In 1965 the Atlanta Falcons became the first professional football team in the city of Atlanta and the fifteenth National Football League (NFL) franchise in existence.
Since the team’s first preseason game against Philadelphia at Atlanta Stadium (later Atlanta
After other attempts to place a professional team in Atlanta were unsuccessful, Rankin M. Smith, executive vice president of Life Insurance Company of Georgia, was awarded the franchise for $8.5 million. Football fans across the Southeast were overjoyed with the news, as evidenced by the more than 1,000 calls Smith received within twenty-four hours of acquiring the franchise. Ticket sales for the new club reached an NFL record of 45,000 tickets sold. The corporate name for the Atlanta franchise was registered as “Five Smiths, Inc.” in honor of Smith’s five children. Fans submitted suggestions for the new team’s nickname in a contest, and while many fans recommended the falcon, Julia Elliott, a teacher from Griffin, was selected as the winner for her reasoning. She wrote, “The falcon is proud and dignified, with great courage and fight. It never drops prey. It is deadly and has a great sporting tradition.”
The First Teams
Soon after the acquisition, Smith began recruiting. Bob Paremore and Gary Barnes, NFL players with the St. Louis Cardinals and Chicago Bears, were the first to sign with the new franchise. The Falcons were awarded the first draft pick in November 1965 and selected Tommy Nobis, a University of Texas standout. Nobis signed with the Falcons in December 1965 and went on to win Rookie of the Year honors. The team eventually recruited twenty-five players from the initial draft. Smith selected Norb Hecker, a Green Bay Packers assistant coach, as the first head coach of the Falcons. Hecker had coached under Vince Lombardi in Green Bay, Wisconsin, where the Packers won three world titles and four conference titles in his seven years with the team.
During the supplemental draft in February 1966, the Falcons added forty-two players, and along with rookies, free agents, and hopefuls, Hecker opened training camp at Blue Ridge Assembly in Black Mountain, North Carolina, with 130 players. The first preseason game was held on August 1, 1966, before a crowd of 26,072 at Atlanta Stadium. The Falcons lost to the Philadelphia Eagles and also lost the first regular season game against the Los Angeles Rams before a home crowd of 54,418. The Falcons rallied after a nine-game losing streak to win their first game on November 30, 1966, defeating the New York Giants at Yankee Stadium with a score of 27-16.
In Hecker’s three seasons as Falcons head coach from 1966 to 1968, he posted a record of 4-26-1. He was followed by Norm Van Brocklin (1968-74), former head coach of the Minnesota Vikings, who posted a 37-49-3 record and the first winning season in 1971, with a record of 7-6-1. During the next several seasons, under coaches Marion Campbell (1974-76) and Pat Peppler (1976), the Falcons struggled to succeed in the NFC Western Division.
Leeman Bennett took over as head coach in 1977 and established an NFL record with the least amount of points allowed (129) in a fourteen-game season. In his first season he led the Falcons to a 7-7 record, followed by a 9-7 record in 1978 and the first play-off appearance for the franchise. Under Bennett the Falcons reached the play-offs three times between 1978 and 1982.
The Falcons NFC Western Division title in 1980 was followed by a string of disappointing results from 1981 to 1997, in which the Falcons recorded only three winning seasons, in 1982, 1991, and 1995.
In 1991 the Falcons played their last game at Atlanta–Fulton County Stadium and moved to the Georgia Dome, which held 71,250 spectators and played host to the Super Bowl and other sporting events, including college bowl games and the Southeastern Conference (SEC) championship game.
In 2017, just twenty-five years after its opening, the Georgia Dome was demolished, and the team took up residence in Mercedes-Benz stadium. The Falcons explained the move by saying that the Georgia Dome was in need of $859 million in renovations required to meet the NFL’s standards.
Falcons Taste Success
In 1998 coach Dan Reeves led the Falcons to a 14-2 record, its first NFC championship, and the first Super Bowl appearance for the franchise. Kicker Morten Anderson, a seasoned NFL veteran who signed with the Falcons in 1995, was part of the squad. The Falcons lost Super Bowl XXXIII to the Denver Broncos, 19-34. After the success of the 1998 season, the Falcons had only one winning season under Reeves, a 9-6-1 record in 2002. That same year The Home Depot cofounder Arthur Blank purchased the Falcons.
The 2004 season, under the guidance of head coach Jim Mora and with quarterback Michael Vick at the helm, had Falcons fans optimistic for the future of the franchise. The Falcons were 11-5, winning the NFC South Division title and appearing, for only the second time, in the NFC championship game. Though a rookie head coach, Mora was named 2004 NFC Coach of the Year.
The Falcons struggled during the next two seasons, however, and Mora was fired after the 2006 season, which ended with a record of 7-9. Bobby Petrino was named head coach for the 2007 season. In August star quarterback Vick pleaded guilty to involvement in an illegal dog-fighting ring. Vick was imprisoned, and Blank released him from his contract. Petrino left the team before the end of the season, which concluded with a 4-12 record.
The team’s fortunes improved in 2008, with the arrival of new head coach Mike Smith and quarterback Matt Ryan. The Falcons posted an 11-5 record and finished second in the NFC South. Smith and Ryan received Coach of the Year and Rookie of the Year awards respectively from the Associated Press and Sporting News Magazine. The upswing continued in the 2009 season, which the Falcons completed with a 9-7 record, marking the first time in its history that the franchise posted two consecutive winning seasons. The team also finished first in the NFC South.
The Falcons concluded the 2010 season with a 13-3 record and defeated the Carolina Panthers to win the NFC South title once again. The team was subsequently chosen as the top seed in the NFC play-offs for the first time since 1980 but lost in the first round to the Green Bay Packers. In 2014 the Falcons finished the regular season with a record of 6-10, its second consecutive losing season. Smith was fired after seven seasons as head coach and replaced by Seattle Seahawks defensive coordinator Dan Quinn.
In 2017, their last season in the Georgia Dome, the Falcons won their second NFC championship before losing to the New England Patriots in Super Bowl LI.