Blog Entry

1974 - The Curse begins...

Posted on: January 2, 2010 1:05 pm
The Falcons open 2010 with a chance to make franchise history and wipe out the notorious streak known as The Curse.

For anyone who hasn't heard it countless times before, the franchise has NEVER had consecutive winning seasons.  We've had some good teams, such as the 14-2 bunch in 1998 that went to the Super Bowl, the 12-4 team in 1980 that appeared to be the best in the NFL, and the 11-5 team under rookie head coach Jim Mora that made it to the NFC Championship game after the 2004 season.

But every step forward has been followed by two steps back, and no matter how strong the team appeared one year, the next year resulted in an implosion to .500 or worse.

The team's first winning season came in 1971.  It was a mere 7-6-1 thanks to a fluke tie against the Rams in the second week of the season, so it was no real surprise that the team went 7-7 the following year. 
The first time something happens doesn't constitute a trend, and dropping from 7 wins to 7 wins isn't exactly grounds for calling it The Curse.  So personally, I let that one slide.  I claim that The Curse begins the next time the Falcons had a winning record - and the first time they appeared to be stepping up to elite status.

That was the 1973 team, which went 9-5 and was one game shy of making the playoffs with the 5th best record in the NFC.  (In those days, there were three divisions per conference and one wild card, which the Falcons missed by just one win.)

The Falcons had one of the top defenses in the entire NFL that season, featuring Pro Bowl defensive ends Claude Humphrey and John Zook, Tommy Nobis and Greg Brezina in the linebacking corps, and a pass defense that racked up 22 interceptions on the year.  Dave Hampton had his infamous almost-1000 yard season (he made it to 1000 yards, then lost yardage on his final carry to drop back to 997), kicker Nick Mick-Mayer had a career year and made the Pro Bowl, and the team went on a mid-season seven game winning streak to show they were a rising force in the league.

But the seeds of destruction had already been planted, in one of the worst trades of franchise history.  Before the season began, the Falcons traded starting QB Bob Berry and their future (1974) first round draft pick to the Minnesota Vikings for QB Bob Lee and linebacker Lonnie Warwick.

To this day, I still can't find a reason to justify this trade for the Falcons.  Lee had attempted just 6 passes in 1972 as backup to Fran Tarkenton.  He did get a little playing time in 1971, before the Vikes got Frantic Fran back from the Giants and were doing their own scrambling to find a starter.  But even then he completed 45 of 90 passes, with 4 interceptions to double his 2 TDs.  (He was primarily the punter for the Vikings that season.) 

Lonnie Warwick was one of the more intimidating linebackers of the 1960s.  He was the starting MLB through 1970 and a core member of the original Purple People Eaters.  But he was only a backup afterwards, appearing in just 4 games in 1971 and 6 in 1972.

Meanwhile, Bob Berry wasn't exactly Pro Bowl material as the starting QB for the Falcons, but he threw for over 2100 yards and 13 TDs in 1972, notching a QB rating of 78.5.  (By comparison, Matt Ryan's rating this season is 81.1.  Michael Vick's rating in his 2004 Pro Bowl year was 78.1, and his yards per game, completion percentage, TD and interception figures were all comparable to Berry's stats in 1972.)

Would you trade that kind of QB *PLUS* your first round draft pick for an unknown backup QB/punter and a 30-year old backup linebacker?  We obviously wouldn't, but Norm Van Brocklin did. Ironically, Van Brocklin was the head coach that led Tarkenton to demand his trade away from Minnesota to the Giants in the first place.

Bob "General" Lee managed to put up respectable numbers while leading the Falcons 1973 campaign.  He completed 52% of his attempts (compared to Berry's 55.6% the year before) for 1786 yards (compared to Berry's 2158) and 10 TDs (vs Berry's 13).  And while Lonnie Warwick didn't start, he was a useful backup linebacker behind Atlanta's trio of Nobis, Greg Brezina, and Don Hansen.

And so the Falcons, led by their intimidating defense, went on a rampage in that 1973 season and were on the verge of becoming something special.  A few good players from the 1974 draft would be all the team needed to vault themselves to greatness.

Alas, that draft under Van Brocklin may have been the worst in NFL history.  (Are there any fans of other teams reading this blog/message board?  Please share your team's all time worst if there's one to top the Falcons Class Of 1974.)

The first round pick, which became #17 overall, had already been lost to the Vikings in the Bob Lee trade.  Coach Van Brocklin's top draft need was a wide receiver.  When the #17 came up, the top WR of the draft class was still on the board.  But Minnesota had the pick rather than the Falcons, and they used it to select linebacker Fred McNeill.

Instead, the Pittsburgh Steelers took that WR four picks later.  His name... Lynn Swann.

Van Brocklin got his wideout with Atlanta's first pick, which was #44 overall in the second round, by taking Gerald Tinker.  Tinker was a good athlete - he was a member of the gold medal 4 x 100 relay team in the 1972 Summer Olympics.  But the Kent State receiver wasn't a particularly good football player.

He did some PR/KR duty that first year but notched a mere four receptions (total) in two seasons on Atlanta's roster.  He went on to spend one more season with the Packers before disappearing into obscurity.

That was how the Falcons used the #44 selection.  The #45 was Dave Casper.  The #46 was Jack Lambert.  Ouch...

Atlanta had two picks in the third round.  Van Brocklin used the #69 overall to get a QB to groom for the future.  His choice was Kim McQuilken from Lehigh.

Every now and then we'll hear Falcons fans complain that Joey Harrington was the worst QB they have ever seen.  Well, for those of you not old enough to remember the 1970s, let me assure you that the Falcons have seen MUCH worse than Harrington or Byron Leftwich or D.J. Shockley or John Parker Wilson.  Third round choice McQuilken completed 39.7% of his pass attempts in his career, which featured a staggering 29 interceptions and 4 touchdowns, giving him a mighty 17.9 career QB rating.

Pause for a moment and let that sink in... 4 touchdowns... 29 interceptions... completed less than 40% of his throws...

Van Brocklin followed that gem by taking cornerback Mo Spencer two picks later.  Spencer never played for the Falcons.  (But he did go on to make the roster in New Orleans and was their starting right cornerback in 1978.  So it could be said he contributed to the Falcons that season - he was in the secondary for "Big Ben".)

Fourth round pick RB Vince Kendrick lasted just one season on the roster.  He had 17 rushing attempts for 21 yards.

Fifth round pick TE Henry Childs appeared in only six games for the Falcons and had no stats.  He eventually went on to make the Pro Bowl in 1979 with the Saints.

A second pick that round produced RB Monroe Eley, who did not play in 1974, had one rushing attempt in 1975, did not play in 1976, and finally had 97 attempts for 273 yards in 1977 to wrap up his career.

Sixth round pick RB Doyle Orange (yet another RB) never played a game in the NFL.  Neither did seventh round pick T James Coode.  The next pick, ninth round DT Larry Bailey, appeared in 1 game.

C Paul Ryczek (10th round) stuck on the roster as a backup and special teams player for six years and even started 4 games in 1976.  But he was the high point of the rest of the draft.  16th round RB (yes, yet another RB) Sylvester "Molly" McGee had 7 rushing attempts in his 10 game career.  None of the other six players taken in that draft played a single game for the Falcons.

So while the Steelers recorded the best draft class in NFL history and went on to win their first championship, the Falcons (who drafted AHEAD of Pittsburgh) racked up what might be the worst draft the NFL had ever seen and self destructed.

The Falcons started the season 2-6.  Bob Lee was horrid, completing less than half his passes, throwing 14 interceptions and getting sacked 31 times.  After a 42-7 embarassment to the Dolphins in the eighth game, Van Brocklin was fired.  Incoming coach Marion Campbell (hardly an improvement) dropped Lee from his starting role.

Atlanta finished at 3-11 and followed with a pair of 4-10 seasons in 1975 and 1976.  Campbell was fired five games into the 1976 season.

While we grimace over the Jimmy Williams trade and the Jamaal Anderson selection in the 2006 and 2007 drafts, those draft classes are still among the better half of draft classes in Falcons history.  The 1974 draft wrecked the team for years to come and launched The Curse.    

The one shining light...  that 3-11 record gave Atlanta the #3 position in the 1975 draft.  The team traded up with the Colts to gain the #1 pick and landed future franchise QB Steve Bartkowski.

Category: NFL

Since: Aug 9, 2007
Posted on: January 7, 2010 12:09 am

1974 - The Curse begins...

Thanks for the comments, guys.  I created this blog to answer the call for "official" CBS fan blogs last season, but that program never really got off the ground.  I continued it this year without knowing if anyone ever sees the posts.  Nice to know a few folks stop by every now and then.

Hang in there, Cubbies.  The South Melbourne Bloods/Sydney Swans finally broke their jinx in Aussie Rules football a few years ago, and
the Red Sox finally broke The Curse Of The Bambino.  It will happen for the Cubs too - one of these decades...

Yep, every team has draft mishaps.  But I still wonder how many franchises have entire draft classes that have bombed out as badly and done as much damage as that 1974 Falcons draft.  That was a 17 round draft, and Atlanta came away without a single player that made a positive impact on the team - resulting in the franchise going from #5 in the NFC to the doormat of the league for the next three years.

If you're reading this, please do share your favorite team's greatest horror story!

One of my personal favorites is Tampa Bay's draft fiasco of 1982, which extended through 1983 and into the 1984 draft - all thanks to a disastrous pair of trades by then-GM Ken Herock.  I may have to do a blog entry on that one later, since Herock went on to wreck the Falcons for a decade after the Buccaneers gave him the axe.  But if any old time Bucs fans here want to share it first, feel free...

Another one I love to harp on is the Broncos draft a few years ago.  At the time, I posted that their GM deserved to be fired for what I felt was one of the worst jobs of draft pick management of the decade.  A year later, he was indeed let go.  I believe that draft was one of the main reasons why.  Any Broncos fans around?  Do you agree?

Since: Jan 10, 2009
Posted on: January 6, 2010 6:18 am

1974 - The Curse begins...

Good story from a historical perspective.  I think every franchise has a woulda, shoulda, coulda draft year (or two) like this.  After Art Modell stole the team from Cleveland and made them the Dirty Birds" of Baltimore, Cleveland took Tim Couch as the #1 pick in the 1999 draft.  The Philadelphia Eagles take Donovan McNab as the second overall pick. 

Since: Sep 9, 2008
Posted on: January 4, 2010 10:51 pm

1974 - The Curse begins...

You wanna talk curses? Try 101 years and counting.

Since: Jan 4, 2010
Posted on: January 4, 2010 8:55 am
This comment has been removed.

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Since: Jan 4, 2010
Posted on: January 4, 2010 8:54 am
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Since: Feb 19, 2007
Posted on: January 3, 2010 6:50 pm

1974 - The Curse begins...

That's a pretty incredible story.  With Lynn Swann and a half-decent draft, the Falcons might have been the team winning Super Bowls instead of Pittsburgh.

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