Hail Mary. Last ditch. Run and heave. Trip set.
Every team has it in their playbook. Bunch receivers to the right or left, empty the backfield, go max protection on the quarterback, and then everyone runs a fly route. Said quarterback then heaves the oblong pigskin as high and deep as he can, hoping for a miracle endzone catch, tip-drill grab, or pass interference call.
The Atlanta Falcons version was known simply as “Big Ben”.
It was 1978, and the Falcons had never been to the playoffs in their thirteen year history. But second year head coach Leeman Bennett was determined to change history.
After a 7-7 record in 1977, the Falcons felt for the first time they had all the pieces in place for a truly successful team. Quarterback Steve Bartkowski – the 1975 rookie of the year – was stepping into his fourth season, with a flock of quality receivers, and a strong backfield. The defense, under Jerry Glanville, was much improved, and there was an air of confidence in the Falcons locker room that hadn’t been there in the past.
But things didn’t start off so well. The Falcons went 2-4 in the first six games, and it looked like Atlanta was going to miss the post-season party again. But coming home to play a 1-5 Detroit Lions squad can do a lot for any team’s confidence, and it was the beginning of a turnaround for the Falcons.
Atlanta reeled off four straight wins, including three wins over division opponents. With the Falcons sitting at 6-4, it was time for a trip to Louisiana to play the hated New Orleans Saints.
So on Nov. 12, 1978, over 70,000 people gathered in the New Orleans Superdome and watched as Atlanta pulled off one of the greatest miracles in Falcons history.
Atlanta was down 17 -13 with only seconds left in the game. The Falcons lined up with receivers Wallace Francis, Alfred Jenkins and Alfred Jackson off to the right, and then Steve Bartkowski threw it up for grabs. Incredibly, Francis tipped the ball to Jackson, who proceeded to sprint into the end zone for the game-winning score. The Falcons won 20-17, and the 57-yard touchdown play was the birth of “Big Ben”
Two weeks later, the Saints came to Atlanta hoping to even the score. And in a sense, they were right. The score did end up the same as before, only once again in the Falcons favor.
The penultimate play of the game looked like a carbon copy of the game in New Orleans, only this time Bartkowski’s pass was intercepted by Saints defensive back Mo Spencer. Then, inexplicably, Spencer was called for pass interference, giving the Falcons the ball on the 1 yard line. The Falcons ran it in on the next play as time expired, and the previous pass play became known as “Big Ben II.”
The NFL later recognized that the pass interference call was incorrect, and rules for defenders making a legitimate play on the ball were relaxed in future seasons as a result of this play.
The Falcons finished the season with a 9-7 record, and went on to the wild card round to defeat the Philadelphia Eagles in the franchises first ever playoff game.