The Falcons as home underdog on Thanksgiving? Been there, done that

Falcons team owner Arthur Blank  greets Indianapolis Colts quarterback Peyton Manning before the Falcons-Colts game at the Georgia Dome on Thanksgiving 2007.
Falcons team owner Arthur Blank greets Indianapolis Colts quarterback Peyton Manning before the Falcons-Colts game at the Georgia Dome on Thanksgiving 2007.

Credit: Curtis Compton

Credit: Curtis Compton

The Falcons have been in business for 54 seasons, which means there’s a precedent for everything. (Except, er, winning the Super Bowl.) They’ve been good. They’ve been bad. They’ve been around so long that nothing they do qualifies as new – not even playing a home game on Thanksgiving night as a three-win team against a division-leading opponent with a big-name quarterback.

On this Thanksgiving, these Falcons were to face two-loss New Orleans in Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Twelve years ago, the Falcons faced two-loss Indianapolis in the Georgia Dome. As bad as this season has been, that one was worse. That one may have been the worst in the history of humankind.

The 2007 Falcons were supposed to pair the singular talents of Michael Vick and Bobby Petrino. Never happened. On the day the Falcons opened training camp, their franchise quarterback was in a courtroom in Richmond, Va., facing federal charges for dogfighting.

Outside team HQ in Flowery Branch were dueling protesters – Vick fans on one side, PETA partisans on the other. One sign from that belief-defying day: “Send Ookie (Vick’s nickname) to the pokey.”

As the Falcons attempted to conduct practice, a plane circled the field bearing a banner that read: “New team nickname – Dog Killers.” Petrino said afterward that he hadn’t noticed it. He always did have a great sense of humor.

The franchise quarterback would never play another down for this franchise. Petrino, who left Louisville for the specific purpose of coaching Vick, was reduced to working with the retread Joey Harrington. The Falcons started 1-6, by which time Vick had pleaded guilty and was awaiting sentencing. Then, after a bye week, they won a road game at San Francisco.

(Pay attention. This is about to get eerie.)

The next week the Falcons won again, this time at Carolina. They were 3-6. Next up was Tampa Bay in the Dome. (Any of this sounding familiar?) The Falcons lost by 24. They were 3-7. On Nov. 22, 2007, they played host to the Colts and Peyton Manning. Anybody who went to that game – I plead guilty – arrived expecting a rout of historic proportions. Typed these fingers: “This one bore the trappings of a holiday embarrassment, like the time your Uncle Pete had too much sherry and wound up face down in the cranberry sauce.”

But, miracle of miracle, it wasn’t that bad. The Falcons somehow led 10-0 after one quarter, Roddy White having caught a touchdown pass from Harrington. Was a Thanksgiving miracle at hand? Of course not. The Falcons scored three more points; the Colts scored 31, Manning authoring three touchdown passes in the second quarter.

The summation from this sector: “The Falcons could have lost 45-3, but they did better than that. They came closer than they had against Tampa Bay four days earlier. Give thanks for small favors.”

Those Falcons, it must be said, had an excuse. Their quarterback was bound for Leavenworth. Nineteen days after the Thanksgiving loss, their coach could be seen on late-night TV, calling the Hogs in Fayetteville, Ark. The Falcons would finish 4-12 with Chris Redman as quarterback and Emmitt Thomas as interim coach.

(Petrino’s last stand was a 34-14 home loss to New Orleans on Monday night. The networks made their schedules thinking they’d be getting Vick, leaving the team he left behind to absorb three nationally aired shellackings by an aggregate 59 points.)

These Falcons are 3-8. They entered Thursday’s game having been eliminated from the NFC South race. The Saints, who surely expected their old rival to be their closest pursuer, could have clinched the division by winning here. Then again, had New Orleans not no-showed against the Falcons earlier this month, it would’ve been home and dry already.

On that “very confusing” day – such was Arthur Blank’s description – his team looked the way it was supposed to look. Then it went to Carolina and won again, and you thought, “Hmm.” Then it came home and lost by 13 to Tampa Bay, and you thought, “Oh, well.”

When the schedule was revealed, Thanksgiving night was the first date you circled – surely a key divisional game, maybe even a preview of the NFC title tilt. Then the Falcons started 1-7. The Saints, meanwhile, were 7-1 with Drew Brees having missed five starts. How does either of those things happen?

Such, we can assume, is life. In the A-T-L, real life found the hugely disappointing Falcons working late on the holiday, and you had to figure NBC wasn’t thrilled with its slice of the three Turkey Day games. But at least Joey Harrington wasn’t starting this one. The guy the Falcons picked third overall in the draft following the dolorous 2007 season was. Give thanks for small favors, huh?

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