"The day after the season ended I was called in, and Rankin Smith, our owner, said, 'I understand you've talked to Marion Campbell,' and I said I had. He told me, 'Well, if you can hire him, you've got a one-year extension here.'
"I told him I couldn't offer Marion a one-year contract; it had to be long term, and it would cost him a lot of money. He said, 'Just get him.' So I did—on a three-year contract."
In 1985, after six games, the Falcons had been next to last in the NFL in points allowed and third from last in yards allowed. In '86 they cut the point total almost in half and chopped off nearly 500 yards, moving up to ninth in each category. They get stronger toward the end of each game. Second-half touchdowns were reduced from 17 to 4.
Henning's offense had evolved into ball control, keyed by the powerful Riggs and an offensive line that goes 6'6", 278 pounds, tackle to tackle. It's a concept that works if the defense can keep you in it, but last year it was an approach that broke down as soon as the realities of catch-up set in—like in the third quarter.
In the 49er game on Sunday, the Falcons found themselves in a catch-up situation after three minutes. The 49ers zipped in for six points after their first three plays, catching the Falcons on an end around, a little slip pass underneath and then a one-yard dive by Roger Craig. Atlanta then launched an excruciating 17-play field-goal drive. The Niners matched it with one of their own, and at 10-3 with more than a half left in the game, the argument began in earnest.
Finally, with less than two minutes to go, Atlanta quarterback David Archer hit 5'7", 175-pound Sylvester Stamps on a little circle route over the middle. Stamps faked two Niners, picked up a block from wideout Floyd Dixon down-field and went 39 yards for the tying TD. The overtime was an anticlimax, a study in exhaustion.
Both locker rooms were grim. "Trench warfare, guys trying to grudge it out yard by yard," said 49er strong safety Carlton Williamson, who had been on the field for all 92 snaps the Falcons ran off. In the next locker, free safety Ronnie Lott, who suffered a concussion trying to stop Riggs and then had to return to the game when his replacement, Tom Holmoe, was KO'd while tackling Riggs, needed help getting his pads off. Holmoe was still dazed half an hour after the game.
The Falcons had lost cornerback Bobby Butler with a broken leg. Archer limped noticeably on a twisted knee, and his back bore a large, ugly red welt, the result of a blow from Larry Roberts.
It was a mean, nasty game between two destructive forces. And in five weeks they'll do it all over again.