If only the defense had adjusted in the second half.
If only the quarterback had made the proper reads in the fourth quarter.
Whining is as much a part of the game as tailgating and beer.
But for those who took a chance and made an emotional investment in the Atlanta Falcons this season, believing beyond hope that this was finally, mercifully, the year to put all the bitter disappointments behind them, the wounds are deeper than most.
Falcons fans are the pro football equivalent of Charlie Brown chasing the football. Every year, they convince themselves that it will be different, and every season ends the same way: Bitter, maddening, embarrassing, deflating … but expected.
I saw the Falcons play in their inaugural season at the new Atlanta Fulton County Stadium in 1966. Even to the youthful, untrained eye back then, the place seemed like a model of mid-1960s modernism — round and squatty and just a little off, a symbol of a city desperate for respect and unsure how to achieve it.
They played on dirt back then, chalking the infield until baseball season was over, but it didn’t matter. They could have played on the fairways of Augusta National and still stunk the place up.
The Falcons lost early and often, a tradition that became a festering boil on the backsides of a people who place football one shimmy step behind the Bible.
They were the South’s first NFL team, the first professional extension of the game that was a Friday-night and Saturday-afternoon obsession in Dixie. Yet a region known for its football legends — Bobby Dodd, Bear Bryant, Shug Jordan, Pat Dye, Ken Stabler, Wally Butts, Vince Dooley, and on and on — couldn’t stop fielding one hapless professional squad after another.
The opening play of franchise history set the tone for decades of misery to come. In their first exhibition game in 1966, kicker Wade Traynham whiffed completely on the kickoff. And for the next 46 seasons, Falcons fans were treated to one sad, sorry miscue after another.
There was the Steve Bartkowski-era of the late 1970s and early 1980s when Leeman Bennett led the team to the playoffs three times — twice losing to Dallas and once to the Vikings. Even during those relatively good times, the Falcons never made it to the playoffs in consecutive seasons and never looked like a team ready to go all the way.
The Cowboys had Roger Staubach, Ed “Too Tall” Jones and Tony Dorsett, players that remain household names more than three decades later. The Falcons had Bartkowski, Bubba Bean and Fulton Kuykendall.
There were other glimpses at glory — Deion Sanders and cowboy Jerry Glanville, who dressed in black and idolized Elvis Pressley. They made it to the playoffs once (1991) and showed a lot of promise on defense, but Glanville hated the Falcons’ second-round draft pick that spring, a quarterback out of Southern Miss named Brett Favre.
Favre threw four passes for the Falcons before being traded to Green Bay for a first-round pick in 1992 (tailback Tony Smith). Fans still wear Favre’s Falcons jersey to games, an ironic joke to a team that doesn’t need any more needling.
Atlanta’s only Super Bowl appearance in 1998 came as a shock to everyone, including members of the team who couldn’t believe they upset Minnesota on a last-second field goal for the franchise’s only NFC championship win. But there were signs of how things would end even then: Coach Dan Reeves undergoing emergency bypass surgery in the middle of the year, and, of course, safety Eugene Robinson’s arrest for soliciting a prostitute the night before the Super Bowl.
Denver and John Elway smacked Chris Chandler and the “Dirty Birds,” 34-19. The Falcons didn’t make the playoffs the following year.
Fast forward to 2013.
The Mike Smith-era with Matt Ryan once again has shown promise. It’s the first time in franchise history that the Falcons have made the playoffs in consecutive years, and the first time that Atlanta hosted an NFC title game.
But no one in Atlanta flinched when their team gave up a 17-point lead in an eventual loss to the 49ers, the largest blown advantage in NFC championship history. It was expected, it was just another miserable miss in a history of disappointments that’s pushing the half-century mark.
Like all losers, Falcons’ fans will moan for a week or so. And like most, they will eventually say, “Hey, there’s always next year.”
But unlike other NFL fans, the Atlanta faithful will utter that last line with a sardonic smirk. They know better.
In 46 years, the Falcons are nothing if not predictable. The team will probably make another run, shining more false hope on the eager and naïve. But in the end, the club will repeat a pattern that’s played out since opening day of 1966: