The Atlanta Falcons report for training camp this week bearing a historic tag: They came closer to being Super Bowl champs than any team that didn’t win the Super Bowl. They didn’t trail in regulation that star-crossed night in Houston. Indeed, they led by what is now a famous partial score in NFL annals – 28-3.
They report for camp with a roster adjudged by Pro Football Focus as the NFL’s best. They have the reigning MVP, the world’s best receiver and the league’s leading sack man from 2016. They face a softer schedule than last season, when they were 11-5. Had the Falcons held even one point of that bulbous lead in Houston, we’d be asking if this was a nascent dynasty.
Instead we ask: Is the team that couldn’t win after leading by 25 points with 17 minutes and seven seconds remaining scarred for life?
We can’t know the answer – because there’s not one, not yet. The Falcons haven’t played since falling on the wrong side of history. They’ve had their OTAs and minicamps and whatnot, but neither Lady Gaga nor Tom Brady was present for any of that. Mostly what they’ve done is talk about the Super Bowl, mostly to insist they’re Over It. Then we review summer headlines and ask: Really?
Devonta Freeman took to SiriusXM’s NFL Radio to say, “If I would have stayed in the game, I would have got MVP.” (Had Freeman not been in the game to miss a blitz pickup on Dont’a Hightower, his team wouldn’t have lost.) Peyton Manning made jokes – and did a protracted skit – at the Falcons’ expense during the ESPYs. Even Matt Ryan, who in recorded history had never voiced a discouraging word about anyone or anything, told Pete Prisco of CBS Sports that Kyle Shanahan’s play calls were slow to arrive and seemed to take a dig at Dan Quinn’s we-needed-to-stay-aggressive postgame proclamation.
For 5 ½ months, the Falcons have sworn they won’t be affected by what went wrong in NRG Stadium. Yet here we (and they) are, 5 ½ months later, still talking about what went wrong.
Quinn is very smart and relentlessly upbeat – and aggressive; don’t forget aggressive – and he coined a funny slogan: Embrace the Suck. Thing is, his team has no choice. As much as the Falcons will say, “We’ve moved on,” the subtext of every game this season will be, “Can the team that blew the Super Bowl get over blowing the Super Bowl?” If they make the playoffs (and they should), the question will be, “Can they get back to the game they blew?” If they again reach the Super Bowl (and they might), we’ll all wonder, “Will they not blow it this time?”
For all the feckless moments this franchise has known, nothing compares with the night of Feb. 5, 2017. (It wasn’t just the biggest lost lead in Super Bowl history; it was also the biggest in franchise history.) The fourth-quarter collapse against Dallas in January 1981? Awful, but that was a conference semifinal. The blocked punt against the 0-13 Colts in 1986? Egregious, but who outside Atlanta remembers it? Losing to the Lions at Wembley Stadium after leading 21-nil? Jolly bad, but the game ended just after noon EDT. The wasted 17-0 lead in the NFC title tilt against the 49ers? Utterly wretched, but again – not the Super Bowl.
This was the Super Bowl. This was a day when the Falcons did something an Atlanta team has almost never done – hit the biggest stage and flub nary a line. They were Laurence Olivier at the Old Vic, Freddie Mercury at Live Aid. The first draft of a column begun when it seemed the Falcons would win 42-10 had a line about them “performing in a way we never dreamed possible.” They were that good. Until it went that bad.
Put it this way: Peyton Manning didn’t go on cable TV and crack wise about the Falcons losing the NFC title to San Francisco. This was the game bearing Roman numerals. This was the game with Gaga. It drew 111 million viewers in these United States and was seen worldwide. (When Barcelona overhauled a 4-0 deficit to win a two-game UEFA Champions League tie against Paris Saint-Germain, the Croatian midfielder Ivan Rakitic said: “We saw in the Super Bowl what is possible in sport.”) It was the crowning moment of Brady’s matchless career, and it wouldn’t have happened if Shanahan, now gone to San Fran, had run the dang ball.
In the history of major U.S. professional team sports, no team has ever lost a game so big in such excruciating fashion. Maybe you’re saying, “That’s not true. There has to be something worse.” My polite challenge to you: Go find it. And don’t give me the Braves in the Leyritz game. (That only tied the World Series.) Don’t give me Greg Norman at Augusta. (He’s not a team.) Don’t give me Bill Buckner. (Game 6.)
Apologies for sounding so gloomy-doomy, but the Falcons convene for camp coming off what I maintain is the single most crushing defeat on record. They might have it within them to become uncrushed. They might be good enough to do as Golden State just did – flub one title and seize the next. But for them to do that, they’ll have to get past the loss for which no precedent exists. Good luck, guys.