by Scott Kacsmar
In our recent three-part study on Super Bowl teams in the DVOA era, one of the findings was that 72.2 percent of all Super Bowl teams had made the playoffs in the previous year. There was usually a track record of success, often over multiple seasons, leading into a Super Bowl appearance. For some of the surprise teams that made a quick turnaround, there were usually significant changes in personnel to spark change on the field.
But one Super Bowl team in particular emerged with a familiar cast. The 1997 Falcons were not a memorable team, starting 2-8 before winning five of their last six. The only loss came after a Jake Plummer-led comeback with five seconds left in Week 17. Many of these "strong finishes" fail to translate into improvement the next season, but the 1998 Falcons became the only 7-9 team in NFL history to improve all the way to 14-2.
The following table shows the changes in the starting rosters for both the offense and defense from 1997 to 1998. The number of starts (GS) are included and rookies are listed with "RK" in parenthesis. Where the Falcons ranked in DVOA with the pass and run is also included.
|1997-98 Atlanta Falcons: Roster Changes (Coached by Dan Reeves)|
|Offensive Starter Changes (Coordinator: George Sefcik)|
|1997 (7-9)||1998 (14-2)|
|QB||Chris Chandler||14||QB||Chris Chandler||14|
|RB||Jamal Anderson||15||RB||Jamal Anderson||16|
|FB||Bob Christian||12||FB||Bob Christian||11|
|LT||Bob Whitfield||16||LT||Bob Whitfield||16|
|LG||Robbie Tobeck||15||LG||Calvin Collins||16|
|C||Calvin Collins (RK)||13||C||Robbie Tobeck||16|
|RG||Gene Williams||15||RG||Gene Williams||16|
|RT||Matt Willig||13||RT||Ephraim Salaam (RK)||16|
|WR||Bert Emanuel||16||WR||Tony Martin||16|
|WR||Terance Mathis||16||WR||Terance Mathis||16|
|TE||O.J. Santiago (RK)||11||TE||O.J. Santiago||16|
|DVOA: Pass (13th), Run (27th)||DVOA: Pass (8th), Run (13th)|
|Defensive Starter Changes (Coordinator: Rich Brooks)|
|1997 (7-9)||1998 (14-2)|
|DE||Lester Archambeau||16||DE||Lester Archambeau||15|
|DT||Travis Hall||16||DT||Travis Hall||13|
|DT||Dan Owens||15||DT||Shane Dronett||16|
|DE||Chuck Smith||15||DE||Chuck Smith||16|
|OLB||Cornelius Bennett||16||OLB||Cornelius Bennett||16|
|MLB||Jessie Tuggle||15||MLB||Jessie Tuggle||16|
|OLB||Henri Crockett (RK)||10||OLB||Henri Crockett||10|
|CB||Ray Buchanan||16||CB||Ray Buchanan||16|
|SS||William White||16||SS||William White||16|
|FS||Devin Bush||16||FS||Eugene Robinson||16|
|CB||Ronnie Bradford||14||CB||Ronnie Bradford||10|
|DVOA: Pass (19th), Run (21st)||DVOA: Pass (10th), Run (2nd)|
Atlanta doubled its win total while only replacing two starters on each side of the ball, including positions considered to have lesser impact (interior line and safety). Offensive linemen Robbie Tobeck and Calvin Collins also switched positions in 1998. The special teams were top five in both seasons as well, and the Falcons actually faced a tougher schedule in 1998 (22nd) than in 1997 (29th).
This was an incredible turnaround, and we are pleased to present an interview with arguably the most important player from that Atlanta team. Running back Jamal Anderson spent all eight of his seasons in the NFL with Atlanta, but 1998 will always stand out as his best. Anderson carried the ball 410 times, an NFL record at the time, and rushed for 1,846 yards in an All-Pro season in leading Atlanta to its only Super Bowl appearance in franchise history. He also developed the infamous "Dirty Bird" touchdown celebration that year.
Football Outsiders: Jamal, the Falcons had not made the playoffs since 1995. Did you sense anything different about the team going into 1998 even though it was mostly the same cast? What would you say was the single biggest factor in your team's great success to go 14-2 and reach the Super Bowl?
Jamal Anderson: 1998 is the season most remember, for good reason. But it all started in 1997 when Dan [Reeves] first took over the team. Different attitude, different mentality on both sides of the ball. We had to learn how to play in Reeves' offensive system, which was remarkably different from June Jones' run 'n' shoot. By the way, I loved that offense too. But with Reeves we had to learn, specifically myself, because I had never run behind a fullback. The run 'n' shoot was a one-back offense and at Utah I ran in a one-back offense. Then I got hurt Week 1 vs Detroit. Still, we played good. I believe we lost four of the five first games by three points or less. I got healthy in the middle of the season and we went on a roll. We won six of the last eight games. That team rolled right into 1998. We believed we were good. We knew we were. In '98, I think a few factors greatly contributed to the way we played to make it to the Super Bowl. Obviously running the ball was huge for us. But a big reason why was our ability to throw the ball. Terance Mathis and Tony Martin both averaged over 17 yards a catch. O.J. Santiago made a bunch of big plays as a rookie tight end. Chris Chandler had a great season. Maybe the most important person in our offense was our fullback Bob Christian -- he was phenomenal. All of these things just synced, not unlike the Cowboys in their prime. Of course Reeves being the link.
FO: One lineup change I only briefly mentioned was the switch at left guard and center with Calvin Collins and Robbie Tobeck switching positions from where they played in 1997. We statheads tend to overlook such changes on the interior line, but do you think that had a big impact on your 1998 rushing success, or was it more about the fullback leading the way?
JA: That Tobeck and Collins switch was huge for me, for us. As you know the center is the leader of the line. Tobeck couldn't have been better for us. Collins was a brute, but taking the pressure off of him having to make calls was major for him and us. My line that entire year was tremendous. [Bob] Whitfield was a stud, [Gene] Williams was awesome pulling, [Ephraim] Salaam as a rookie was really impressive on the backside. Anchored by Tobeck. [Tobeck's] departure to Seattle was awful for me, a boon for Seattle's backs.
FO: Football Outsiders is known as an analytics site, which means we are accused of ignoring some of the more intangible qualities of the game that players often cite such as leadership or momentum. But we do in fact note the presence of human elements and understand the importance of concepts like chemistry and motivation. In 1998, you infamously created the "Dirty Bird" dance to celebrate touchdowns, which really caught on with the team and fans. Do you think something as simple as a touchdown celebration can help bring a locker room closer together and create a better atmosphere by making the game fun again?
JA: It must have been the first week in the season, and walking to our cars after the game, we heard an old man screaming at the top of his lungs "that's them dirty birds, don't mess with those dirty birds!" At our next team meeting, a couple of us mentioned it and we loved it and we started using it! Then everyone started. Then it must have been the seventh or eighth week of the season, we were in New York for a nationally-televised game against the Giants. I was telling the guys we need to make up a celebration to bring some attention to the way we were playing football. The Dirty Bird was born. Our fans loved it, the city, the nation. I remain amazed at the level of popularity and it's pretty cool. But Atlanta had a history. Billy White Shoes Johnson was one of the first people to ever celebrate in the end zone. Then Prime Time [Deion Sanders] was famous for his celebration dance and play.
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FO: Try as we might, one image we can never forget is your coach Dan Reeves attempting the Dirty Bird after the NFC Championship Game win. The Falcons had a strong 12-2 start, but Reeves was out for a few weeks late in the season to undergo heart surgery. Does a situation like that give you as a player extra motivation to win for your coach?
JA: Everything was going so well for us. There was such great energy around the football team and in the city, and then Reeves goes in for routine check-up and they tell him he has to have heart surgery? We were shocked. We definitely didn't want to have a drop-off in Reeves' absence, and when we clinched the division we celebrated in his honor.
FO: Even after the disappointing Super Bowl loss, you guys had to feel pretty good about going into 1999. Unfortunately, Chris Chandler hurt his hamstring in Week 1 and you suffered an ACL tear in Week 2. The 0-4 start was too big of a hole to climb out of, and even though San Francisco's long run of winning seasons ended, the St. Louis Rams were the team that quickly emerged to the top of your division and the NFL. Atlanta would not make the playoffs again until the Michael Vick era in 2002. You were drafted in 1994, the beginning of the salary cap era. Over the course of your career, did you always think your team had a fair shot at a Super Bowl in any given year, or was there something special about those late '90s seasons that made you think this was Atlanta's window to go all the way?
JA: One thing I learned over the course of my career? Good upper management is essential. Spending money on good pieces, more importantly the draft, is a must. That being said, there were only two out of eight seasons that I played in the NFL where I thought we didn't have a legit shot.
FO: 1998 was a unique year. You and Terrell Davis became the first two running backs in NFL history to rush for at least 1,800 yards in a Super Bowl season. In the last 17 Super Bowls since, only two running backs had even a 1,500-yard rushing season: Corey Dillon (2004 Patriots) and Shaun Alexander (2005 Seahawks). Are we ever going to see another Super Bowl matchup like Falcons-Broncos where the running backs are the main attraction, or has the NFL gotten too quarterback dependent?
JA: I don't think we'll ever see another matchup like me and Terrell Davis, two guys in the Super Bowl who combined for close to 4,000 yards rushing. The major emphasis is on the quarterback. Not just that, running back by committee is the most popular thing now.
FO: Since your retirement, many analytical football sites have come along. One of FO's earliest pieces was The Curse of 370, which looked at the stunning history of performance decline and injury problems that most running backs suffered after a season in which they had at least 370 carries. You and Terrell Davis both suffered significant injuries in 1999 and were never the same afterwards. Do you think the record number of runs you had in 1998 had any impact on shortening your career, or was it just random bad luck?
JA: Yes, yes, yes, the infamous curse. Listen, I don't believe in them. Really, I don't. But, it's hard to ignore the drop-off from 370 the following season for backs. Terrell and myself were just unlucky. In almost a cruel twist, we're both injured with little to no contact. Still, I can't ignore the numbers drop suffered by other backs who had 370-plus carries. Put it this way, if I was a head coach of an NFL team and I ran the offense, I would just keep my back under those numbers, ha.
Thanks again to Jamal for taking the time to answer our questions. You can follow Jamal on Twitter @jamthedirtybird.