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How Bartkowski and the Falcons grew strong

By Phil Elderkin / December 18, 1981



Most press releases I get in the mail never make it past my wastebasket. One that did recently was from the National Football League - a reminder that Steve Bartkowski of the Atlanta Falcons has a chance to become the first quarterback in almost 20 years to lead the NFL in touchdown passes in consecutive seasons.

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At this point Bartkowski has only an outside chance of accomplishing the feat , since he trails Dan Fouts of San Diego 32-29 with one game left for each. Thus Y. A. Tittle (the last to win back-to-back TD titles in 1962-63) can probably rest easy. But there is a story here in how Steve went from throwing a modest 17 touchdown passes in 1979 to 31 in 1980 and another big year this season.

''When Atlanta made Bartkowski the No. 1 pick in the 1975 draft and began using him right away, that was a pretty good indication of the kind of talent he had,'' said quarterback coach Dick Wood. ''The point is, when you find a young man with a throwing arm like that, you can afford to show patience and build around him.''

''But the one thing people outside football never take into consideration is that no matter how much talent is there, the experience factor can only be bought with time,'' Wood added. ''Usually it takes four or five years of practice, game experience, and learning to recognize defenses before a kid becomes a complete quarterback.''

During the same time Bartkowski was growing as a football player, so was the Falcon organization, until in 1980 its personnel suddenly matched that of most contending NFL franchises.

''I think what you had last season when Atlanta won the NFC West was a quarterback and his team maturing at relatively the same time,'' Wood explained. ''The good players improve every year and Steve is that kind of individual. You just get smarter and you begin to see things on the field that often were only a mystery to you a season before.

''For example, in pro football you don't go out and force a lot of things offensively. Basically, you take what the defense gives you and exploit it. If the other team decides to give your top pass receiver double coverage on every play, then they've left themselves open somewhere else and it's up to you to recognize this.''

Asked what he wants Bartkowski to look for on pass plays, Wood replied:

''Most teams operate with a primary and a secondary receiver. This means a quarterback has a chance to do three things - throw to his primary receiver; find his secondary man if the first receiver is covered; or dump the football. The mistake most young quarterbacks make here, when they run out of time, is to force the football to someone they think is open and wind up throwing an interception.''

''There are only so many basic defenses in pro football and everybody knows what they are,'' Dick continued. ''But the good teams disguise them so well that young quarterbacks get frustrated when they can't find any keys to read and panic. Steve used to be like that, only now he'll make the big play for you when you need it because of his experience.''

The way opposing teams can turn even great NFL quarterbacks from confident passers into hurry-up throwers is to put pressure on them through their defensive lines. This does two things. It cuts down the time in which the passer has to throw and also the time the receiver needs to run his pattern.

''If you don't get the chance to fade back and set up while your receivers are moving to get open, then it's a constant struggle,'' Bartkowski said. ''The other thing is how long it takes you to read the defense; to realize whether you're seeing a zone or man-to-man coverage. Certain teams in this league give you extra problems that way and for me it has always been the Los Angeles Rams.''

Asked why the Falcons had been unable to repeat their NFC West title of a year ago, Bartkowski replied:

''Sometimes, when you're a team with a lot of young players coming off a good year, those players begin to believe all that great stuff they read about themselves in the papers. They get to thinking they can turn the power on and off whenever they feel like it.

''Well, you might get away with some of that in college,'' said the man who was just selected to play in this year's NFL Pro Bowl. ''But you won't get away with it at this level. In fact, in pro football you either play consistently well both offensively and defensively as a team or you lose. There are no substitutes.'