Dan Reeves: The man who made the Falcons a Super Bowl team

Falcons coach Dan Reeves (right) does the Dirty Bird dance with players Jamal Anderson (32) and Ray Buchanan (34) in 1999. (AJC file photo)

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Falcons coach Dan Reeves (right) does the Dirty Bird dance with players Jamal Anderson (32) and Ray Buchanan (34) in 1999. (AJC file photo)

Many sports figures say, “I never read the paper.” Some are lying. Many say, “I don’t care what you write about me.” All are lying. All save one.

Dan Reeves was the exception. It’s usually easy to know if a coach is irked. When next a coach sees the offending scribe, the coach’s eyes narrow a bit. If the writer asks a question, there’s a hesitation before the coach begins to answer. (Assuming the coach deigns to answer. Most do.) Reeves was the same every day of every season. Part of his job was to deal with the media. He did his job. I have no idea if he ever read a word I wrote.

Back in the day, I mentioned this to Len Pasquarelli, then my esteemed AJC colleague. “Dan’s a pro,” Lenny said. For us media types, that’s the highest possible praise.

ExploreReaction to the death of Dan Reeves on social media

The moment he entered the Falcons’ complex in Suwanee – they’d soon move to Flowery Branch – a laughable organization got serious. Here was a man who’d won Super Bowls as a player and an assistant coach in Dallas. Here was a guy who’d taken Denver to three Super Bowls. Reeves rose through the ranks as the NFL itself was growing into a colossus. Heck, he threw the halfback option to Lance Rentzel that put the Cowboys ahead 17-14 in the Ice Bowl.

The man from Americus came here after the one fallow patch in a bountiful career. He’d been pushed out in Denver because John Elway wanted a new voice. (The downside of coaching a Hall of Fame quarterback is that they have Hall of Fame egos.) He spent four years with the Giants, only one of which yielded a playoff berth. He was out of work when the Falcons were seeking a coach, having finally decided the run-and-shoot of Jerry Glanville and June Jones was too gimmicky. Being the Falcons, it took them seven years to reach such a conclusion, but never mind.

Reeves walked in. Just like that, the Falcons changed.

He was a pro, not a huckster. He’d won everything except a Super Bowl. In business since 1966, the Falcons had won two playoff games. Among Falcons coaches, only Leeman Bennett had managed more than one winning season. Being the Falcons, they fired Bennett for having stalled atop what Rankin Smith Sr. deemed “a plateau.” They landed in a ditch. Their next four coaches were Dan Henning, Marion Campbell (for a second stint), Glanville and Jones. They had two winning seasons over 14 years.

Reeves’ first team started 1-7. Apart from the annual beatdown in San Francisco, their most lopsided loss was the opener in Detroit, which they led in the fourth quarter. The Lions scored two defensive touchdowns in a 28-17 win. Chris Chandler threw two interceptions in the final six minutes. Yours truly was in the Silverdome that Sunday. “Dan Reeves is a good coach,” these fingers typed, “but his task is monumental.”

Those Falcons finished 7-9. For the first time since Bennett, they seemed to be on to something. They began the 1998 season by winning in Charlotte, never easy. They suffered the usual loss in San Fran, although Reeves did something afterward that was unusual. He cut cornerback Juran Bolden, who’d been beaten for a big gain. The message: “We no longer take losing lightly, even if it’s to the 49ers.”

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Credit: Ben Gray, bgray@ajc.com

Credit: Ben Gray, bgray@ajc.com

The Falcons would beat San Francisco twice that season, once in a memorable November game, again in the divisional round of the playoffs. They finished the regular season 14-2. They went to Foxborough in November and destroyed the Patriots of Pete Carroll 41-10. At Reeves’ Monday press conference eight days later, yours truly posed a question thusly: “I’ve never asked this of a Falcons’ coach, but is this a Super Bowl team?”

Reeves laughed. But he didn’t say no.

On Dec. 14, Reeves had quadruple bypass surgery at Piedmont Hospital. He’d felt pains during a game in New Orleans. Reeves said he’d return by the playoffs. He did. The Falcons beat the Niners 20-18. They flew to Minneapolis for the NFC Championship game, a game nobody expected them to win. Minnesota was 15-1. The Metrodome was a fortress. Randall Cunningham and Randy Moss and Cris Carter were unstoppable. Gary Anderson hadn’t missed a kick all season.

With 2:07 left in regulation, Anderson missed what would have been the clinching field goal. With 49 seconds remaining, Chris Chandler found Terance Mathis to tie the score. The shaken Vikings didn’t try to score at the end of regulation. They won the coin toss in overtime. They had the ball twice more. The Falcons held. Chandler hit tight end O.J. Santiago, who’d broken out the Dirty Bird after scoring against the Patriots. The irresistible Jamal Anderson got them close. Morten Andersen won it. Cue Jeff Hullinger: “The FALCONS are GOING to the SUPER BOWL!!!”

The front page of that Monday’s AJC showed Anderson, Ray Buchanan and Reeves dancing the Dirty Bird. It was – and remains – the greatest moment in franchise history. In the coaches’ locker room afterward, Reeves spoke of his players. “What they did,” he said, his voice cracking, “it just blows you away.”

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Players Ray Buchanan (left) and Bob Whitfield (center) dance the "dirty bird" with coach Dan Reeves in Woodruff Park at the finale of a city wide parade for the Super Bowl Falcons. (AJC)

Players Ray Buchanan (left) and Bob Whitfield (center) dance the "dirty bird" with coach Dan Reeves in Woodruff Park at the finale of a city wide parade for the Super Bowl Falcons. (AJC)

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Players Ray Buchanan (left) and Bob Whitfield (center) dance the "dirty bird" with coach Dan Reeves in Woodruff Park at the finale of a city wide parade for the Super Bowl Falcons. (AJC)

As we know, the Super Bowl went less well. Anderson tore his ACL the second week of the 1999 season; the Falcons slid from the Super Bowl to 5-11. Reeves – essentially his own general manager – traded up to take Michael Vick with the No. 1 pick in the 2001 draft. In January 2003, Vick led the Falcons to a famous playoff victory in Green Bay. He broke his ankle in the 2003 preseason. He returned in December, which was too late for his team, and for Reeves.

Arthur Blank – who bought the team in 2002 – wanted a coach of his choosing. Reeves chose to quit rather than finish the season. He was 49-59-1 as the Falcons’ coach, but his two winning seasons and his drafting of Vick reconfigured what had been an amateurish franchise. We say again: He was a pro.

Reeves died Saturday. He was 77. My great regret for him: He wasn’t chosen for the Hall of Fame while he lived. He’ll be there one day. He’s among the NFL’s top 10 in coaching wins. He was part of nine Super Bowls. He took three franchises to the playoffs. There are sports figures I admire because they’re winners, others because they’re good human beings. Dan Reeves was both.

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