Monday Night Football was in Atlanta on October 30, 1978 and the up-and-coming Falcons were looking to make their mark. This was a franchise that had produced just two winning seasons since its inception in 1966 and never made the playoffs. But coming off consecutive wins, they were 4-4 coming into this game and were playing host to one of the traditional powers of the 1970s, the Los Angeles Rams. It was time for the 1978 Atlanta Falcons to take the next step.
Atlanta was coached by Leeman Bennett, a former assistant for Los Angeles. While Bennett’s expertise had been on offense, it was defense that turned the Falcons around with the new coach’s arrival in 1977. He brought in future NFL head coach Jerry Glanville to run the defense. The attacking style drew the nickname “Grits Blitz” and set a record for fewest points allowed during the ’77 season. The problem was the offense, which is why the Falcons still finished 7-7 that year and out of the money, in an era when just 4 of 13 NFC teams made the postseason.
The offense was in the hands of quarterback Steve Bartkowski, the top pick in the 1975 NFL draft. Bartkowski would have a good, albeit not great, NFL career. But there wasn’t a lot of name talent around him. There was hope on the right side of the offensive line—the team picked tackle Warren Bryant with the sixth overall choice, and also had guard R.C. Thieleman. Both were 23 years old in 1978. Thieleman was starting a good career that would take him to three Pro Bowls, while Bryant never really panned out. And Bartkowski’s supporting cast at the skill positions was similarly bland.
1978 was a year of change in the NFL overall. The schedule was increased from 14 to 16 games, and the postseason expanded. The league would now allow a second wild-card team in the postseason. The winners of the three pre-2002 divisions (East, Central, West) would be placed in the divisional playoffs as always, but now the two wild-card would have to play their way in.
Atlanta was hoping that the natural improvement that would presumably come in Bennett’s second year, along with the extra playoff spot would finally get them into postseason action. The season didn’t start easily though. Bartkowski dealt with some injuries and backup June Jones (today better known as the architect of high-powered collegiate offenses at both Hawaii and SMU) was getting increased playing time.
Still, the Falcons opened the season by beating the Houston Oilers and another #1 overall draft pick, running back Earl Campbell. The previous year’s Heisman Trophy winner ran for 137 yards and a 73-yard touchdown gallop in the first quarter, but the Falcons prevailed 20-14.
But Jones played poorly a week later in Los Angeles, and consecutive losses to Cleveland and lowly Tampa Bay followed. A narrow win over a bad New York Giants’ team followed, and then an expected thumping came at the hands of the Pittsburgh Steelers, at the peak of their glory in the late 1970s and on their way to a Super Bowl win in January.
At 2-4, the season was in danger of slipping away, but a soft spot in the schedule presented the Falcons with chances for road wins at Detroit and San Francisco. Atlanta won both and it set them up for the opportunity to swing their season decisively for the better at home on Monday Night.
Los Angeles was the power in the NFC West, the division the geographically-challenged NFL had Atlanta in prior to the realignment of 2002. Pat Haden, now the athletic director at USC, was at the helm of the offense and the Rams were on their way to a 12-4 season and a #1 seed in the NFC playoffs.
Haden put them on the board with a first quarter touchdown pass, but then Glanville’s defense went into lockdown mode. They intercepted Haden three times and forced five turnovers overall. Bartkowski’s offense couldn’t put the ball in the end zone, so Bennett needed to turn to an unlikely hero. Tim Mazzetti had been working as a bartender when the season opened and signed on as kicker after six games. He went 5-for-5 on field goal attempts for the prime-time audience and Atlanta got its signature win 15-7.
Atlanta won three of the next four, including close wins over New Orleans, ensuring the Falcons would be the second-place team in the NFC West. In the season’s penultimate game, the Falcons hosted the Washington Redskins. Both teams were 8-6 and a wild-card berth was on the line. Playing error-free football, Atlanta churned out a 20-17 win and its long-sought playoff berth was secured.
The NFL’s first-ever wild-card games would be on Christmas Eve and Atlanta would host the first game—ironically when baseball made the exact same playoff expansion for 2012 it was the Atlanta Braves hosting the first game. The opponent was the Philadelphia Eagles, led by Dick Vermeil and making their first playoff appearance of the Super Bowl era.
Atlanta-Philly was a battle of two Polish quarterbacks, as Bartkowski and counterpart Ron Jaworski, currently an analyst on ESPN, each played well. Jaworski was 19/35 for 190 yards, decent numbers in the days when defenses were allowed to cover wide receivers. Bartkowski was 18/32 for 243 yards. The first three quarters belonged to the Eagles though, with an early TD pass to 6’8” Harold Carmichael helping build a 13-0 lead.
The Falcons roared back in the fourth quarter, and Bartkowski made the kinds of plays fans had dreamt of when he was drafted. He hit Jim Mitchell for a 20-yard touchdown pass and then connected with Wallace Francis on a 37-yard strike to give Atlanta a 14-13 lead. Jaworski led the Eagles back into easy field goal range for kicker Mike Michel, who had the chance to atone for the missed extra point that was the difference in the game. He missed the field goal and the Falcons had their first playoff victory.
Atlanta’s win earned them a trip to Dallas, a game no one gave them much of a chance at winning. The Cowboys were 12-4 and the NFC’s #2 seed behind Los Angeles. Still, the Falcons led 20-13 after three quarters. But Bartkowski could only generate 95 yards passing while throwing three interceptions and Dallas was able to control their fourth quarter and win 27-20. They would go on to hammer Los Angeles a week later, before losing the Super Bowl to Pittsburgh.
The Falcons might not have scaled the heights, but they had the best season in franchise history in 1978. The Grits Blitz became nationally known and they won some important games along the way—beating AFC finalist Houston with Campbell, winning the MNF showcase with Los Angeles, winning a key Week 15 battle with Washington for the playoffs and getting a thrilling victory in the NFL’s first wild-card game. The 1978 Atlanta Falcons are a team that’s mostly under the historical radar, but they were an important piece of franchise history.