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Barry Hirstius

Is This Sunday’s Saints-Falcons Rematch THE BIGGEST in Rivalry History?

In just a little bit over 48 hours from now, the New Orleans Saints will not only be playing in their biggest game of the 2017 season; but they'll also be playing in one of the franchise's biggest regular season games in its 51-year history.

But how "big" is big, really?

Given what's at stake for both teams as well as the controversial events surrounding their previous meeting 2 weeks ago, it might just be THE BIGGEST Saints-Falcons meeting in the rivalry that's ever been played.

(AP Photo/Danny Karnik)

Being somewhat one of the more "older" persons that cover the Saints on a daily basis and who has personally seen every single game in the Saints-Falcons rivalry beginning with the 1974 season, I've already been asked to make the comparison between this Sunday's game, and any another game in the rivalry from the 51 years that ever carried the impact and the magnitude that this Sunday's game will have.

Which is the reason why I've personally been referring to Sunday's game with people that I have spoken to, as "79 Big".

79, as in: the 1979 Saints season opening game at the Superdome against who else, the Atlanta Falcons.

Before you try to wrap you head around WHY the 1979 season opener was such a "big deal", you first have to understand the events that took place between New Orleans and Atlanta in the previous season before in 1978.

For those of you not well-versed in the history of the Saints-Falcons rivalry, it wasn't until the 1978 season that it really "took off" and blossomed into what it has become today in 2017.

Photo courtesy of United Press International

That's because it wasn't until the 1978 season that the New Orleans Saints were EVER "good enough" to contend for a spot in the NFL Playoffs.

Prior to 1978, the Saints franchise was still considered one of the League's very WORST teams; and they had 11 straight losing seasons coming into 1978 and hadn't even had more than 5 wins in any of those 11 losing seasons.

But that all changed after the Saints fired head coach Hank Stram in March of 1978 over the Saints' dismal performance during the 1977 season, which included an unthinkable 33-14 loss at home to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who at the time were (0-26) after joining the League as an expansion team.

The Saints became the butt of jokes LEAGUE-WIDE for that loss to the Buccaneers, and it cost Stram — who was an NFL coaching legend — his job as the team finished with a (3-11) record.

Then Saints owner John Mecom, Jr., after listening to some advice from other owners, hired Stram's linebacker coach and former San Francisco 49ers head coach Dick Nolan to take over the Saints team in time for the 1978 season.

Photo courtesy of the Associated Press

Nolan had previously been a head coach in San Francisco, where he guided the 49ers for eight seasons from 1968 through 1975; and was noted for developing the defense and taking the team to three straight NFC West division titles (1970–72), twice losing in the NFC Championship Game (1970–71) and just barely missing out making the Super Bowl.

Stram had hired him almost immediately after Nolan was fired by the 49ers at the end of the 1975 season (in time for Stram's first year in New Orleans in 1976), and wanted Nolan to help the Saints organization build a defense like the one he had at San Francisco.

Photo courtesy of The Associated Press Archives

Now just a little over 2 years later, Nolan had taken Stram's job.

To this day, there's no logical explanation to explain why the Saints team suddenly started to win more games under Nolan that they had under Stram.

A lot has to do with the fact that Stram was a tough disciplinarian who forced the team to endure 3-a-day full-padded workouts in Training Camp, and was a task-master with regard to how his players executed his schemes.

To say he was NOT well-liked by most of his players, is a fair assessment.

Nolan on the other hand having been a former player himself, was down to earth and the players LOVED him. That lax and loose relationship with the team's players would later come back to bite Nolan hard a few years later, but in 1978 the team was rejuvenated by Stram's departure and were suddenly competitive in EVERY game that year.

Which brings us finally to why the 1978 season centered around the Saints-Falcons rivalry.

November 12th, 1978.

A date that lives on almost 40 years later, in Saints "infamy".

The Saints went into the game with a (5-5) record, while the Falcons, who had won 4 straight games coming in to that game that day, were (6-4).

Leading, 17-13, late in the fourth quarter, the Saints couldn't put the game away, and were forced to punt, giving the Falcons only :19 seconds to go 57 yards.

The Falcons lined up with receivers Wallace Francis, Alfred Jenkins and Alfred Jackson off to the right, and then quarterback Steve Bartkowski threw it up for grabs.

Francis tipped the ball right into the waiting hands of Jackson, who proceeded to run into the end zone for the game-winning score, giving them an eventual 20-17 win, and leaving the 72,000 fans at the Superdome in total shock.

Photo courtesy of The New Orleans Times-Picayune

The play became known as "Big Ben Right" (the right side of the formation where all of the receivers had lined up), or years later just "Big Ben".

The Saints would then get blown out at Dallas the following week to fall to (5-6), but had a chance to even their record at (6-6) when they traveled to Fulton-County Stadium in Atlanta to play the Falcons for the 2nd time in 3 weeks (sounds familiar, huh Saints fans?)

Just like their game in New Orleans two weeks earlier, the defenses took over in the 3rd quarter as the Saints got the only points of the third quarter with an 18-yard field goal by Steve Mike-Mayer to extend their lead to 17-10.

The Falcons could not trim the lead for much of the second half as they drove to inside the Saints’ 20-yard-line twice, only to come with zero points as the Saints’ defense forced a fumble and intercepted a Bartkowski pass to end the scoring threats by Atlanta.

Late in the 4th quarter, the Falcons trailed 17-13 and were at their own 28-yard-line with 53 seconds left and no timeouts left at their disposal.

Bartkowski went to the no-huddle offense and after completing three out of four passes, he had the Falcons at the Saints’ 34-yard-line with 23 seconds remaining.

A catch by the previous game's hero and Falcons WR Alfred Jackson was good for 9 yards on the very next play and set up a 3rd-and-1 from the 25-yard-line; and with 16 seconds left on the clock Bartkowski took another shot for the end zone.

Bartkowski launched a pass toward the left corner of the end zone where his receivers, Dennis Pearson and Bill Ryckman, were waiting along with three Saints defenders.

Photo courtesy of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

As the ball came down, the players got together in a scrum and when it was all said and done, Saints defensive back Ralph McGill had come away with the interception seemingly to seal the victory for New Orleans and would have evened their record at (6-6).

But a flag was thrown by official Grover Klemmer and after talking it over with the rest of his crew, the referees called for Saints defensive back Maurice Spencer for pass interference  giving the Falcons a 1st-and-goal from the one-yard-line with 10 seconds to go.

With new found life, Bartkowski took the snap, rolled out to his right, and found tight end Jim Mitchell wide open in the end zone for the game-winning touchdown with five seconds to go — which gave Atlanta another 20-17 victory over the Saints.

The two improbable and unbelievable last-second wins by the Falcons proved to be the difference between Atlanta and the Saints when it came to a NFC Playoff spot.

New Orleans finished 1978 with an overall record of (7-9), including the 2 excruciating back-to-back losses to Atlanta, who went (9-7), and advanced to the NFC Divisional Playoffs.

Meaning that had the Saints not suffered either of those two unbelievable losses in a span of 3 weeks to the Falcons, it would have been the Saints — and not the Falcons — who would have been (9-7) and faced Philadelphia (who Atlanta beat 14-13) in the 1978 Wild Card game.

Photo courtesy of United Press International

So as you can imagine, the cauldron in the pot slowly began to bubble up and eventually come to a boil as the Saints and their fans had an entire off-season to think about how they had unjustly robbed of their first-ever trip to the Playoffs.

And even though this was long before Social Media and the Internet, the Saints' fan-base hatred for the Falcons and their fans simmered all Summer long and was made even worse when the 1979 regular season schedule was announced.

The Saints would be hosting Atlanta in Week #1 at the Superdome on September 2nd, 1979, after the events that had taken place just a few months before in 1978.

My very good friend in Saints Media, Mr. Allen Ulrich, who co-hosts the popular weekly Tuesday Night podcast "Under the Dome" along with co-host Sean Williams, remembers the ensuing 'hoopla" (hysteria is more like it) that began building up for the 1979 season opener, as if it were still yesterday (even though it's almost close to 40 years).

The Ulrich Family, 2017

"As you well remember, that 1979 game was the "revenge" one for the two losses in 1978. Those two last second losses were the difference from being 9-7 and 7-9. So when the NFL scheduling making gods put Atlanta on the schedule as the opening day game, the city couldn't wait for the rematch" Ulrich said.

"I remember a pep rally game week featuring Governor Edwin Edwards, standing in front of the crowd and in a Superman-like move opened his dress shirt revealing a white T-shirt with the simple phrase "I hate the Falcons"... as the old saying goes, the crowd went wild, and the shirts were THE thing to wear to the game."

"30,000 Falcon fans traveled to New Orleans to see the fight in the Dome. It was the first sell out in the Dome in at least 5 years, and the game did not disappoint for fans of high scoring offenses."

"And it's the game where I learned a new expletive: 'Russell Erxleben' "

Ah, yes — who could forget Russell Erxleben, probably to this day STILL the "most hated" player in the team's entire 51-year history.

For starters, no one would have ever believed that the Saints franchise would have used their top pick (#11 overall) in the 1979 NFL Draft, on a kicker of all things.

That moment in time on May 3rd, 1979 would not only change Erxleben's life forever, but the lives of many Saints fans as well.

It also made him one of the more despised players in Saints history, even before he had a chance to set foot inside the Superdome for what would be an unforgettable professional debut later that September in that very same 1979 season opener against the hated arch-rival Atlanta Falcons.

The question still is asked to this day:

WHY did the Saints take a kicker, especially when they clearly needed to upgrade their defense that year, and even passed on future All-Pro defensive linemen Fred Smerlas (taken by Buffalo) and Mark Gastineau (taken by the Jets and became part of the famous "New York Sack Exchange")?

(Photo by Michael Zagaris/Getty Images)

Not to mention, the Saints in hindsight also passed on 2 eventual future 1st-ballot Hall of Famers on offense as well: University of Missouri tight end Kellen Winslow and Notre Dame QB Joe Montana.

Which is exactly why for older Saints fans, the selection of Erxleben is a decision that almost 40 years later, continues to live in infamy.

In 1978, the Saints had the unbelievably bad luck of losing starting kicker Rich Szaro, who was limited to four games that season because of a freak injury that occurred during a Week #2 game against the Green Bay Packers in Milwaukee (at Milwaukee County Stadium) in which Szaro, a left-footed kicker, hurt his kicking foot.

Fullback Tony Galbreath — who was the team's "emergency kicker" (because he had been the kicker on his high school football team) — kicked off for the remainder of the game and then the Saints were forced to use a litany of different kickers (Steve Mike-Mayer, John Leypoldt, and Tom Jurich) from Week #3 through Week #14, until Szaro eventually returned for the final 2 games of the season.

Nolan had remembered the direct impact that the team's kicking situation had upon that season right before, and so when the team's turn to pick came up at #11 overall, Nolan (with the blessing of GM Steve Rosenbloom) "pulled the trigger" on the pick of Erxleben.

NFL analysts and observers were completely stunned that the Saints had taken a kicker with their top pick, and it was a move that the team not only wasn't able to live down, but would also be one that they'd come to regret months later.

It was Erxleben who unwittingly became involved with the Saints-Falcons rivalry's storied history, as the two teams finally met on September 2, 1979.

I'm not going to retell the entire story of the 1979 season opener itself, simply because it deserves its own separate article to accurately capture the INSANITY that unfolded in those 60 minutes of play.

But when the clock ran out on regulation, the Saints and the Falcons found themselves tied at 34-34.

The Saints received the ball first, and were hoping to score almost immediately so that they could escape the Dome with a win.

Unfortunately for New Orleans, their first drive in overtime stalled and on 4th down at their own 22-yard line, the Saints sent the rookie punter / kicker out on the field to stand in punt formation.

But center / deep snapper John Watson snapped the ball too high and it sailed completely over Erxleben's head, by some 4 feet (and maybe more). 

The rookie panicked, and quickly tried to chase after the ball; which by this time had bounced and then rolled inside the 5-yard line toward the goal line, where Erxleben grabbed it and tried to toss a two-handed pass to avoid a possible safety.

Falcons special teams "ace" and rookie RB James Mayberry, who was bearing down fast on Erxleben, picked off the pass attempt out of the air and ran 6 yards untouched into the end zone for the unbelievable (and very unlikley) winning score.

Atlanta had gotten ANOTHER unbelievable win over the Saints by a score of 40-34, which then set off a near-riot in the Superdome's concourses after the game, when a large portion of angry Saints fans reacted to "trash talking" by Falcons fans (which is yet another different story for another time, since I was there to witness it).

Said Atlanta running back Bubba Bean after what was yet another unbelievable ending to a game in the Saints-Falcons rivalry:

"Maybe we ought to call (the play) Little Ben."

That feeling of despair that Saints fans felt after that game, is the same despair that a new generation of Saints fans is feeling going into this Sunday's game.

The general consensus at the moment is that the Saints outplayed the Falcons and overcame a ton of adversity with injuries along with a handful of questionable calls by referees who were officiating the game, and yet STILL had a chance to win the game.

That feeling that they were so close to getting it done but then suddenly having it ripped from your grasp, is exactly how the fans on an entire generation ago felt about those trio of losses to Atlanta in 1978 and the 1979 season opener.

Photo courtesy of The New Orleans Times-Picayune

And sure: though the circumstances were different, we certainly don't want a similar end result.

In just a little bit over 48 hours from now, the Saints will not only be playing in their biggest game of the 2017 season; but they'll also be playing in one of the biggest regular season games in their 51-year history.

The Saints can clinch a spot in the Playoffs by winning at least 1 of their 2 remaining games. They can win the NFC South Division Championship if they win both.

Meanwhile, another loss to Atlanta would FORCE New Orleans to win on the road at Tampa Bay in their final game on New Year's Eve (December 31st) to just even barely make it into the Playoffs.

I don't even have to tell you which of those scenarios that Saints fans are not only hoping for, but are expecting to see in what just might be THE BIGGEST game in Saints-Falcons rivalry history..........

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Saints News Network Editor / Featured Columnist Barry Hirstius is a 51-year old semi-retired journalist, former New Orleans-area sports editor, and columnist previously with several sites that exclusively cover the New Orleans Saints football team. Additionally, he is a recurring guest on a variety of local Sports Talk Radio programs. Barry is also a New Orleans native who grew up as a fan of the team while attending games as a young boy at the old Tulane Stadium in the early 1970’s, originally following and now covering the team for a span of over 40 plus years. And perhaps most importantly of all: he is the Grandfather of two beautiful young girls, Jasmine and Serenity.....

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