November 11, 2001 — “It’s been a pretty tough week,” Atlanta Falcons starting center Todd McClure said.
How tough? Well, Todd made that comment back on Wednesday, when there was still plenty of week left to go.
After their latest loss — a 24-10 pelting by the New England Patriots last Sunday — the Falcons, now 3-4, thought the most embarrassing part of their week was behind them.
They allowed nine sacks and converted just 3 of 14 third-down chances. Things couldn’t possibly get much worse. Right?
Well, they did.
Seems the mood in the players’ “friends and family” section at the Georgia Dome was not so, um, friendly during the game. There was, apparently, applause coming from a few of those lower-level seats when quarterback Chris Chandler left the game in the third quarter with a rib injury.
Chandler’s wife Diane — as bold as her father, former 49ers quarterback John Brodie — confronted the hecklers. They taunted her. One of them, reportedly, threw a can at her.
“It’s people’s sons and husbands and fathers out there on the field,” Todd said. “And the people beside them don’t realize that they’re sitting next to people who care about the people that are out on the field. It makes for a tough situation.”
The mess immediately became known as the Falcons Family Feud. It dominated headlines all week. And players tired of the soap opera quickly.
In the locker room on Monday, receiver Shawn Jefferson issued the following threat: “Any reporter who calls my wife, I will (mess) you up. Two times!”
Lost in the drama was the Falcons’ loss. It was their third home loss in a row.
On Wednesday, Falcons coach Dan Reeves instructed his players to only answer questions pertaining to today’s game against the Dallas Cowboys. He also told them to be more selective when they dole out tickets to the game.
“It’s been pretty tough,” Todd said. “Being around the locker room, I think there is a sense of urgency. We need a win. I think a win will help solve a lot of problems.”
And problems have a way of piling up. In an attempt to come to Chandler’s defense, cornerback Ray Buchanan said, “You don’t go off on Chris. Go off on the linemen. Those dudes ain’t blocking.”
Linemen read the newspaper too, you know.
“At first when I read it, I couldn’t believe it,” Todd said. “Because maybe it is true, but players don’t need to criticize their own teammates.
“Ray came in to the offensive line room and apologized to us (on Wednesday). He said it was taken a little bit out of context. I don’t think Ray meant it in the way it came out, or maybe he did, but I really don’t think he did.”
Todd and Buchanan are in agreement on one thing. The Falcons’ offensive line play against the Patriots was “terrible.”
“We didn’t go out and execute what our game plan was,” Todd said. “They started blitzing us and they didn’t stop. Giving up nine sacks? Now, all of them weren’t on the offensive line — we had other parts breaking down — but to give up that many sacks is just horrible, and you can’t do it and be successful in the NFL.
“But we’re going to continue to get better each week. It was just a minor setback. I think the guys are really focused this week and ready to come out and get a win.”
Ah yes, a win. That elixir. That cure-all.
Do you think if the Falcons were 5-2 — which they easily could be if not for two overtime collapses against the 49ers — that players’ families would be quarreling in the stands? Do you think if the Falcons were among the leaders in the NFC West that players would be pointing fingers in the locker room?
“Once a team starts losing, then all the little things are pointed out,” Todd said. “All the frustrations are brought out. Everything is just magnified. All the bad things are magnified. And then they’re written about and they’re talked about. That’s all you hear. But when you’re winning, all the people want to write about is how good you’re doing.”
Visiting the Georgia Dome today is Dallas, perhaps the only team in more turmoil than the Falcons. Ryan Leaf, king of second chances, will start at quarterback for the Cowboys (2-5). He’s Dallas’ fourth starter this season. That’s never happened in Cowboys history.
A win, and the Falcons are 4-4 and somehow back in the playoff picture. A loss, and the Falcons fall apart.
“We’re at the point in our season where we can turn it around or the wheels could come off,” Todd said. “This is a critical game for us — because of the morale in the locker room, the finger pointing, the media writing about how bad we are, and all the other stuff. This is a critical game for us. We really need a win.”
Nearly every seat will be occupied today for the Falcons-Cowboys game at the Georgia Dome — and that doesn’t happen very often. But there will likely be just as many Cowboys fans as Falcons fans.
“They’re America’s team I guess, huh?” said Atlanta Falcons starting center Todd McClure. “Every player would like to play in front of a packed house every day at home. I guess when you’re not winning every game, it’s hard. People don’t want to come see you. It’s one thing to an extent we really can’t control. But if we do start winning, I’m sure the seats will start filling up. I guess we do control it to an extent, also.”