Sure, the Falcons have performed well since they signed Matt Ryan in 2008, but as reliably well as they play in the regular season, they lose with the same predictability in the playoffs—last year to the Giants, and the year before to the Packers. The loss to the Saints fits this tendency to inevitably choke: Atlanta could have won had they not failed to gain the single yard they needed for a first down three times in a row on their last drive in the fourth quarter. And yes, they’ve got their share of hard-luck stories—Tony Gonzalez currently holds the record for most touchdown passes by a tight end, but he’s never won a playoff game—but they’ve also had some advantages, including the easiest schedule in the NFC this year. Their victories reek of competence rather than excitement.
It wasn’t always like this. Before Ryan, before a string of unremarkable years under Michael Vick, there were the 1998 Falcons, the flamboyant “Dirty Birds”—a nickname drawn from a touchdown dance pioneered either by OJ Santiago or Jamal Anderson (reports differ) that only later seemed perhaps ill-advised, given devoutly religious safety Eugene Robinson’s arrest, on the eve of the Super Bowl, for soliciting oral sex from an undercover police officer. Mistakenly underestimated, unfazed by Head Coach Dan Reeves’s unexpected, late-season quadruple bypass surgery—he went to the hospital with a “burning sensation in his upper chest” after a victory over the Saints—the team’s Super Bowl run surprised all but the most ardent fans. The ultimate result—defeat at the hands of the Broncos—was more expected.
And though these Falcons are the best Atlanta has seen since, they have little of that team’s charm; they are unquestionably “more corporate.” Certainly no starter seems likely to show up to a press conference wearing a collar to signify the team’s underdog status, as cornerback Ray Buchanan did before the Super Bowl, and wide receiver Roddy White’s claim, after the game, that the Falcons had given the game away hardly compares to Buchanan likening tight end Shannon Sharpe to Mr. Ed.
Just look at the sass on Jamal Anderson’s dirty bird:
Julio Jones’s updated version, which debuted during the pre-season, has an unacceptable amount of perk:
And then there’s Ryan. The 2008 rookie of the year, whose first pass in the NFL was a touchdown, is pretty impressive, and really boring. Even his nickname, “Matty Ice”—allegedly earned playing high school baseball—conveys the irredeemable blandness that hangs over him like pall. Its promise of coolness under pressure hasn’t translated to results in heated situations—playoff games—while its intimations of cheap frat-boy anti-charisma match perfectly with Ryan’s anonymous face.
Sports allegiances are gut-level, knee-jerk. And though, as one gets older, it also becomes possible to appreciate teams you cannot whole-heartedly, unreservedly love, there always remain some about which no feeling seems possible—not hate, nor fondness, nor grudging respect—about which no compelling narrative can be found. For me, the Atlanta Falcons are one of those teams.
Then I stumbled upon a little show the Falcons’ defensive line likes to put online. It’s called “D-Block,” and it demolished my assumptions about the essential charmlessness of this year’s Falcons. It may be the most delightful product ever created by professional football players—running back Jason Snelling’s “JammyPack” excluded, of course.
“D-Block” is hosted by the D-Block, the Falcons’ defensive line: Robert James, Akeem Dent, Mike Peterson, Stephen Nicholas, and Sean Witherspoon (Pat Schiller, a linebacker on the practice squad, is allowed to sit in, so long as he doesn’t move). They invite guests into their studio—also known as the locker room—sit them down on plastic milk crates, offer them refreshments, and assign them nicknames; the Rodgers brothers, Jacquizz and James, for example, are re-christened Pop Quizz and Little Rog.
Topics up for discussion are wide-ranging. When defensive coordinator Mike Nolan visits, he first promises to keep it “real clean” (“D-Block” is a family-friendly show) and then assures viewers that, as far as his relationship with his wife goes, “When you do get past 50, things are still good,” all but winking into the camera. Rookie wide receiver Kevin Cone is bashful and fresh-faced, especially when his teammates rib him about having a girlfriend; he’s less shy about his Words with Friends skills—apparently Jacquizz is his only real competition on the team. They even manage to humanize Matty Ice, who plays guitar—grinning goofily the whole time—while center Brett Romberg and the D-Block sing.
My affection for “D-Block” still doesn’t translate into a desire to watch Falcons games, but it has made me reconsider my disregard of their narrative possibilities. And now that they’ve just suffered their first loss, it seems possible that they just got interesting.