For sports fans, especially followers of teams from years past, YouTube has been one of the greatest inventions of all time.
For example, a fan can watch games of a favorite team in the year 1990 or 1985 or even 1975. There have been some games, which I never knew were televised, that can be relived for the first time.
One example was the 1992 football game between Georgia and Georgia Southern. I attended the game that day in Athens decades ago but had no idea it was actually televised in any form. A quick search of YouTube showed the game was in fact aired, and it was fun to see how my memories stood up to the passage of time.
When it comes to our state’s professional football team, the Atlanta Falcons certainly had a colorful era from 1977-82. Professional football was a completely different game then. Players didn’t make millions of dollars, and without free agency fans could expect to see the top players for their favorite team for a decade or more.
In 1977 the Falcons, under first year head coach Leeman Bennett, created history that still stands today. Bennett was a conservative head coach but his defensive guru was the opposite.
Jerry Glanville used an all-out blitzing attack which often limited opponents to just a handful of points (or less) per game.
That team’s defensive side of the football also gained a rather catchy nickname in the Grits Blitz, and while memories have faded somewhat on how exactly the name originated, there can be no denying this group’s dominant play in 1977 and its place in NFL history.
Players such as Jeff Merrow, Fulton Kuykendall, Robert Pennywell, Wilson Faumuina, Rolland Lawrence, Claude Humphrey, Greg Brezina, Ralph Ortega and Ray Easterling were among those who made that defensive unit so special for Bennett and Glanville.
NFL teams played a 14-game regular season in those days and the Falcons of 1977 allowed just 129 total points. The 9.2 points per game average is still a record today, even less than the 10.2 average of the defensive dominant Baltimore Ravens in 2000. Not even the 1985 Chicago Bears and their famed 46 defense for Buddy Ryan measured up stat-wise.
Unfortunately for the Falcons that season, their offense was as ineffective in 1977 as the defense was dominant so that Atlanta team did not qualify for the playoffs. The Falcons did make the playoffs the following season in 1978, advancing to the NFC divisional round.
One of the tragedies which later came from the initial 1977 Grits Blitz squad was the death of Easterling, a tough, hard-nosed defensive back who suffered countless concussions during his playing career. Easterling eventually committed suicide, and his death added to the NFL powers finally having to admit there was an issue with players suffering from numerous concussions.
One vintage, black and white photo of Easterling shows him being helped off the field by three trainers as he grimaced in pain. His wife spoke of how his health issues began almost as soon as he stopped playing for the team in 1980. Easterling would later be diagnosed with dementia and despite trying to fight off the illness through physical fitness, the former defensive standout would later take his own life.
Brezina, Easterling’s roommate during his playing days, is now a counselor and minister and delivered the eulogy at his friend’s funeral.
On a much lighter note, the topic of how the name “Grits Blitz” originated is still tossed around. Glanville, who later became a character head coach of the Houston Oilers and Atlanta Falcons dressed in black with cowboy boot and hat, said the name came from a fan who was a bread delivery driver.
My memory recalls years ago reading that one-time Atlanta talk show host Ludlow Porch came up with the name or perhaps it was a caller to his show. Maybe it was that bread delivery driver, who knows.
As mentioned, the NFL was a much different entity in 1977. In a time when the Dallas Cowboys and the Pittsburgh Steelers were the dominant teams, suddenly fans had to take notice of the Falcons simply because of their bold defensive approach. Blitzing on almost every down, regardless of field position or circumstance, the Falcons had the opposing offense so confused they didn’t know how to handle all the pressure.
While that core group of players and coaches made other playoff appearances, ownership decided after the 1982 season to go in a different direction. It was the wrong choice and set the franchise back years.
Still, for a stretch in the late 1970s and early 1980s the Atlanta Falcons had something that the league talked about. That dominant defense in the 1977 season set a record which still stands today. In fact, a vintage headline about that defense termed the unit: “Greatness Without Glory.”
Perhaps now fans of today can look back and appreciate that Falcons season in 1977 and just what a remarkable accomplishment that team’s defense was.
An interesting note is that Glanville, almost 80, is still coaching and still blitzing. He will be the defensive coordinator for the Tampa Bay Vipers in the relaunched XFL. No doubt he will blitz early and often down in Tampa just as he did in Atlanta all those years ago.