The Falcons Forever Four is evenly split between offense and defense, the past and the present: From left, quarterback Matt Ryan; linebacker Tommy Nobis; wide receiver Julio Jones; defensive end Claude Humphrey. (Graphic by Guy J. Sagi)
Photo: Guy J. Sagi/Guy Sagi - stock.adobe.com
Photo: Guy J. Sagi/Guy Sagi - stock.adobe.com

Falcons Mount Rushmore heavy on the now, yet mindful of who started it all

Just so you know, we’re not taking this Mount Rushmore project as simply a lark to fill some space until sports comes back. OK, maybe some of us were. But then it was the Falcons’ turn, and things got a little tense.

There was the series of phone calls to the writer of this story from an obviously troubled sports editor. He kept suggesting the author’s preference of center Jeff Van Note over defensive end Claude Humphrey was unwise. Our dear leader had been chewing and chewing on that choice. Obsessively some might say. Captain Queeg-like others might add. 

Then there was the report that the newspaper’s beat man for the Falcons, D. Orlando Ledbetter, was considering a strongly worded memo, perhaps even an angry Zoom web conference, if Humphrey didn’t make the Final Falcons Four. 

Suddenly, where before there were only blissful hypotheticals, now there was pressure. It was as if the scales of posterity would pop its springs if we didn’t get this right. And the writer of story folded like an old road map. 

» MORE: Where is Steve Bartkowski?

In many ways, the Falcons presented quite the challenge in coming up with a foursome that represents the best of this franchise since its start in 1966. It’s not like there’s a championship upon which to moor a selection. And, face it, some of this team’s more dynamic players from the past had some real cracks in their character. 

One notable quarterback, a civic flashpoint since 2001, had to be excluded because of the clearly stated rules in the Imaginary Mount Rushmore Handbook against dogfighting. If only Michael Vick had just gambled on his own team or torched a homeless shelter, then maybe he would have been up for more serious consideration.

Another, the flashiest player ever to wear black, the one who claimed to have seized the Georgia Dome as his very own house, needed to hang around considerably longer than a fad. Deion Sanders was only five years a Falcon, but so consumed all oxygen in the locker room that it seemed longer. He won Super Bowls with San Francisco and Dallas. He won one first-round playoff game in Atlanta (Braves time excluded).

So mottled is the Falcons’ past that half their representation on the mythical Mount Rushmore here — the two leading vote-getters among the readers as a matter of fact — are still-active players. Their personnel file is not even complete, and yet they eclipse the weightiest of Falcons careers dating to the beginning. We’re taking it on faith that Matt Ryan is not going to take up dogfighting between now and retirement.  

The gimme: ‘Mr. Falcon’

Tommy Nobis already looked like he was cut from stone when he arrived as this franchise’s first-ever draft pick in ’66, so he’s a natural for the mountainside. Just look at some old picture of him, you could sharpen a knife on that chin.

A linebacker by trade and a human nail-gun at heart, Nobis was the first Falcon to be named to the Pro Bowl, after recording 294 combined tackles as a rookie. Either he was relentless or the same people who count attendance at Mercedes-Benz Stadium now where charting tackles back then.

For 11 seasons, Nobis was the most feared player with a franchise that too often inspired only indifference. He was martyred on the alter of expansion, enjoying just one winning season and no trips to the postseason. After his playing days, he was a point man for the franchise for decades. Wracked with cognitive and physical ailments later in life, he died in 2017. 

For reasons never clear, Nobis can’t break through in Canton, to the everlasting discredit of the Hall of Fame. But he is affixed as a Falcons franchise favorite. Of the 2,037 reader votes, Nobis was on 60% of the ballots, third among the electorate, but tops with this one-man electoral college.

Two active volcanoes atop this Mount Rushmore  

Safe to say Thomas Dimitroff is off the hook for trading a jumbo pack of draft picks in 2011 to move up 21 spots to select Alabama receiver Julio Jones. At the time, the hand-wringing was intense. But now it seems to really make it fair, the Falcons should still be sending Cleveland some latter-round compensation. 

The top vote-getter in this poll, by a wide margin — on 80% of the ballots — Jones is recognized as the most gifted and dynamic of Falcons offensive types. He should have had the one single most lovely catch in team annals, the one to cinch a Super Bowl, but you know how that ended. 

He is 31 years old, on the other side of prime. But Jones was made from a different batch than the rest of us and no predicting exactly how much more he’ll polish his resume before he’s done. And what he has done to date is plenty: Franchise leader in receiving yards (12,125); receptions per game (6.3) and soon to catch Roddy White in career receptions (his 11 behind White’s 808) and receiving touchdowns (six back of White’s 63).

Now to the throwing part of the equation.

The Falcons have had one league MVP in their history. Even with that singular distinction, Ryan (the 2016 winner) seems to attract an unnatural amount of shrapnel from the fans. At least he came in second, at 68%, in this poll.

In the 192 regular-season games the Falcons have played since 2008, Ryan has started 189 of them. His record as a starter is 109-80. He is eighth all-time among quarterbacks in fourth-quarter comeback wins (30, according to Pro Football Reference.com). 

Ryan does more incredible things with numbers than a mob accountant. Take the total of the next three on the list of Falcons career passing yardage leaders — Steve Bartkowski, Chris Miller and Chris Chandler. Add them together. And that number still falls short of Ryan’s 51,186 yards. 

He’s 34, a still-dependable high-mileage vehicle. You’ll miss him when he’s gone, whenever that might be.    

Here’s Claude Humphrey — you happy now?

Some may have held his exit from Atlanta against Humphrey. Fed up with losing four games into the 1978 season, his option year, Humphrey just left the building. And thus leveraged a trade to Philadelphia in 1979 in exchange for what turned out to be a couple of fourth-round draft picks.

Some may have placed a higher value on longevity, lobbying for Van Note, who led the team in most seasons (18) played, while going to the Pro Bowl six times.

But then some just caved to the argument that Humphrey, after all, is the Hall of Famer between the two, a distinction he mostly earned during nine-plus seasons as a Falcon (1968-78). Three years in Philly earned him a Super Bowl appearance that eventually appeased some Hall of Fame voters (although it took Humphrey 33 years after his retirement to get in).

We yielded as well to the fact that Humphrey just edged Van Note in the fan voting, 37% to 34%.

Humphrey was a 6-foot-4 rush end who terrorized quarterbacks in an age before the sack was an official stat. He, like Nobis, was a rookie of the year, making a great first impression on what was a two-win team. A five-time first team All-Pro, Humphrey was an anchor of the 1977 Grits Blitz defense that allowed a then NFL-record average of only 9.2 points per game.

As for the contentious good-bye, all has been forgiven: In 2008, the Falcons added Humphrey to the team’s Ring of Honor. But when carving his likeness onto our Mount Rushmore, a suggestion: Leave it the slightest bit little incomplete — perhaps taking just a bit off the end of the nose — to mark the 10 games he sat out at the end here. 

FALCONS MOUNT RUSHMORE

In the AJC’s reader poll, 2,037 voters cast a total of 8,590 votes. Here are the results:
Julio Jones, 1,629 votes, 80%
Matt Ryan, 1,376 votes, 68%
Tommy Nobis, 1,214 votes, 60%
Deion Sanders, 1,055 votes, 52%
Claude Humphrey, 761 votes, 37%
Jeff Van Note, 682 votes, 34%
Michael Vick, 548 votes, 27%
William Andrews, 530 votes, 26%
Mike Kenn, 439 votes, 22%
Roddy White, 356 votes, 18%

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