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Falcons want to continue winning, prove they're no fluke
Posted: Tuesday February 02, 1999 08:36 PM
ATLANTA (AP) -- Now comes the tough part for the Atlanta Falcons.
Sure, it was quite an accomplishment to make the Super Bowl for the first time in 33 years. Obviously, the "Dirty Birds" went a long way toward restoring the city's passion for pro football with their catchy nickname and funky dance steps.
But the thing that still eludes this franchise is consistent success.
The Falcons have never had back-to-back winning seasons, a point noted quite often by coach Dan Reeves even as he was guiding Atlanta to the NFC championship.
"We have an awful lot of things to be proud of," Reeves said, after an extraordinary season ended with a 34-19 loss to the Denver Broncos. "We've come an awful long ways. What we're trying to do now is fight for home-field advantage next year."
No team has ever played the NFL title game on its home field. Next year, the Falcons have a chance to be the first when the Super Bowl comes to the Georgia Dome.
Atlanta took care of its first piece of offseason business Tuesday, making five players available to the Cleveland Browns for the expansion draft: safety Chris Bayne, running back Harold Green, tight end Ed Smith, linebacker Ben Talley and offensive lineman Dave Widell.
Bayne, Green and Widell spent much of the season on the inactive list, while Smith and Talley had limited roles as backups.
In 1999, the Falcons can expect heightened expectations, a tougher schedule and an already long-in-the-tooth team that will be one year older.
The defense, in particular, is starting to take on the look of the "Over The Hill Gang," with five starters who will be 32 years or older by the start of next season. Average age of the entire unit: 30.
A youth movement is under way, centering around the team's last two No. 1 draft choices.
Cornerback Michael Booker, the top choice in 1997, took on a larger role when injuries plagued starter Ronnie Bradford. Linebacker Keith Brooking, picked No. 1 last year, started slowly but gradually worked his way into a regular role in passing situations.
"He needed early on to study films and anticipate, take notes and understand," defensive coordinator Rich Brooks said. "I think he needs to apply all the tools he has, because he has unbelievable tools and is going to be a great player."
Both Tuggle and Cornelius Bennett are entering the final year of their contracts, and both will be 34 at the beginning of next season.
While the corners -- Bradford and Booker on one side, Pro Bowler Ray Buchanan on the other -- are still in their 20s, how much longer can Eugene Robinson (36 in May) and William White (33 next month) keep producing at the safety positions?
Robinson was a Pro Bowler and the unquestioned leader of the secondary, barking out orders on the field, reciting Bible passages in the locker room. But his once-spotless reputation took a devastating blow when he was arrested on a charge of soliciting an undercover police officer for sex the night before the Super Bowl.
"I'm going to be a man about it," Robinson said of his off-the-field scandal. "I'll let my lawyer handle it, but I won't run from you, I won't try to evade you."
Age also is a concern at receiver. Terance Mathis and Tony Martin were the second-most productive duo in the league -- combining for 2,317 yards -- but Mathis will be 32 in June and Martin turns 34 early next season.
The offensive line, led by Bob Whitfield at left tackle and rookie Ephraim Salaam on the right side, is a young group with plenty of room to improve. Twenty-four-year-old O.J. Santiago needs to work on his receiving skills, but seems set for a long, productive career at tight end.
Of course, the offense revolves around All Pro running back Jamal Anderson and quarterback Chris Chandler, a Pro Bowler for the second year in a row. Depth at those positions will be a major focus of the offseason.
Anderson set an NFL record with 410 carries this season, mainly because his top backup was rookie Ken Oxendine, a seventh-round pick. Byron Hanspard, who missed the season with a knee injury, has barely started his rehabilitation program.
Chandler was backed up by 45-year-old Steve DeBerg, so finding an experienced -- but much younger -- backup also will be a priority.
But those are questions for the days and months to come. For now, the Falcons want to relish the moment a little longer.
"It's been a magical season, without a doubt," Tuggle said. "It was more than I expected. We worked hard this year to make true believers out of everybody. We did that."
Now, they've got to do it again.
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