Published December 17, 2010
ATLANTA – They were known as the "Dirty Birds," a colorful cast of characters who came closer than any other team to bringing a Super Bowl championship to Atlanta.
Now they're rooting on a new group of Falcons to win that last game of the season.
"I still say 'we.' I can't help myself," said Jamal Anderson, the star running back of the only Falcons team to reach the biggest game of them all. "Wherever I go, any airport, any city ... people are screaming 'Dirty Bird!' That's my reality. I've accepted it. I've even copyrighted it, so wear it out!"
The comparisons are plentiful between the team that reached the Super Bowl a dozen seasons ago and this year's squad, which is 11-2, has won seven in a row and leads the NFC heading into Sunday's final road game of the regular season at Seattle.
"The potential is there," said Terance Mathis, who caught 11 touchdown passes in 1998 and still lives in Atlanta. "They play together, they overcome adversity and they believe they can win every week. That's the way we were."
A punishing ground game is the starting point for both teams. With Anderson rushing for a franchise-record 1,846 yards, the '98 Falcons led the league in time of possession (33:10). This offense features 1,174-yard rusher Michael Turner and almost identical control-the-clock number (33:05).
Throw in the steady-as-a-rock quarterbacks who don't make many mistakes (Chris Chandler then, Matt Ryan now) and opportunistic defenses (the '98 Falcons led the league in takeaways, the current group ranks 10th), and it's sometimes hard to tell the teams apart.
"There's a lot of eery comparisons, huh?" Anderson said.
But bring up that Super Bowl team to this group of players and all you'll get is a puzzled look. Ryan was just 13 years old when the Falcons played in their only Super Bowl. Star receiver Roddy White was still in high school. Chris Redman, who is Ryan's backup, was playing his college ball at Louisville.
"Obviously, I remember the 'Dirty Bird.' That's about it," the 33-year-old Redman said. "We don't want to compare ourselves to anybody else. We want to go out there and make our own identity."
In all likelihood, that identity won't be nearly as outrageous as the one established by the '98 team. Start with the nickname, which came from an arm-flapping dance that Anderson insists he invented but first came to prominence when tight end O.J. Santiago used it — complete with a squawking sound that was picked up on television — during an end-zone celebration at New England.
From then on, they were known as the "Dirty Birds." Everyone in Atlanta, it seemed, was flapping their arms — even no-nonsense coach Dan Reeves, who joined the celebration after the Falcons pulled out a thrilling overtime win over the favored Minnesota Vikings in the NFC championship game.
Anderson said he purposely invented the dance and nickname, hoping it would bring some attention to a franchise known mostly for losing until that magical year.
"That's the reason the thing came about," he said. "We were playing too good to have nobody talking us."
Certainly, there was no shortage of talkers on that team.
Anderson had grown up around the entertainment industry and was looking to become a bigger-than-football media star. Cornerback Ray Buchanan showed up on Super Bowl media day wearing a dog collar — symbolizing the Falcons' underdog status against Denver — and yapped that Broncos star Shannon Sharpe looked like a horse. Even Reeves created a stir when he went back over his bitter departure from the Mile High City shortly before facing his old team in the title game.
And let's not forget, Reeves underwent major heart surgery late in the regular season, turning over the coaching duties to Rich Brooks before returning for the playoffs.
"As far as personalities, I'm partial to '98," said Morten Andersen, who kicked the NFC-winning field goal against the Vikings. "They have some great players on this team, but we had some characters on our football team. This team strikes me as a little more of a corporate football team."
That might not be a bad thing if the Falcons should reach the Super Bowl a second time. On the eve of their first appearance, team leader Eugene Robinson was arrested for soliciting sex from an undercover police officer. He still played the next day, but was burned on a long touchdown pass that helped the Broncos cruise to a 34-19 victory.
"Maybe it's a good thing when you're boring," Andersen said.
On the field, the current Falcons appear a bit more dangerous on offense.
White is the NFL's leading receiver with 99 catches, and Hall of Famer-to-be Tony Gonzalez also draws plenty of coverage. The '98 team had an effective pair of 30-something receivers in Mathis and Tony Martin but lacked a true downfield threat.
Where that Super Bowl team stood out was on defense. The "Bomb Squad" front four of Chuck Smith, Lester Archambeau, Shane Dronett and Travis Hall combined for 29.5 sacks. Tackling machine Jessie Tuggle and longtime star Cornelius Bennett anchored the linebacker corps. The secondary was in good hands with in-his-prime Buchanan (a team-high seven interceptions) and veteran safeties Robinson and William White.
"The offenses essentially match up star for star," Anderson said. "The biggest difference is the defense. ... We had that intensity level. We had that production. This team doesn't have that."
But these Falcons might set up better for the long haul. Five key members of that '98 defense were already in their 30s, while this team features a bunch of third- and fourth-year players. Chandler was 33, Ryan is eight years younger. The 29-year-old White should be in the prime of his career, with more good years ahead of him than either Mathis or Martin.
Then again, fate can deal a cruel hand.
Anderson was only 26 when Atlanta went to the Super Bowl, poised to become one of the league's signature stars. Two games into the following season, he went down with the first of what would be two serious knee injuries. He was never the same running back.
The Falcons were never the same team, either.
In 1999, they won only five games.
"I look back at what we accomplished, but also what could have been," Anderson said. "You definitely have to jump on it and take advantage when you get the chance."