As usual, there are many storylines leading into the 2022 season for the Atlanta Falcons.
There will be a new quarterback. There will be new players on the roster. The 2022 season is certainly far removed from the 1977 one. Fans can only hope the 2022 season turns out to be as signficant as that one from decades ago.
A look at that 1977 season brings back a ton of childhood football memories of the Atlanta Falcons and more specifically the 1977 team which set a NFL defensive record which stills stands today.
That team’s defensive side of the football 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 Orega and Ray Easterling were among those who made that defensive unit so special for head coach Leeman Bennett and defensive guru Jerry 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.
Unfortunately for the Falcons that season, the offense was as ineffective as the defense was dominant so that Atlanta team did not qualify for the playoffs. The Falcons did make the playoffs in 1978, advancing to the NFC divisional round.
One of the tragedies which later came from 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.
A famous photo of Easterling showed 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, something that has become all too common among long-time football players.
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 now a matter of debate. Glanville, who later became a character head coach of the Houston Oilers and Atlanta Falcons dressed in black with cowboy boots 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?
Regardless, 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 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 1977 season set a record which still stands today. As a headline proclaimed: “The Grits Blitz: Greatness, But Not Glory.”
Chris Bridges is the managing editor of The Walton Tribune. His email address is email@example.com.