and a team winning games in all manner to create a season with legitimate Super Bowl aspirations.

However, they hope this year's edition doesn't revisit their horror, a 30-27 divisional playoff loss to Dallas at the old Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium that cuts deep 30 years later.

"It's a painful moment," said defensive end Jeff Merrow. "It took me 10 years before I could even discuss it."

Behind players like quarterback Steve Bartkowski, running back William Andrews and offensive linemen Van Note and Mike Kenn, all members of the Falcons' ring of honor, the Falcons went 12-4 to claim the team's first division championship and the No. 1 seed in the playoffs.

"Every week it was somebody different, somebody was rising up, to use a phrase, and making a play," Bartkowski said.

It led to the highest expectations when the playoffs began, which for the Falcons was Jan. 4, 1981, against the Cowboys.

"We thought we were going to the Super Bowl, I think," Van Note said.

It started out looking that way. The Falcons opened a 24-10 lead after three quarters and led 27-17 after a field goal with 5:37 to play. Against a prevent defense, the Cowboys scored on the next possession, and then the Falcons went three-and-out on the next series. On third down, Bartkowski went to a hard count to draw an offside penalty. Cowboys defensive end Ed "Too Tall" Jones bit on the ploy, teetering along the line of scrimmage and ultimately right into the hole where Falcons running back Lynn Cain was headed. The Cowboys scored again to win.

Said Van Note, "It's the toughest loss I've ever had."

A few years ago, ESPN spoke with Merrow for a special on the game, an interview that opened old wounds and, as such, included a lot of four-letter words.

"We felt we were so ready for it and we got our hearts broken," he said.

Bartkowski wanted to believe better days could be ahead, but he knew better. "Being the realist, I said, ‘Man, we just lost our best chance to win a ring,'" he said.

In that moment, everything seemed to change. A game that could have helped the Falcons capture the city and establish themselves in the NFL instead caused a downward spiral. In the offseason, management turned over much of the roster and, in the process, lost several players who had been integral to the team's rise. After the strike-shortened 1982 season, Bennett was fired. From 1983 through 1997, the Falcons had two winning seasons. The team's first Super Bowl berth, so tangible in 1980, did not arrive until the 1998 season. The team remained an afterthought, which it had been prior to 1980.

"I certainly think about how things might have changed just for the whole essence of the organization, if you will, at that point in time," Bartkowski said.

If he were asked, Bartkowski would tell current Falcons players to play with the knowledge that there are no guarantees, even for a team with such a seemingly promising future.

"You're two steps away from the biggest game of your life," Bartkowski said. "As they say, ‘Let's complete the deal.'"

Back to Jones' fourth-quarter play. Van Note lives with the regret of not snapping the ball when Jones jumped to draw an offside penalty, which would have netted a first down. However, he had been coached not to use that tactic, lest he risk snapping it before the quarterback was ready and break his finger. Similarly, Bartkowski still wishes he would have switched to a more aggressive play.

To Van Note, Bartkowski told him, "Instead of breaking my fingers, you broke my heart."

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