However, Andrews was an immediate success, rushing for 100 yards in each of his first two games. He went on to set a Falcon single-season mark of 1,023 yards, and with 843 yards already this year should break that record easily. He also caught 38 passes and has caught 38 more this season—an even bigger surprise because he had only seven receptions total in his college career. Andrews is just six feet, 200 pounds, but he's a punishing inside runner. This year he is third in the NFL in yards per carry, at 5.1, despite the fact that his longest run has been but 33 yards.
In contrast, Cain's first season ended in disaster when he tore up his right knee in the 10th game. Privately, the Falcons doubted whether he could ever come back, but Cain was determined. Instead of going home to Southern California he spent the off-season at the motel next to the Falcons' practice facility. He would jog up to seven miles a day and then work for hours on the team's weight machines. At night he had a recurring nightmare in which his knee once again collapsed under a defender's hit. Cain didn't even have a car to provide an occasional escape from his routine. "Never have I seen anyone pay the price that Lynn Cain did," says Bennett. But that work paid off. Cain returned to the starting lineup at full speed this year and the 6'1", 205-pounder now leads the Falcons in touchdowns with eight.
The biggest factor in Atlanta's offense, however, is Bartkowski. He was already there when LeBaron and Bennett arrived in '77, but his career seemed destined to be a disappointment. When the Falcons made him the first pick of the draft in 1975, he was dubbed "the savior." "I really thought I could walk in here and turn this thing around overnight," he says. Bartkowski tried to live up to the image off the field, too. He was driving a Porsche and frequenting the nightclubs on Peachtree Street.
Then his life went sour. A whirlwind romance with an airline stewardess led to a disastrous 130-day marriage. There was a driving-under-the-influence arrest. Injuries began to cut into his playing time. By his fourth preseason, in 1978, the cheers had turned to boos. After he was hooted off the field following a miserable showing in an exhibition loss to Philadelphia, he cried in the locker room. His confidence gone, Bennett benched him.
"That was the lowest I've been in my life and it was the best thing that ever happened to me," Bartkowski says now. "My priorities were all wrong. Football was the most important thing in my world. It was my god and I was losing the ability to handle it. Those boos totally overturned me as a person. The only way God could get through to me was sitting me down on the bench. I had to do a lot of thinking, but finally I gave everything to God. He's given it back to me tenfold."
Bartkowski reclaimed his job in the third game that season and went on to lead the Falcons to a wild-card berth while setting team single-season records for completions and passing yardage. He broke those records last year and will undoubtedly set new ones this year.
Bartkowski has learned to keep defenses guessing by distributing his passes evenly among his targets. Wide Receivers Francis and Alfred Jenkins, Running Back Andrews and Tight End Miller have all caught between 30 and 40 passes. Bartkowski has never before thrown fewer interceptions than touchdown passes in a season, but this year he has passed for 20 TDs, a club record, while being intercepted just 11 times.
Nowadays, Bartkowski's conversation is sprinkled with references to God and the Bible, but he isn't didactic. "The Lord is my life now," he says, "but because of my leadership role on this team I can't go forcing my views on others." Asked how his faith has actually helped his play on the field, Bartkowski replies: "Matthew 6:33 says, 'But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you.' " Then he concludes with a smile. "Last year the Lord added two running backs."
Wherever the credit belongs, these days the Falcons are on high.