With Atlanta still reveling in the joy of its first major sports championship since 1995, football fever has truly arrived in the ATL—association football that is, better known as soccer.
Otherwise, the city’s love of professional sports has long been questioned, often for good reason. Even American football, which Atlanta’s college fans rave over, was for decades supported tentatively at best in the professional ranks.
In the 1990s the Atlanta Falcons played for sparse crowds and a sea of teal seats inside the Georgia Dome. Tickets didn’t sell, and the team didn’t win. Three full decades after their 1966 NFL kickoff, the Falcons hadn’t so much as graced a conference title game.
It all changed in 1998. Twenty years ago, a quietly promising start spread into a citywide outbreak of Falcons Fever as the team piled up win after win and Atlanta finally took notice. There was South Georgia-bred head coach Dan Reeves, quarterback Chris Chandler, star running back Jamal Anderson and, of course, his infamous Dirty Bird dance.
And among the fan base was me, at the time a wide-eyed 13-year-old who attended a few games with my dad. The season was a thrilling introduction to my sports fandom and left memories I can still recall as if they were happening before my eyes.
After going 14-2 in the regular season, the Falcons won arguably the best NFC Championship Game of all time before, well, losing in Super Bowl XXXIII. But it served notice that even Atlanta would support a winner, and perhaps piqued the interest of then-Home Depot CEO Arthur Blank, who would purchase the Falcons four years later and massively transform the team’s culture for the better.
Here are ten moments that defined the 1998 Falcons:
A promising end to ‘97
The Falcons first indicated change was in order by hiring Reeves ahead of the 1997 season. The Americus native was a Super Bowl-winning player for the Dallas Cowboys and was perhaps most famous for leading the Denver Broncos and their big-armed quarterback, John Elway, as head coach in the 1980s. After starting ‘97 at 1-7, Atlanta won five of its last six games to finish a respectable 7-9. It proved a sign of things to come.
A hot, if tentative, start to ‘98
After acquiring standout Georgia Tech linebacker Keith Brooking and wide receiver Tim Dwight in the NFL Draft, the Falcons began 1998 with close wins over the Carolina Panthers and Philadelphia Eagles. After a bye week, Atlanta faced perennial ‘90s powerhouse San Francisco at Candlestick Park and came back with a familiar 31-20 loss. Maybe it would be business as usual for the Falcons after all.
A blowout win says the Falcons are for real
But the letdown from San Francisco lasted all of a week. At home against the Panthers on October 4, Dwight ran the opening kickoff 93 yards for a touchdown as the Falcons flew to a 51-23 victory and a tie for first place in the NFC West.
Was Atlanta on notice? Not exactly. My dad and I went to that game—because Ingles was giving free tickets to anyone who bought enough groceries at their local stores. (Thanks, mom!) We saw the Falcons play the Saints two weeks later, intending to pay but again attending for free because someone simply handed us two tickets during our walk to the stadium. Two weeks after that, the 5-2 Falcons faced off against the St. Louis Rams in front of an announced Georgia Dome crowd of 37,996. (For reference, the Dome seated about 71,000 for football games.)
The Dirty Bird debuts (sort of)
Still a favored Falcons nickname two decades on, the Dirty Bird dance got a test run of sorts during a November 8 road win over New England. Tight End O.J. Santiago trotted out a prototype after scoring against the Patriots in a 41-10 rout.
The Dirty Bird debuts (for real)
One week later Atlanta sought revenge against the 49ers, this time at home and backed by a crowd of nearly 70,000. Jamal Anderson scored and, for the first time, performed the fully realized Dirty Bird. The dance became a national craze, performed by fans, media members and even opposing players to this day. It remains strongly associated with the Falcons and in particular with Anderson, whose Twitter handle is @jamthedirtybird.
Reeves battles health issues
As Falcons Fever took hold in Atlanta, the team’s head coach fell victim to literal illness. He initially resisted in hopes of finishing out the season before going to the doctor in early December. The result: Quadruple bypass surgery.
Prayers went up across the Peach State as Reeves handed the reigns to defensive coordinator Rich Brooks for weeks 15 and 16. The Dirty Birds took care of business on the field with a pair of road wins, then ended the regular season with one more home victory in Reeves’ return to finish at 14-2, still a franchise-best mark.
A win (again) over San Francisco
By the end of the regular season, Atlanta was fully on notice as the Falcons never played in front of less than 60,000 after week 11. My last trip to the Dome that year came on December 6 for a close win against the Indianapolis Colts and their rookie quarterback Peyton Manning. This time around we paid the full price of admission and were joined by a host of relatives from Columbus.
Five Falcons made the Pro Bowl, including Anderson, who finished 154 yards short of 2,000 in the regular season. He’d surpass the 2,000-yard mark in the playoffs, which began with one more win over the 49ers in the NFC divisional round.
In what remains arguably one of the greatest ever NFC title games, the Dirty Birds faced off against the Minnesota Vikings, who were led by quarterback Randall Cunningham and rookie wide receiver Randy Moss. Minnesota was 15-1, playing at home and heavily favored. If that wasn’t enough, Vikings kicker Gary Anderson had became the first in NFL history to go an entire season without missing a field goal or extra point.
At first the game went as expected, with Minnesota leading 20-7 in the second quarter. With just two minutes to go in the game, Anderson lined up for a field goal that would have given his Vikings an insurmountable 10-point lead (near tears, I walked out of the family living room unable to watch). Instead, Anderson succumbed to Murphy’s law as the kick sailed wide. The Falcons forced overtime and won on a field goal from their own kicking legend Morten Andersen.
As demoralized Minnesota fans streamed out into the cold, the Falcons celebrated their Super Bowl berth on a raised platform, with Reeves performing what is generally understood to be the worst-ever rendition of the Dirty Bird.
Super Bowl shenanigans
There were two weeks of celebration and anticipation between the NFC title game and Super Bowl XXXIII in Miami. Falcons gear flew off the shelves and my middle school held an official “Atlanta Falcons Day” the Friday before the game, complete with a Dirty Bird dance contest held in the gym.
Falcons players seemed excited too, for better or worse. Cornerback Ray Buchanan publicly guaranteed the Falcons would win, while safety Eugene Robinson was arrested the night before the game for solicitation of prostitution. Neither incident ended well.
A loss and a longing
The ‘98 NFL season ended on January 31, 1999, with a decisive 34-19 Denver Broncos win over the Falcons. Reeves’ former team and quarterback got the better of him, with Elway retiring on top following the contest.
The 1999 Falcons hoped to become the first NFL team to play a Super Bowl at home. Instead, Anderson succumbed to injury in week two and the squad slumped to 5-11. Twenty years later, the Falcons still search for a first league title, and the NFL has yet to see a host city’s home team play in the Super Bowl.