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Watching the Atlanta Falcons play football is like watching a big horse pull a heavy wagon uphill—doggedly and with great determination. There's a heroic quality to it.
The Falcons bring the game down to the basics. Here we come, stop us. And when the opposition gets the ball, they're gonna have to work damn hard for everything they get. The Falcons make people play their kind of football; if the other guys are strong enough and tough enough they'll survive—but they won't enjoy the afternoon.
Atlanta, atop the NFC West with a record of 5-1-1, gave a classic demonstration of trench warfare in Sunday's 10-10 tie with the San Francisco 49ers, the first tie game in the NFL since 1984 and only the ninth since the league went to the overtime rule 12 years ago. The 49ers, who came into the game with pro football's second-best offense, did all their scoring in the first 23 minutes. They got inside the Falcons' 25-yard line twice in the third quarter, only to be thrown back. After that San Francisco never mounted a serious threat.
The Falcons have now had a crack at everyone in the division, and no one has beaten them. Their kind of football isn't pretty. They hammer away behind two tight ends, sometimes three, and let their 232-pound tailback, Gerald Riggs, do the work. This Big Eight approach has produced the NFL's No. 1 running attack and the most possession time.
The Falcons test your manhood. A team that can stop their running, e.g., the Philadelphia Eagles, can beat them. A team such as the 49ers, who can play the same nasty kind of defense, can get a standoff. But the Falcons will eat up the fragile and fancy outfits that hide their weaknesses behind glitter and flash.
San Francisco coach Bill Walsh knew what he was in for before the game. He looked at films of the Falcons' 26-14 victory over the Rams the previous week and shuddered. "They just took the spirit from them and dominated the game," Walsh said. "I don't know where we would stand up in that kind of competition."
Walsh's team made him nervous. The 49ers' record was 4-2, and the offense had produced a lot of yards, but the operation was lopsided. The yardage had come in big gulps, thanks to the long-range arm of Jeff Kemp, who took over Sept. 14, the day before Joe Montana underwent a back operation, and the brilliance of Jerry Rice, who was having the best year of any wideout. The relentless nature of the offense that Walsh so dearly loves, the constant moving of the chains, was missing.
O.K., so the Niners were overloading on the long pass. Is that so bad? A year ago they were 3-3, and everyone was ganging up on the short stuff and defying Montana—who may resume practice next week—to go long. The problem for the 49ers in the Atlanta game was that they were facing a defense that took pride in stopping the long pass. The Falcons had allowed only one touchdown pass longer than 22 yards in their first six games. At the same point in 1985, they had given up eight.
Many coaches say that Atlanta's defensive coordinator, Marion Campbell, wrote the textbook on how to play defense in the modern NFL. At Friday's Falcon practice Dick Vermeil, who worked the Atlanta- 49ers game for CBS, watched Campbell run his group through its drills and smiled. "The best in the business," he said, referring to Campbell. "In the six years he ran our defense in Philadelphia, we won 53 games, and there were only seven in which we had to score more than 20 points to win."
It's quite possible that Campbell saved the job of Falcon head coach Dan Henning. On Monday, Dec. 16, 1985, Campbell was fired as Eagle head coach, with a game left to play. A day later Henning was on the phone asking him if he was interested in coaching the Falcon defense. "I wasn't even sure of my own job," Henning said, referring to Atlanta's 3-12 record at the time. "I'd been told that the whole situation would be evaluated, but I knew that hiring Marion was the most positive thing I could do for the team, and I think our owner knew it, too.