Game 6: At a Crossroads

“Mr. Falcon” Linebacker Tommy Nobis was arguably Atlanta’s best home grown player.

Football seasons turn dramatically in self-contained three-hour segments. It isn’t that the Washington team lost to the lowly Bears last week, it’s how they lost. Teams come out flat on Thursday Night Football. Usually it’s both teams. Last week it was the Burgundy and Gold clad in funeral black that exited the Locker Room in the horizontal position. Chicago, on the other hand came to play. It’s never good to be the salve for an opposing team needs. The WFT was all that and more a week ago Thursday for the Bears. That sound you heard after the game was the long knives being unsheathed for Ron Rivera. Two wins to start the year had forced the blades into hiding. Three losses later they were out in the sunshine on full display glistening with menace.

It is often said that, “Life imitates Art.” Actually they imitate each other. Al Pacino’s pre-game speech from the movie “Any Given Sunday” is available for Rivera to use this week:

“Either we heal as a team, or we’re going to crumble, inch by inch, play by play, ’til we’re finished. We’re in hell right now, gentlemen, believe me. And we can stay here, get the (crap) kicked out of us, or we can fight our way back into the light. We can climb out of hell, one inch at a time.” 

Coach D’Amato

Make no mistake, this is a must-win game for this team. A win would not only get the season back to .500, it would rebuild some confidence. Going into the season the limiting factor was thought to be the young Quarterback Sam Howell. Despite his resemblance to a crash test dummy from repeated hits Howell has exceeded expectations in many regards. During his weekly radio interview on SXM Rivera plainly stated that development of Howell was the overarching priority for this year. So far, so good. The strength of the team was supposed to be the Defense. With Chase Young having returned the pundits thought this would be a top-five unit. That prediction was nearly 180-degrees out. Howell didn’t lose that game against the Bears. The Defense did.

In this modern game Defenses are not supposed to win games. This year has thrown some doubt on the equation. Washington’s “D” has had exactly one good half so far: The second half against Arizona. Pittsburgh is 3-2 at the moment. All three wins lay at the feet of the Defense. Their First-Round pick at QB is struggling. The Jets are in a similar situation. Defenses can win games. If Chase and the guys played to potential this team could be 4-1 right now with some ease.

Ken Houston stops Walt Garrison at the goal line on 4th down to seal a win for Washington. October 8, 1973

Should the Defense need inspiration then they need not look farther than the events this week. Running Back Walt Garrison played his entire career with the Dallas Cowboys. Garrison passed away on Thursday at age 79. His performance sits in elite company with a career average 4.3 yards per carry. He was a cowboy in more than his uniform. He was a professional rodeo cowboy as well. His specialty was steer wrestling, more commonly known as “Bulldogging.” It sounds easy enough; a steer runs out of the chute, the cowboy spurs his horse to follow and overtake; jump off the horse; plant the bootheels into the ground while holding the steer’s horns for dear life; and then leverage the animal to the ground. Then again, it doesn’t sound so easy.

On October 8, 1973 the Cowboys were trailing Washington as the clock wound down. One last gasp on 4th and goal. Craig Morton hit Garrison in stride. Washington Safety Ken Houston grabbed the rodeo cowboy and bulldogged him to the ground not unlike a steer as Walt strained for the line mere inches away. Garrison at one point had his right foot in front of him as if he had run full-tilt into a chest-high landing arrest cable on an aircraft carrier. It was a play that finds the array of possible superlatives to be lacking. Fifty years ago to the week the image remains indelible. Just like the fictional Coach D’Amato said; it’s all about one inch.

Chase and guys need to take note.

Atlanta is a fitting place for a crossroads game. All through the Colonial and post-Revolutionary periods American cities sprouted organically along tidewater and waterways. Trade came from the seas. By the 1830s the railroads were changing that dynamic. Atlanta was basically planned by railroad executives. The Western and Atlantic railroad picked the location to end their line. Literally a stake was driven in the ground as the area was dubbed, “Terminus.” Later the name was changed to the feminine form of Atlantic in deference to the rail line. No one at the time could have envisioned the vast network of Interstate parking lots lacing the city that would materialize.

The Falcons came into being in 1966 for two main reasons. The first was the exploding population and capital growth in the south. Reconstruction had faded from sight if not memory. Southern states were open for business with limited regulation compared to the Rust Belt. When the Falcons came into being the farthest south team on the East Coast was Washington. This was a burgeoning market to tap. But, the impetus came from the upstart rival American Football League. The NFL wanted to get to Atlanta before the AFL did. The same year the Braves would relocate from Milwaukee making Atlanta a Major League City.

This edition of the Falcons is best regarded as a worthy foe. Some, but not all teams play better at home. With Atlanta the divide between Away and Home is stark. Their record is 3-2 with all the wins coming in the Mercedes-Benz stadium under the dome on the plastic turf. The QB is Desmond Ridder. He is 5-0 in that setting. His team has 66 first downs in those three games (22/gm) versus 33 (16.5/gm) in the two road losses. Scoring is even more lopsided at 70 (23.3/gm) versus 13 (6.5/gm). It’s tempting to cite strength of schedule when looking at the data. But, the last win came against a surprising Houston team that dismantled Pittsburgh a week earlier behind first-round pick CJ Stroud. Disregard that win as meaningless if you wish. Just rest assured that Washington will see the better version of the Falcons.

This Atlanta team is a run-first affair. They average right at 30 rushing attempts per game. It is almost equal to the passing attempts. In this day-and-age that’s what passes for a run-heavy team. Their coach, Arthur Smith is a no-nonsense Dan Campbell type who preaches a philosophy of Smash-mouth. First-round pick Bijan Robinson is averaging 5.4 yards per attempt. Up front their Offensive Line is better than most and clearly better than the WFT’s.

The Defensive Front will be tested early and often. But, make no mistake: This is a winnable game. It depends on whether the “D” can find their inner Ken Houston and control that one inch.

The lid on Pandora’s Box has been cracked slightly ajar. A win would keep it there. On the other hand a loss would flip it wide open. We’ll find out soon enough which fork in the road the team will take.

Author’s Note: The Featured Photo serving as the icon for this article shows the original Falcons’ helmet logo used only for the inception year of 1966.

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