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Falcons fans bask in playoff glory
Die-hards stayed true during brutal 07 season
Debbie Kuylen points to the television screen as Ron Johnson enjoys the last seconds of the Atlanta Falcons’ win over the St. Louis Rams last Sunday at Wild Wing Cafe in Gainesville. The Falcons take on the Arizona Cardinals today in an NFC wild-card playoff game. - photo by Tom Reed
Falcons at Cardinals
What: NFC wild-card playoff game
When: 4:30 p.m. today
Where: Glendale, Ariz.
TV, radio: NBC (WXIA-11),
Every Sunday when he’s not working, Greg Martin can be found in the same place, sitting in front of a TV watching his beloved Atlanta Falcons.

No matter how the season is going, for 30-plus years it’s been a tradition, and it has evolved into a ritual, one he is sure to repeat today when the Falcons open the NFL playoffs at Arizona.

First he must don his 1998 Western Division NFC Champions hat and vintage Deion Sanders throwback jersey, which he says “has been very lucky this year.” Next comes the food, the beverages and the Falcons, a team that he has stood by since he was 8 years old.

During the back-to-back 4-12 seasons of 1984 and ’85, he remained a fan. When the Falcons finished the 1996 season with a 3-13 record, he remained loyal. Even when the team went a combined 9-21 the two years following their Super Bowl run of 1998, Martin never wavered as a fan.

So when the 2007 season brought a year filled with quarterback Michael Vick indicted on dogfighting charges and coach Bobby Petrino leaving with three games left on the schedule, Martin remained hopeful. Hopeful that 2007 was just one of those years when things didn’t go right. Hopeful that the franchise known for its failure to have consecutive winning seasons would somehow be able to turn it around. Hopeful that 2008, somehow, would erase all the bad of 2007.

“It was the off-the-field stuff that really bothered me,” said the 40-year-old Martin, who lives in Flowery Branch. “Vick getting in trouble was bad, but Petrino quitting with three games left was awful.

“It wasn’t the organization’s fault,” he added. “I never felt that, and because of that I never stopped liking the team.”

It’s a good thing he didn’t, because with the hiring of general manager Thomas Dimitroff and head coach Mike Smith, combined with the drafting of quarterback Matt Ryan with the No. 3 pick, all those things that Martin remained hopeful for came true.

No longer are the Falcons the laughingstock of the NFL — that title has now transferred hands to the 0-16 Detroit Lions — and no longer are fans ashamed of being affiliated with the Falcons. Atlanta has rebounded from that 4-12 season of a year ago and is now back into the playoffs today against the NFC West Champion Cardinals.

Across the nation, people have been surprised by this remarkable turnaround, but locally, fans like Martin saw this change coming.

“I knew we had something special,” Martin said. “I didn’t know what to think of Ryan when we drafted him, but once I saw him at training camp I thought we could win the division. There was a positive vibe around training camp.”

While that positive vibe didn’t translate to an NFC South title — though very close — it did lead one young Falcon fan to predict, exactly how the season would play out.

After watching Ryan and the Falcons on the first day of training camp, 14-year-old Johnathan West had a premonition most prognosticators would have considered a bad joke. He thought, or knew, that this year’s team would finish 11-5.

“I just had a feeling with the new coaching staff and the new talent that they’d have a strong team this year,” West said. “I knew they’d be able to bounce back this year.”

The prediction was laughed at.

“Everyone thought I was crazy,” West said.

But he wasn’t. In fact he was spot on as the Falcons finished the 2008 season just as West predicted, with an 11-5 record.

“Midway through the season I felt that it would come true,” the Chestatee Middle School eighth-grader said.

An 11-5 record and a playoff berth feels like a dream come true to Falcons fans.

“I really thought we had something special with Michael Vick,” said John Bennett, 33. “But after everything that happened, I thought we were going to be bad for a long time.

“I knew we’d be rebuilding and I figured it take two or three years,” he added. “I’m very happy with what we have so far.”

The results may be surprising, but when asked how this team turned around so quickly, everyone could agree that it was a collective effort among owner, coaches and players.

“A lot of it had to do with (Falcons’ owner Arthur) Blank picking Dimitroff,” Bennett said. “Now we really have a football-orientated organization, and it’s not one person trying to run everything, and that’s what we need.”

Bennett, like the rest of Falcons Nation uses the word “we” when talking about the franchise, because for fans that have never seen back-to-back winning seasons, yet still support the team, they really feel as if they are a part of the organization.

“We have to be there to support them even if they are struggling,” West said.

Added Martin, “Any time you can say that this is my team is great. But I have never been ashamed to be a Falcons fan.”

Not even after last year’s forgettable season, which has turned into an unforgettable one that has fans thinking Super Bowl.

“I really think we have a chance to get to the Super Bowl,” Bennett said. “If we win the Super Bowl people will finally realize that the Falcons are nothing to sneeze at. I see us being a top contender for years to come.”

If that’s true, then this year’s remarkable season, one in which Martin called a “rebirth of a franchise,” will truly take on a meaning of historic proportion.