The San Francisco 49ers had been smacking the Atlanta Falcons around for years. Hell, they’d been crushing the spirits of the entire division for the better part of a decade, and they rode into the ’91 season with five consecutive NFC West titles. Compare that to the Falcons, who had suffered through 10 straight losing seasons in which they won a total of 50 games.
Enter Tim McKyer. After intercepting 15 passes in his first three seasons with the 49ers, the cornerback couldn’t stay on the field and fell out of favor with George Seifert in 1989. After that season he was traded to the Dolphins for second- and 10th-round picks. McKyer only lasted one year in Miami, and was dealt to the Falcons for third- and 12th-round selections.
The Falcons badly needed an upgrade over the awful Charles Dimry, who couldn’t handle being the cornerback teams challenged because they were afraid of Deion Sanders (Jerry Rice torched Dimry for 225 yards and 5 TD at Fulton County Stadium in 1990). The former 49ers corner felt he was up to the challenge, and the swagger-laden Falcons were a perfect match for the mouthy McKyer.
“Atlanta is utopia for me,” McKyer said this week from camp in Suwanee, Ga. “You look around at all the personalities here and tell me I don’t fit in like a glove.”
In Miami he clashed like Zubaz pants with a navy pinstripe jacket. At first, he was regarded as a breath of fresh air. By season’s end, when he irked some players and coaches by calling Kansas City’s secondary “suspect” before a playoff game, many thought his act had grown stale.
The Falcons’ new black jerseys signaled a fresh start for the previously nondescript franchise in 1990. After adding McKyer, Jerry Glanville’s team finally started winning in ’91. Their 10-6 record wasn’t good enough to win the NFC West, but they were good enough to keep the 49ers out of the playoffs. McKyer intercepted Steve Young twice the first time the Falcons and 49ers met, a 39-34 Atlanta win at Candlestick Park.
Both teams were 4-4 the second time around, and Atlanta intercepted Young and Steve Bono once apiece in a 17-14 win that ended with a Hail Mary touchdown pass to Michael Haynes. No interceptions for McKyer this time, instead it was Sanders and Brian Jordan who came up with one pick each. But the damage was done as far as the 49ers were concerned. San Francisco would lose 10-3 the next week in New Orleans (the Saints finished 11-5 to win the NFC West that year), and even after finishing the season with six consecutive wins and the same record as the Falcons, it was Atlanta who made it to the Wild Card round ahead of San Francisco.
The Saints were the better team, but the Falcons were the better rival. Brash, unapologetic, and featuring a player who refused to fit in with the mighty 49ers. San Francisco wasn’t used to getting challenged from within the division, especially by a team that wasn’t the Rams.
The rivalry flamed out soon after, as the Falcons finished with a record of 6-10 in 1992. The 49ers went 14-2. San Francisco didn’t win a Super Bowl that year, but in they won both games over the Falcons that year by a combined score of 97-20. The 49ers put the Falcons back in their place and that’s where they stayed, with the 49ers winning the NFC West year after year. Until 1998.
At least Deion’s Falcons were groundbreaking in an MC Hammer kind of way. The 1998 Falcons came out of nowhere due to Jamal Anderson, who ran for 1,846 yards and scored 16 touchdowns. After every score he’d do the following dance:
Give me the Ickey Shuffle all day, every day.
The ’98 Falcons weren’t a bad team, mind you. They could run and stop other teams from running. Chris Chandler had his best season. But besides the 1985 Chicago Bears, there has not been a more self-satisfied NFL team in my lifetime than the Dirty Bird Falcons. With the help of a relatively easy schedule after finishing 7-9 the year before, Atlanta went 14-2 to win the division. The 49ers went 12-4.
After winning their Wild Card game in dramatic fashion over the Packers, the 49ers traveled to the Georgia Dome with a head of steam. Then disaster struck. Garrison Hearst, coming off his best season, ran for 7 yards on his first carry. Hearst broke his ankle on the play, and the 49ers became a one-dimensional team. While they made a late run, three interceptions thrown by Young (who has to hate the Falcons to this day) were too much to overcome as the Falcons escaped with a 20-18 win.
The Falcons would go on to lose 34-19 to the Denver Broncos in Super Bowl XXXIII, and after that they would suffer through three straight losing seasons. Anderson would hold out the following year, which led to an ESPN interview that I still remember vividly. Anderson was talking about how he was prepared to sit out the entire season, explaining, “Jamal Anderson has acting, Jamal Anderson has modeling. Jamal Anderson doesn’t need football.” Anderson always enjoyed speaking in the third person.
Not the Seahawks
Unlike the Primetime Falcons of ’91 and the Dirty Birds of ’98, these Falcons are just another team as far as the 49ers are concerned. A team with a very good record, sure. But there are no Richard Shermans or Pete Carrolls among this group.
When it comes to today’s established quarterbacks who consistently produce outstanding numbers, Tom Brady is the movie star, Peyton Manning is the CEO, Ben Roethlisberger is the villain, Aaron Rodgers is the guy people love in those insurance commercials, and Drew Brees can’t stop coughing or hanging out with boy bands. Other than that silly nickname “Matty Ice,” Matt Ryan is just a guy who looks like he should be driving a Chevy SS for Richard Hendrick Motorsports.
The Falcons’ head coach, Mike Smith, has a personality that’s about as memorable as his name. It’s impossible to root against Tony Gonzalez unless you have something against vegans. Roddy White has posted some dumb things on Twitter, but nothing that has caught the interest of the 49ers or their fans.
The only way these Falcons could ever be hated around here is if they prevail on Sunday. If that happens, it’ll feel like 1998 all over again.