While the Falcons have been in the NFL for many, many years (we’ll get to that tomorrow), they are not a team with a rich tradition of winning (or even being that good, frankly). Because of this, it may be harder to find an old school Falcons fan outside of that region of the country. Don’t get me wrong, I know how passionate the south is about their football, and I’m sure there are many diehard Falcons fans that remember those good old days when the Falcons were good, then faded into obscurity for a decade, then got good again, etc. For a team that went to the Super Bowl a mere 19 years ago (holy cow, I’m getting old) many of the Falcons fans saw their fandom and their allegiance bloom when a speedy quarterback was drafted out of Virginia Tech with the first pick of the 2001 NFL Draft.
Michael Vick’s ascendency to not only the starting quarterback of the Atlanta Falcons, but also the most electric player in the NFL at that time, cemented him, and the Falcons, as the team to watch. More exposure equaled more casual fans jumping on the Falcons bandwagon at that time. This led to more fans adopting, and staying with the Falcons as they grew up. The genesis of a lot of Falcons fans that aren’t from that area of the country was that first pick in the draft, which brings us to Mark Cooper, a Falcons fan and friend of the Just Average Sports Guys. Mark bounced from team to team a bit when he was a kid, as we all did, but once Michael Vick entered the league and started breaking ankles, his allegiance was cemented, and he has stuck by the Falcons through the good and the bad, refusing to jump ship. Mark was rewarded for his loyalty when the Falcons drafted Matt Ryan and then Julio Jones, but as we all know, that has given the Falcons some good seasons that have ended in heartbreak.
Through it all, Mark stuck by his team, reveling in the playoff appearances and watching as much as he could. The problem with that is, living in Western New York; he doesn’t get to see many Falcons games without a) buying the NFL’s TV package, or b) going to a bar that is playing all the NFL games. Coincidentally, Mark was only able to see four Falcons games this year. Luckily, we often see a spike in primetime games the following year if a team plays in the Super Bowl the year before. Hopefully 2017 will be the year that everyone around the country gets to see what Mark already knows: the Falcons are a damn good football team.
When talking to Mark about this season’s team, he was very confident in their offense, citing both Matt Ryan and Julio Jones as reasons this offense has taken a jump to Super Bowl caliber levels of play. He cited that from a fan’s perspective, Matt Ryan seems “extremely focused and ready to win a championship”, which definitely jives with what a lot of us casual observers are seeing as well. Ryan seems to have taken that next step, gotten over the hump so to speak, much like we saw with Peyton Manning in 2007 (coincidentally Manning and Ryan made their first Super Bowls nine years after being drafted).
Mark also made a point of talking about the matchup nightmare that Julio Jones creates (and it should be even more-so now that he has had an extra week to heal his toe). Mark stated that he would often see teams double or triple teaming Jones, which left other receivers like Sanu or Gabriel wide open. Conversely, when the coverage drifts back to those other receivers, that’s when Jones can burn you (just ask the Packers).
Mark isn’t as confident about the defense. He loves the promise Vic Beasley is showing so early in his career, but realizes that defense has been the Achilles heel of his team this year. He is rightfully concerned about the Super Bowl stage and bright lights getting into the heads of the young players on his defense, despite the fact that they have stepped up their game in the second half of the season and the playoffs. The main thing that Mark worries about in the Super Bowl is the experience of the Patriots versus the relative inexperience of Atlanta’s team on that grand a stage. While many Patriots may not have been to a Super Bowl before, he acknowledges that the key cogs in the Patriots machine (namely their quarterback and much of their coaching staff) are well versed in how to navigate a game of this magnitude. Despite all that, Mark is extremely confident in his high powered offense to win the day in the Super Bowl and for Atlanta to take down the Patriots by a score of 41-38.
Listen, if we’re talking about fan-bases, it’s hard to argue with New England for sheer size. Luckily, size doesn’t matter (or so I’m told) and I think that’s definitely the case here. Falcons fans have been through the ringer, whether they became fans at the team’s inception or not. Even fans that started liking the Falcons after their Super Bowl appearance had to deal with a couple terrible years after that before they picked up Michael Vick in the draft. Fans, like Mark, that saw their fandom blossom with Vick had to deal with all the subsequent blowback he created, and those that came even after that had to deal with crushing playoff defeats and mediocrity. It’s a Russian nesting doll of suffering for Atlanta fans. For those that stick around, that can make it through that and come out on the other side, that hardens a fan base, that brings them together so that they can appreciate a Super Bowl run and a historic offense.
What have New England fans had to complain about? Tom Brady got hurt and they still won eleven games with a quarterback that probably hasn’t won eleven combined games since? Roger Gooddell has taken a special interest in making things difficult for Brady and the Patriots? Gronk can’t stay healthy? The Patriots have faced all adversity and kept on rolling. The fans, coincidentally have not had to deal with a losing year, or missing the playoffs, or even the thought of missing the playoffs in quite some time. Ask any Patriots fan and they’ll tell you, they’re incredibly spoiled. Because of that, I have to say that the Falcons have better fans. It’s easy to stick by a winner, much more difficult to keep saying “we’ll get them next year”.
I want to extend a special thanks to Mark Cooper for helping out with this article and providing his insight into the Falcons from a fan’s perspective.