Week in and week out, the Atlanta Falcons have probably tightroped their way to victory more often than any other team in the National Football League this season. It has even been suggested that the club's logo be redone to show Head Coach Leeman Bennett pulling a rabbit out of a helmet.
In perhaps the Falcon's most significant win of the season, an Oct. 26 victory over Los Angeles that established their superiority in the NFC West, they got there via the bomb with fewer than two minutes showing on the game clock. Two weeks later they beat the St. Louis Cardinals in overtime after trailing 24-6 at the end of the first half.
This past Sunday they did it again, driving all the way from their own 8 yard line in the final minute to upset Philadelphia on Tim Mazzetti's 37-yard field goal with seven seconds remaining. And there have been at least four other finishes nearly as dramatic en route to a division-leading 11-3 record, which assures them of a plyoff berth.
None of theis is mentioned to imply that the Falcons are anything less than a solid football team, only that whenever they play, opportunity often seems to knock in multiples of four and five. They have a lot of offensive weapons and obviously no bad mental carryover from the team that went 6-10 last season and gave up 88 more points than it scored.
In evaluating his team's potential from game films during the off season, the thing that held Bennett's attention the most was his defense, which wasn't major league. So he threw out the blitz, which had become an Atlanta trademark, and replaced it with pro football's more conventional 3-4 defense. The result is that rival teams aren't running wild against the Falcons the way they did in 1978 and '79.
Although Atlanta could still use help tightening up its defensive secondary against the pass, there aren't nearly as many easy catches being made back there by the opposition as in previous years. Bennett's answer to this has been the use of a more sophisticated zone, instead of so much previous man-to-man coverage.
But perhaps the biggest factor in Atlanta's improvement this year (aside from quarterback Steve Bartkowski) has been the greening of the team's offensive line. It has grown into a powerhouse, capable of opening up holes for the running backs, holding its blocks on sweeps, and giving Bartkowski more than enough time to find his downfield receivers.
The five offensive linemen who have made this possible are tackles Mike Kenn (6-6 and 255 pounds) and Warren Bryant (6-6 and 270 pounds); guards Dave Scott ( 6-4 and 270 pounds); and R. C. Thielemann (6-4 and 250 pounds); and center Cliff Van Note (6-2 and 245 pounds). Seldom, in fact, has an offensive line produced so well as a unit.
With this kind of protection, Bartkowski has become much more relaxed as a passer, more confident reading defenses, and conv sistently able to establish a strong ground game with the running of William Andrews and Lynn Cain. Steve has also become more adept at using all of his receivers and finding the open man, rather than concentrating too much on any one favorite target.
Bartkowski's early problems with Atlanta revolved around his super rookie build up in 1975, which established first-year goals that Johnny Unitas would have had trouble achieving in his prime. What happened was that Falcon fans simply wouldn't give Steve the courtesy of a break-in period. They expected instant success, and when they didn't get it, out flew the Boo Birds in their best Vindictive Formation.
Bennett, who once spent four years under Chuck Knox coaching the Los Angeles pass receivers, knows a great deal about setting up a balanced offense. What is ironic is that Andrews and cain, the best running twosome Atlanta has ever had, were known primarily as blocking backs in college.
At Auburn, Andrews's No. 1 job was to throw the key block that would spring Joe Cribbs (now with Buffalo) into the secondary. At Southern California, Cain did the same thing for 1979 Heisman Trophy winner Charles White (now with Cleveland).
Asked about hsi team's success this season, Bennett replied: "I have learned that the consistent winners in this league are the teams which have remained consistent in their leadership. Basically a coach has to be consisten in the way he treats his players and the way he reacts to things. Otherwise, players begin to think that he doesn't know what he's doing."
Atlanta has also benefited tremendously from the arrival in 1977 of Eddie LeBaron as general manager. Since the 5ft., 5 in. former quarterback of the Washington Redskins and Dallas Cowboys came aboard the Falcons haven't traded away a single draft pick. In fact, they have cleverly acquired seven more relatively high choices from other teams.