The Atlanta Falcons had gotten off to a 1-1 start as they hosted the San Francisco 49ers on October 4, 1970. Under Head Coach Norm Van Brocklin, they were looking to improve upon a 6-8 record in ’69. QB Bob Berry (pictured above) was efficient, if limited, and there was an outstanding tight end in Jim Mitchell, but there was a lack of speed at wide receiver where able but aging veterans Paul Flatley and Gail Cogdill were available. The defense was tough and included DE Claude Humphrey, linebackers Tommy Nobis and Don Hansen, and CB Ken Reaves.
San Francisco, coached by Dick Nolan, was 2-0 and good on both sides of the ball. 35-year-old QB John Brodie was a fine passer and had WR Gene Washington leading the receiving corps while steady FB Ken Willard was the best runner. The defense was talented and included such stalwarts as DT Charlie Krueger, DE Tommy Hart, LB Dave Wilcox, and CB Jimmy Johnson.
There were 58,850 fans in attendance at Atlanta Stadium on a sunny afternoon. The Falcons had first possession and drove to midfield with FB Art Malone and HB Jim “Cannonball” Butler running effectively, but ultimately they had to punt. San Francisco had to punt as well following its first series, got the ball back quickly when Butler fumbled, but went three-and-out and punted again. John Brodie was off to a slow start, missing on his first six passes.
Butler took off for a 33-yard gain to advance the ball into San Francisco territory at the 42 and Bob Berry threw to WR Gail Cogdill for 10 yards, but the drive stalled and Ken Vinyard’s 42-yard field goal attempt fell short.
The teams traded punts but, as the scoreless game moved into the second quarter, the 49ers were on the move. From deep in their own territory, Brodie threw to WR Preston Riley on a third-and-six play and it was good for a 68-yard gain to the Atlanta 21. Brodie connected with Riley again for 12 yards and Ken Willard ran the ball three straight times, the last for a three-yard touchdown. Bruce Gossett kicked the extra point to stake the visitors to a 7-0 lead.
The Falcons moved well in response, with Malone and Butler carrying and Berry tossing a pass to Cogdill for a 16-yard gain on a third-and-six play. But after reaching the San Francisco 42, Vinyard again missed on a field goal attempt, this time from 50 yards.
The teams exchanged punts until Atlanta, taking possession with 1:40 left in the half, put together a scoring drive. Berry had three completions to WR Paul Flatley that covered 16, 15, and 11 yards and a 12-yard throw to Jim Mitchell (pictured at left). He then tossed a three-yard scoring pass to Butler and, with Vinyard adding the PAT, the score was tied at 7-7 at halftime.
San Francisco had the first possession in the third quarter and put together an 11-play, 62-yard drive. Brodie connected with Gene Washington twice for 12 and 14 yards and to TE Bob Windsor for a 16-yard gain in a third-and-seven situation and again for a one-yard touchdown. Gossett converted and the 49ers were back on top by 14-7.
The Falcons moved well in response, with Berry completing a pass to Flatley for 30 yards to reach midfield, but Butler fumbled at the San Francisco 42 and Tommy Hart recovered for the Niners. The turnover resulted in another scoring series, with Willard running effectively and Brodie hitting on consecutive passes to HB Doug Cunningham of nine and seven yards. The drive finally stalled at the Atlanta 19 and Gossett kicked a 27-yard field goal that put the visitors ahead by ten.
In a possession highlighted by a 29-yard carry by Butler, the Falcons reached the San Francisco 34 before a holding penalty and a sack moved them all the way back to their 34. They punted on the first play of the fourth quarter, and CB Bruce Taylor returned the kick 40 yards to the San Francisco 45, but two plays later Willard fumbled and DE John Zook recovered for the Falcons at his 46. Berry immediately went to Mitchell for 29 yards and, with a penalty tacked on, Atlanta was all the way to the Niners’ 12. Two plays later, Berry passed to Mitchell again, this time for a nine-yard TD, and with Vinyard’s extra point the visitors’ lead was narrowed to 17-14.
The ensuing kickoff produced another good return for the 49ers as HB Bill Tucker ran it back 43 yards. Three runs by Cunningham gained a total of 17 yards to the Atlanta 40 and, after a third down pass to Tucker came up a yard short, Gossett kicked another field goal, this time of 43 yards. The 49ers were ahead by six with less than ten minutes to play.
The Falcons had to punt following their next series, and San Francisco got a break on its next possession when Steve Spurrier, back to punt, was roughed. However, two plays later Cunningham, hit hard by linebackers Tommy Nobis and Don Hansen, turned the ball over on a fumble and, thanks to FS Tom McCauley’s 45-yard return, Atlanta had possession at the San Francisco 13. Two carries by HB Sonny Campbell and an incomplete pass set up a fourth-and-four situation at the seven, but Berry threw to Cogdill in the left corner of the end zone for a touchdown. Vinyard added the all-important extra point and the Falcons were ahead by one.
The 49ers regained possession at their 27 with the clock at 3:46. Cunningham ran up the middle for eight yards followed by Willard carrying for 14. Three plays later they faced third-and-six and Willard ran for seven yards. Two more Brodie completions mixed with three more carries by Willard had the ball down to the Atlanta 12 with six seconds in the game, but the normally reliable Gossett was wide by a few inches on a 19-yard field goal attempt. Atlanta came away with a 21-20 upset victory.
The statistics reflected the closeness of the score. The Falcons had the edge in total yards (356 to 326) while both teams accumulated 18 first downs apiece. The also each turned the ball over two times, although San Francisco’s were more untimely.
Jim Butler (pictured at right) set two club records, rushing for 127 yards on 17 carries but also fumbling four times. Bob Berry completed 17 of 32 passes for 217 yards and three touchdowns with no interceptions. Paul Flatley caught 6 passes for 99 yards and Jim Mitchell also had 6 receptions, for 77 yards and a TD. Gail Cogdill contributed three catches for 33 yards and a score.
For the 49ers, John Brodie, who was on his way to a consensus MVP year, was successful on 16 of 27 throws for 182 yards and a TD while giving up no interceptions. Ken Willard ran for 90 yards on 25 carries that included a touchdown and Doug Cunningham added 69 yards on 14 attempts as well as four catches for 29 more yards. Preston Riley and Gene Washington had four receptions apiece, for 90 and 37 yards, respectively.
“I don’t care how we do it as long as we win,” said Bob Berry, “and the people are getting their money’s worth, I guess. I didn’t see anybody leaving.”
The Falcons failed to win often, losing their next two contests and finishing in third place in the NFC West with a 4-8-2 record. San Francisco recovered to go 5-0-1 over the next six games on the way to a division-topping 10-3-1 tally. In the first year of the merged and realigned NFL, the 49ers reached the NFC Championship game before succumbing to the Dallas Cowboys.
Bob Berry completed a healthy 58.0 percent of his passes, 16 of them for touchdowns. Jim Butler rushed for 636 yards and fumbled a total of 10 times. Jim Mitchell led the team with 44 catches for 650 yards (14.8 avg.) and six touchdowns while Paul Flatley had 39 receptions for 544 yards (13.9 avg.) and the one TD. Gail Cogdill, injury-plagued as his career that was played mostly in Detroit reached its final season, managed just seven catches for 101 yards in six games of action, with the touchdown against the 49ers his last.