Archer is but one of the dramatis personae in this unlikely NFL hit production. In three games, Riggs has been incredibly sharp, despite—perhaps because of—a 42-day contract holdout. And who would have guessed that, after two consecutive 4-12 years, head coach Henning would still be around? But Falcons owner Rankin Smith was persuaded by his sons, Rankin Jr. and Taylor, the club's president and executive vice-president, respectively, to stay the course. After finishing 27th in the league in pass defense in '85, Henning and the Falcons spent two first-round picks on defense, collecting All-America noseguard Tony Casillas from Oklahoma and linebacker Tim Green from Syracuse.
The club's wisest off-season acquisition, however, was their defensive coordinator, Marion Campbell, a former defensive tackle and Buddy Ryan's predecessor in Philly. Campbell has been largely responsible for the Falcons' reversed fortunes so far this year. In '85, Atlanta ran an imitation of Chicago's gambling defense, a poor man's 46. Campbell, who brought three assistants with him, has installed a 3-4, with only one starter from last season's porous unit still at the same position. The Falcon defense is now rated seventh in the league.
In fact it was the defense that kept Atlanta in the Dallas game for two quarters while Archer and Co. repeatedly stalled. Three Falcons' take-aways resulted in 17 points. Then with two minutes to play, Dallas's ball, the Falcon defense held, ensuring its offense one last crack.
The Cowboys led 35-34 when Atlanta took over on its own 20-yard line for the final drive. Archer called two plays in the huddle and was promptly sacked—for the sixth time that afternoon. A 21-yard completion to tight end Ken Whisenhunt gave the Falcons some breathing room, but they had no time to breathe. There were no more timeouts.
Rookie wideout Floyd Dixon lined up against rookie Cowboy cornerback Johnny Holloway on the next play on the 33. "I ran a nine route, a fly all the way," said Dixon. "For some reason I knew Dave was going to come to me." Looking downfield, then feeling pressure from his right, Archer rolled left. "Holloway and I turned at the same time and saw him rolling out," recalled Dixon, who seized that moment to get behind Holloway.
"Maybe he thought I was going to come back to the ball—that's what I probably should have done," said Dixon, who slid to gather in Archer's 60-yard pass, regained his feet and was dragged down finally on the Dallas two-yard line. "I wanted that TD so bad," Dixon later lamented. "I would have spiked the ball so hard it would have deflated." Instead it would be Luckhurst's chip shot later that would flatten Dallas.
Celebrations broke out prematurely on the Atlanta sideline; the Cowboys were not dead yet. Danny White had 20 seconds left and one timeout. On the first play Dallas's Herschel Walker ran for eight yards; the second was an incomplete pass. And on the third White passed to Tony Hill on a play that went 63 yards before Hill was run out of bounds at the Atlanta nine. Time had expired.
Earlier in the week Smith Sr. had given Henning a semivote of confidence. And with upcoming games against Tampa Bay and Philadelphia, Atlanta could be a gaudy 5-0 by early October. Maybe Henning should try to get his contract extended while Smith is feeling expansive. After Oct. 5 the Falcons' schedule reads: Rams, 49ers, Rams, Patriots, Jets, Bears, 49ers, Dolphins.
Bring 'em on, says inside linebacker Buddy Curry. Curry, who made everybody's all-rookie team in 1980 and has led the Falcons in tackles every year since, has seen his efforts overshadowed by Atlanta's larger futility. He was ecstatic after the Dallas win.
"You know, we might get the breaks this year," he said. "This might finally be the team."