It has been 51 years since the city too busy to hate, but with ample time to crush your dreams, break your hearts and blacken your souls, first was blessed with professional sports.
The Braves and Falcons arrived in 1966. The Hawks came two years later. The NHL tried twice with the Flames and Thrashers, both pulled out and headed somewhere north of the Dakotas.
Five teams. Fifty-one years. One championship.
Somewhere in Atlanta, there is a warehouse filled with unopened bags of confetti.
The Braves won their lone World Series in 1995. Jimmy Carter threw out the first pitch. Tom Glavine threw most of the rest, and David Justice hit the home run that mattered. So extinguished was Cleveland, the one city Atlanta sports fans now could laugh about. More titles were expected, but imagine the city’s misery index if that one flag never flew.
The Falcons are one win from that moment. They have reached the Super Bowl for the second time in 51 years, this time playing against a four-time champion in the New England Patriots.
One championship doesn’t erase a franchise’s history, nor does it ensure future success. But it establishes a new level of success and therefore provides evidence of what can be done — and if there’s one subject where Atlanta sports fans are so often unified, it’s in a belief that it can’t be done.
This game is about redefinition.
“Historically, a championship changes a lot,” said former coach Mike Holmgren, who won Super Bowls with the Green Bay Packers and San Francisco 49ers (as an assistant). “It changes the thought process of your fan base, all the people in the city that you’ve competed for. It’s a feel-good thing. It’s a building block for future championships like, ‘We’ve arrived. We can do this again.’ It elevates everything.”
The Falcons have elevated Atlanta, reaffirmation how unifying sports can be, even in these most divisive of times.
We’ve been dazzled by Matt Ryan and Julio Jones and a record-breaking offense. Our cynicism, hardened for decades, melted when this young team pulled together, not apart, in the second half of the season under their coach and bumper-sticker-speaking spirit guide, Dan Quinn.
Then came the playoffs. Before fans could even get close to the window ledge, the Falcons flattened two teams (Seattle, Green Bay) with starting quarterbacks (Russell Wilson, Aaron Rodgers) who had won Super Bowls.
It is not going to be easy to complete this Triple Crown of postseason dreams. The Falcons probably have more talent than the Patriots, but New England’s two principals, coach Bill Belichick and quarterback Tom Brady, are in their seventh Super Bowl, and they’ve already won four.
Holmgren’s outlook: “It’s going to be a really close game, but I think New England’s experience gives them the edge.”
It’s a fair analysis. Go with what you know.
More than 21 sports seasons have passed since the Braves’ World Series win. Atlanta is due for another title, another re-branding.
“If you look at the Braves, they set a standard in 1995 when they won a World Series,” owner Arthur Blank said. “By the same token, they slipped a little bit since then. Even though you may have success at a championship level, you don’t stay there unless you continue to figure out: How do we get better? All of my years at Home Depot, you celebrated quarter-to-quarter, but you didn’t let the celebration last very long. If, God-willing, we’re successful on Sunday, we’ll take as much time to celebrate as we’re permitted to, but then we’ll get back into roster evaluation and the offseason process.”
Falcons defensive end Dwight Freeney, who won a Super Bowl with Indianapolis, said, “Once you win, you’re viewed differently. The more rings you have as a franchise, the more recognition that city gets, that team gets, you get. You win, you get put on the ‘elite’ stage. You win two, you get put on the ‘real elite’ stage.”
The Falcons went to a Super Bowl in 1998. But that high point in franchise history is most often used as a punchline.
“Nobody cares about second place. You’re the first loser,” Freeney said.
He knows. He won a Super Bowl, but he also lost one three years later.
“It’s the biggest separation of emotions you can have during a season,” he said. “They last with you a lifetime. It is absolutely horrible. Maybe it’s different for guys like Tom (Brady) and those guys who consistently go to the playoffs and Super Bowls. I’m sure they feel bad, but maybe not as bad as the guys who are on teams that don’t make it so often.”
Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff is justified in believing the franchise is young and talented enough to compete for years. But he recognizes, particularly as someone who worked for the Patriots, the difference between competing for and winning titles. It wasn’t that long ago when Patriots fans thought, “It will never happen.” Their first Super Bowl win came in 2001.
“When you come from our city and there’s expectations, your exposure is so great,” Dimitroff said. “Normally you’d see one helmet of a Falcon brand and now you see it everywhere. When I run into people now, whether it’s in our business or other businesses we’re involved with, it’s amazing how this instant credibility creeps into the discussion.”
If Boston sports fans seem obnoxious, there’s a reason. Comparing the pro sports histories of Atlanta and Boston isn’t a fair fight. OK, so Boston got a head start in the 1800s. But the Celtics (17), Bruins (6), Patriots (4), Red Sox (8) and two Atlanta Braves predecessors — Boston Braves (1) and Boston Beaneaters — have combined to win 37 championships.
Atlanta: still one.
“When I think about that, it blows me away,” Dimitroff said.
One more win changes a lot.
“In history, we have a mark,” Falcons defensive tackle Jonathan Babineaux said. “It never goes away. It will be ours forever.”