September 2, 2012

1979: Falcons Defeat Saints in OT Thanks to Failed Punt

The September 2, 1979 season-opening game at the Louisiana Superdome featured fierce rivals who had a recent history of down-to-the-wire contests. The New Orleans Saints, coached by Dick Nolan, were coming off a 7-9 season in ’78 but seemed to be on the upswing. They had a good nucleus on offense of ninth-year veteran QB Archie Manning, RB Chuck Muncie, TE Henry Childs, and promising second-season WR Wes Chandler. In the first round of the ’79 draft, they had made the surprising decision to add Russell Erxleben from Texas, a celebrated all-purpose kicker.

The visiting Atlanta Falcons had reached the playoffs for the first time in 1978 and Head Coach Leeman Bennett’s team was looking to build upon that performance. QB Steve Bartkowski went from first-round bust to rising star in the course of the season. The scrappy defense ranked fifth in the NFL. The running game had been a cause of concern, however, and three backs were taken in the draft, including William Andrews from Auburn (pictured above), who would have an immediate effect. The Falcons defeated New Orleans in both of the previous year’s meetings, and in the final seconds in each instance.

The Saints opened the scoring in the first quarter with an 85-yard drive that culminated in Manning tossing a five-yard touchdown pass to WR Ike Harris. It was 7-0 after one period of play, but the second quarter saw both teams combine for a total of 41 points.

New Orleans extended its lead when Chuck Muncie connected with Wes Chandler on an option pass that covered 40 yards for a TD. Down 14-0, the Falcons responded with a 27-yard Tim Mazzetti field goal and then a 20-yard touchdown pass from Bartkowski to WR Alfred Jenkins. With the margin down to four points, the Saints came back with a 69-yard scoring run by Muncie. Bartkowski tossed another touchdown pass, this time covering 20 yards to WR Wallace Francis. Muncie ran for a four-yard TD and Mazzetti booted a 43-yard field goal to end the scoring barrage. New Orleans went into halftime with a 28-20 lead.

Russell Erxleben started off the second half scoring early in the third quarter with a 37-yard field goal. Again Atlanta closed to four points as Bartkowski threw to Francis for a 21-yard touchdown, and with the successful extra point the score was 31-27 going into the final period.

William Andrews put Atlanta in the lead with his first pro touchdown on a four-yard run. The Falcons then appeared set to clinch the game with less than five minutes remaining, but a promising drive ended when Bartkowski fumbled after being hit from the blind side by DE Joe Campbell, giving the Saints the ball on their own 18 yard line. New Orleans proceeded to drive 66 yards and, with 44 seconds left in regulation, Erxleben kicked a 38-yard field goal to tie the score. Atlanta still had a shot in regulation, but Mazzetti missed a field goal try from 52 yards out and the game went into overtime.

The contest went eight minutes into the extra period with neither team able to score. In the climactic play of the game, the Saints were lined up on fourth-and-six at their 32 for a punt. A bad snap by C John Watson sailed some four feet over Erxleben’s head, and the rookie kicker had to give chase. The ball rolled inside the five toward the goal line, where Erxleben grabbed it and tried to toss a two-handed pass to avoid a possible safety. Rookie RB James Mayberry, who was bearing down fast on Erxleben, pulled the throw out of the air and ran six yards untouched into the end zone for the improbable winning touchdown. Atlanta came away with yet another thrilling win over the Saints by a score of 40-34.

In a game that featured plenty of offense on both sides, the Falcons had the most total yards (552 to 512) and first downs (35 to 23). New Orleans was the more proficient through the air (324 to 295) but Atlanta generated 257 rushing yards to 188 for the Saints. Each club turned the ball over two times.

William Andrews had an impressive debut, rushing for 167 yards on 30 carries that included the one TD. Steve Bartkowski completed 22 of 38 passes for 312 yards with three touchdowns and one interception. Alfred Jenkins had 7 catches for 131 yards and one of the TDs and Wallace Francis added 5 receptions for 65 yards and the other two scores.

For the Saints, Chuck Muncie (pictured at right) set a club record with 161 yards on 22 carries and scored two touchdowns while also passing for another. Also lost in the defeat was a big day for Wes Chandler, who gained 205 yards on 6 catches that included a TD. Archie Manning was successful on 14 of his 29 throws for 284 yards with a touchdown and an interception.

“I just heard the crowd and I knew something was wrong,” said James Mayberry of his special teams play that won the contest. “I saw the ball back there and I just took off after it…I just ran back there expecting to tackle him (Erxleben). He just threw the ball and I had nothing to do but score.”

The 40 points were easily the most scored in any game by the Falcons in 1979, and it ended up being a disappointing year in which they dropped to 6-10 and placed third in the NFC West. Ahead of them was New Orleans, which won the rematch between the rivals in Atlanta and, after a slow start, posted an 8-8 record – the first non-losing tally in the franchise’s history.

William Andrews continued to be a bright spot for the Falcons as he rushed for 1023 yards on 239 carries (4.3 avg.) and caught 39 passes for 309 more yards. The pass receiving tandem of Wallace Francis (74 catches, 1013 yards, 8 TDs) and Alfred Jenkins (50 catches, 858 yards, 3 TDs) remained productive. James Mayberry saw limited action as a backup running back and gained 193 yards while scoring one other TD during the season.

Chuck Muncie went on to a Pro Bowl year, gaining 1198 rushing yards while averaging five yards per carry and scoring 11 touchdowns and catching 40 passes. Wes Chandler also earned Pro Bowl recognition with his 65 pass receptions for 1069 yards (16.4 avg.) and six TDs.

It was not so good for Russell Erxleben, however. He was injured during workouts the week following the Atlanta game and did not play again in ’79 – FB Tony Galbreath handled the placekicking for one week and Chandler the punting for two before 35-year-old PK Garo Yepremian, released by the Dolphins late in the preseason, and P Rick Partridge were signed. Erxleben did return in 1980 and lasted four years with the Saints, almost exclusively as a punter (he came back to punt once for the Lions in ’87). He was never able to live up to his 11th overall draft selection in 1979.