November 20, 2009

1966: Falcons Defeat Giants for Franchise’s First Win

The game at Yankee Stadium on November 20, 1966 between the New York Giants and visiting Atlanta Falcons was hardly a thrilling spectacle – the Falcons broke out to a 7-0 lead in the first quarter and never fell behind. Nor was it significant in the standings, as Atlanta had yet to win a game (0-9) and the Giants were scarcely better (1-7-1). However, when the Falcons won by a score of 27-16, it was not only their first win of the season but the first in the history of the franchise (excluding the preseason).

Atlanta had flirted with the AFL, both as a potential expansion site or as a new home for the Denver Broncos. The Broncos stayed put, however, and the NFL pulled the rug from under the rival league by awarding a franchise to insurance executive Rankin Smith for the 1966 season (the AFL expanded to Miami instead).

The Falcons took the field under Head Coach Norb Hecker, who had been an assistant under Vince Lombardi at Green Bay. As was usually the case with expansion teams, it was made up largely of castoff veterans and young, unproven players. However, they drew well at the new Atlanta Stadium, averaging over 56,000 in attendance for each home game.

Following the usual formula for a new team, Hecker concentrated on defense in this first season, building around MLB Tommy Nobis, the overall first draft pick out of Texas. The offense was also directed by a rookie, QB Randy Johnson from Texas A&I. The team didn’t score much, but they had a couple of reliable, if plodding, running backs in Junior Coffey (pictured) and ex-Giant Ernie Wheelwright, and veteran flanker Alex Hawkins, who had previously been a reserve with the Colts.

Against New York, Atlanta scored on a nine-yard pass from Johnson to Wheelwright in the first quarter. The Giants responded with a 24-yard field goal by Pete Gogolak, but Johnson threw his second TD pass of the game, an eight-yarder to split end Vern Burke, to give the Falcons a lead of 13-3 at halftime (the PAT attempt failed).

It was Johnson to Wheelwright again in the third quarter, for a six-yard TD, before the Giants finally scored a touchdown on a three-yard pass from QB Tom Kennedy to the versatile Joe Morrison, playing at halfback. Johnson scored once more on a three-yard run in the fourth quarter. The Giants were able to come up with one more TD, a 12-yard run by Morrison (who led all rushers in the game with 91 yards on 17 carries), to close out the scoring (the extra point attempt was no good).

The 27 points were the most the Falcons had scored to date. Johnson had made good on 15 of 25 passes for 177 yards, with three touchdowns against one interception. Coffey led the running game with 64 yards on 16 carries, while the fullback Wheelwright carried 14 times for 51 yards and also led the team in receptions with 5 for 35 yards and two scores. TE Taz Anderson had the most receiving yards for Atlanta, with 47 on his two catches.

Atlanta went on to win two of the remaining three games to finish with a 3-11 record and become the first expansion team to not finish in last place; they were in seventh in the Eastern Conference, ahead of the 1-12-1 Giants. For the Giants, the loss was one of many low points on the way to the worst record in franchise history.

For the year, Johnson completed 129 of 295 passes (43.7 %) for 1795 yards with 12 TDs and 21 interceptions. Coffey had a respectable season, ranking ninth in the league with 722 yards rushing on 199 carries. Wheelwright added 458 yards on 121 attempts; both caught 15 passes apiece.

While the anticipation was great that the Falcons would improve on the 1966 showing in ’67, it was not to be – they regressed to 1-12-1.