December 19, 2011

1971: Falcons Beat Saints to Cap First Winning Season

The Atlanta Falcons had not posted a winning record in their first five years since joining the NFL as an expansion team in 1966. However, as they faced the New Orleans Saints in the 1971 season finale on December 19, their record was 6-6-1 and the prospect of ending up over .500 a distinct possibility. In their third full year under Head Coach Norm Van Brocklin, the Falcons were better on defense than offense, despite the loss of star MLB Tommy Nobis to a knee injury. OLB Don Hansen was a solid player, and the defensive line had outstanding talent in ends Claude Humphrey and John Zook. The secondary, led by CB Ken Reaves, was tough against the pass. Van Brocklin emphasized toughness, and that was most apparent in the nondescript offense directed by small-but-accurate QB Bob Berry and featuring a group of running backs that were pluggers and lacked outside speed.

New Orleans, which had joined the NFL a year after the Falcons, was also seeking a franchise-best record under Head Coach J.D. Roberts, but at a more modest level. The Saints were 4-7-2 and trying to outdo their 5-9 record of 1969 – they were already assured of besting 1970’s 2-11-1 tally. Moreover, three of their wins had come against contending teams (the Rams, 49ers, and eventual-champion Cowboys), thus providing encouragement that the club might be heading in the right direction. The offense was led by rookie first draft pick QB Archie Manning, who had suffered through an injury-plagued campaign, but there was too little talent surrounding him and the defense was a liability.

There were 75,554 in attendance at Tulane Stadium, and they saw the Falcons score first on a six-yard run by FB Art Malone that was set up by the recovery of a New Orleans fumble at the Saints’ 15. The home team responded with a six-yard touchdown run of its own, by HB Bob Gresham, to make it a 7-7 game after one quarter.

The Saints moved ahead with just over four minutes to play in the first half, capping a six-minute drive with Charlie Durkee’s 30-yard field goal. Atlanta put together a 10-play, 76-yard series in response that was highlighted by a 35-yard gain on a pass from Berry to rookie WR Ken Burrow and finished off with a 12-yard field goal by Bill Bell. The score was tied at 10-10 at halftime.

The Saints got a break midway through the third quarter after a punt hit Atlanta HB Willie Belton and was recovered by LB Ray Hester at the Falcons’ 12. Manning ran for a six-yard touchdown and New Orleans held a 17-10 edge going into the final period.

Atlanta’s struggling offense finally came alive in the last six minutes of the game, sparked by a big play. Berry threw to Burrow for an 84-yard gain to the New Orleans three yard line, and Malone capped the series with a one-yard scoring run. With Bell’s extra point, the game was tied once more at 17-17.

The Saints came right back, however, as HB Virgil Robinson returned the ensuing kickoff 51 yards to set up a 36-yard field goal by Durkee that put them back in front with 3:14 to play.

HB Jim “Cannonball” Butler came up with a good kickoff return of his own, running it back 36 yards to his own 49. Nine plays later, on a series highlighted by a Berry throw to his other rookie starting wide receiver, Wes Chesson, for a 19-yard gain on a third-and-18 play to the New Orleans 26, the Falcons scored when Berry tossed a 22-yard touchdown pass to Burrow with just 34 seconds left to play. Atlanta held on to win by a final score of 24-20.

The Falcons outgained the Saints (319 yards to 300) although New Orleans had more first downs (20 to 14). Atlanta gained only 57 yards on 22 running plays but the defensive line came through with five sacks. Each team turned the ball over once.

Ken Burrow had a huge performance as he caught 8 passes for 190 yards and a TD. Bob Berry completed 18 of 27 passes for 269 yards with a touchdown and had none intercepted. Art Malone was the team’s leading rusher with 24 yards on 8 carries that nevertheless included two TDs. “Cannonball” Butler was right behind with 22 yards, also on eight attempts.

For the Saints, Archie Manning went to the air 26 times and completed 17 for 174 yards with none for scores, but also no interceptions – in addition, he ran the ball three times for 28 yards and a TD. Bob Gresham was the top receiver with 6 catches for 60 yards while also rushing 18 times for 52 yards and a score. FB Jim Strong was the leading ground-gainer as he accumulated 73 yards on 17 carries.

“The Saints played the run a lot tougher this time and we just couldn't get our hands on the ball much because they controlled it,” said Coach Norm Van Brocklin. “I think the Saints are the most improved team in football.”

Atlanta concluded the schedule with a 7-6-1 record that placed the Falcons third in the NFC West. They would break even in 1972 at 7-7 and contend for a time in ’73 while ending up at 9-5, but the Falcons would not reach the postseason until 1978. The Saints, who finished behind Atlanta at 4-8-2, would find their hopes dashed with a 2-11-1 mark in 1972. It would take far longer – until 1987 – for New Orleans to finally put together a winning mark and make it into the playoffs.

Bob Berry, who had the best years of his 11-season career under Van Brocklin’s tutelage, ranked second in the NFL in yards per attempt (8.87, to 8.92 for Roger Staubach of the Cowboys) and completion percentage (60.2) and fourth overall in the conference in passing under the system in use at the time (third by today’s system at 75.9).

Ken Burrow caught 33 passes for 741 yards (22.5 avg.) and six touchdowns. Over the course of a five-year career, all with the Falcons, he never exceeded the yardage total and had a high of 34 catches in 1974. Overall, he ended up with 152 receptions for 2668 yards (17.6 avg.) and 21 TDs. The 84-yard catch against the Saints was his longest and the eight pass receptions his most in a single game, and the 190 receiving yards tied his career high.