Mon. Jan 02, 2006
The Thirty Nine Year Hex
I wrote briefly about the hex a couple of weeks ago, and promised I’d have more to say when and if it was finally resolved. At that time, there was still some doubt (or hope) left in my mind. But since then, it’s become clear to me, the hex, she is very very strong. In fact, the strongest in North American sports history.
Today, this hex turned the Atlanta Falcons into a sad puddle of loser. Again.
I need to make sure you understand the nature of this. This is not just some fan peeved because his team lost … again. This is a factual anomaly. It’s one thing to say “the Falcons have never ever been able to put two winning seasons together back to back in their thirty nine year history.” It’s another to note that in all of professional sports history in North America … baseball, basketball, hockey, soccer, anything ... among hundreds of teams, no team comes close to matching this feat. If I recall, the closest was a 32 year run by some minor league hockey team.
Four decades is supernatural. A hex.
I moved to Georgia in 1978, and started following the Falcons. They were 9-7 that year, and prospects looked good for the next year. But in 1979, they went 6-10. This pattern of a winning season being followed by a losing season would continue, well, forever. And it had already been going on since 1966. I was just the most recently afflicted.
Over the years, the tease just got more sinister and, frankly, unbelievable. In 1980 the Falcons roared to 12-4, an NFC Western Division championship, and a berth in the playoffs. The next year, losers (1981, 7-9).
The word on the street (meaning, the scuttlebutt at the tailgate parties before games at the old Fulton Country Stadium) was that back in 1965 when they built the stadium for the Falcons, they’d torn down the house of an old Cajun woman, and she put a hex on the team (I believe there was a similar legend regarding the Superdome in New Orleans).
When the team moved into its new home at Georgia Dome, many of us thought perhaps the hex would be left behind. But apparently it’s quite transferable. First year in the Dome? 10-6. Second year? 6-10.
The teasing culminated in the 1998 season. The “Dirty Birds” rocked to 14-2, and fought through the playoffs to the Super Bowl. But that glorious season effectively ended the night before the Super Bowl, when, instead of spending the night with his wife and children, starting safety and team co-captain Eugene Robinson decided to pick up a hooker, got busted, and kept the coaching staff and several key players up half the night. Denver stomped them the next day, and the next year, the Falcons dropped to 5-11. Another puddle of loser.
The most recent chapter of this teasing saw the Falcons blaze to an 11-5 record last year in their first year under Coach Jim Mora, and go deep into the playoffs. With new ownership, a new coach, and Michael Vick at QB, it was all but assumed that this year the hex would end.
In fact, that cockiness may have been part of the problem. As Mark Bradley wrote, “From the moment Jim Mora chose to belittle the history of his franchise, you could feel this coming. November had just arrived and the Falcons were 5-2 and riding high and Mora, in seeking to defend his team’s indefensible ‘policy’ of muting its offensive linemen, dismissed the honorable likes of Jeff Van Note and Mike Kenn by saying, in essence, those guys couldn’t have been all that great if they weren’t part of consecutive winning seasons.”
Which, of course, would now mean Jim Mora and his guys can’t be all that great either, eh? Because after this year’s model got off to a 6-2 start that had some sneering at the low level goal of merely a winning season, they could only pull out two more wins in their last eight games.
If they could have even held on for a tie last week against Tampa Bay, they would have gone 8-7-1. Technically, a winning record. The hex would have ended. But as was the case most of the year, when it came down to which team wanted it more, the Falcons went home losers.
Today, they had their final shot. At home. Against a team that has actually felt somewhat hexed by the Falcons, as Carolina had lost 5 of the last 6 against them. All week long, Mora and the Falcons talked about how important it was for them to bring the fans a winning season. Because they know about the hex. It was another chance to see which team wanted it more.
By halftime, the Falcons were down 27-3.
Dozens of Dome workers had already gathered on the sidelines with mops and buckets, prepared to clean up the big puddle of loser staining the field. After all, tomorrow night there’s a real football game in the Dome, the Sugar Bowl. But in the second half, the stain only got bigger.
As I’m writing this, it’s 37-3 with seven minutes left, the Dome is two thirds empty. It’s a perfectly fitting and (for me) fully expected ending to this season.
I’ve read the litany of reasons the Falcons ended up here. They were indeed decimated by injuries, especially on defense. This forced them to play first and second year players who might have skills but seriously lacked NFL experience. They got eaten for lunch.
But show me an NFL team where injuries are not a big factor by this point in the season. It’s the job of the coaching staff to adjust and make ends meet. These Falcons may have lost 4 games by 3 points this year, but they also only beat one team that ended up with a winning record this year.
They say that an NFL quarterback doesn’t really hit his stride until his fourth of fifth year. That’s about where Michael Vick is now, and despite his obvious physical skills, he’s still got some growing to do.
But I don’t think that’s been the problem this season. I think it is also true that an NFL head coach doesn’t hit his stride until maybe year three or four. I’ve heard Jim Mora talk about how he doesn’t think he’s like other second year head coaches, because he grew up around coaching, and watched his Dad be a head coach for many years, with the Saints and elsewhere.
Well, it’s one thing to watch, even if it is for years. It’s another to actually do it. And there’s been enough unrealized potential, flashes of temper, and highly questionable coaching decisions, to believe Mora needs a bit more experience under his belt, too. He’s got to find better ways to utilize the talent he has, adjust when the situation demands, and motivate this team to put up a better showing than they did today.
But with all this experience I have witnessing the hex, I can tell you the traditional “sunny side” a Falcons fan turns to at this time of year. Next year, we’ll have a decent draft choice! All the better to fill the glaring holes in the defensive secondary. And our quite mediocre record will mean that next year’s game schedule won’t be quite as tough as this year’s. Plus, whatever excessive cockiness the Falcon’s players or coaches developed on the way to a 6-2 start has been converted to humble pie.
And it’s a really big pie. As I finish writing this, the final score is 44-11.
A call has gone out over the Atlanta media for a volunteer bucket brigade to report to the Georgia Dome. There’s apparently a massive puddle of loser to be mopped up before the Sugar Bowl tomorrow.