The Atlanta Journal-Constitution is counting down the Top 10 moments in Atlanta Falcons history during the franchise’s 50th anniversary season. No. 5 takes us to the 1975 NFL Draft, when Atlanta made a franchise-changing decision to move up to the No. 1 overall pick to draft quarterback Steve Bartkowski.
Date: Jan. 28, 1975
The significance: With the first overall pick in the 1975 draft, the Atlanta Falcons used a franchise changing trade to move up and draft quarterback Steve Bartkowski.
The Falcons had traded All-Pro offensive lineman George Kunz and the third overall pick in the draft, which turned out to be offensive guard Ken Huff, to the Colts for the first overall pick and a sixth-round pick, which was linebacker Fulton Kuykendall. Bartkowski, at 6-foot-4 with long blond hair and coming out of the University of California, became the face of the franchise and would go on to set every passing record in Falcons history, which included 23,470 passing yards and 154 touchdown passes during his 11-year career. Those records stood for over 20 years until Matt Ryan came along.
On being the No. 1 overall pick: “It [going No. 1 overall] was exciting. It was a culmination of a lifelong dream,” said Bartkowski. “Ever since I was six years old I wanted to be a professional athlete. I didn’t know whether it was going to be football or baseball but I knew it would be one of them.”
On his college career: Bartkowski led the nation in passing his senior year at the University of California, Berkeley, with 2,580 yards with 12 touchdowns. He was named a consensus All-American his senior year and showcased his athletic ability in the spring by adding All-America baseball honors as a first-baseman for the Golden Bears.
Establishing a winning attitude: After Bartkowski was drafted, he was headed to a Falcons organization that only had two winning seasons in its nine years. In his first season at the helm, he threw for 1,662 yards and was named Rookie of the Year by Pro Football Weekly/Pro Football Writers Association and Sporting News. The offense struggled in the 1977 season, but Atlanta boasted one of the best defenses in League history, ‘The Gritz Blitz’. The unit allowed only 129 points in their 14-game season. The mark of 9.2 points allowed per game is the best in modern NFL history.
On playing with the Gritz Blitz: “They were fun to watch. They were flying around, it was exciting to be with the kind of guys we had playing. There weren’t any stars, just a collective group with a lot of interchangeable pieces, just getting it done week in and week out.”
New heights: Bartkowski solidified his role as starting quarterback in 1978 and led the organization to its first playoff appearance and playoff win. In the opening round of the 1978 playoffs the Falcons defeated the Philadelphia Eagles 14-13 behind Bartkowski’s two touchdown passes in the final five minutes. Atlanta lost to Dallas 27-20 in the Divisional Round. The 1978 and 1979 seasons proved to be the launching pad for Bartkowski’s career and in 1980 he threw for 3,544 yards and tossed a career-high 31 touchdowns. That year would lead to Atlanta’s first division title in franchise history
Ring of Honor: Bartkowski was honored by the Falcons in 2004 with an induction into the prestigious Ring of Honor. “It was really cool, I think there’s a lot of reasons that you play the game,’’ he said. “More so than ever now money is one of them, but it was never a motivator for me. Respectability, to be the kind of teammate that could be counted on to give you everything he had every Sunday. To set the bar in such a way that your teammates followed and that was always the most important thing to me. To have my caricature hanging from the Dome was just icing on the cake for me that you did a pretty good job with what you had.”
Catch a new Top 10 play in Falcons history every week through the end of the season.
No. 10: Too Legit to Quit; First playoff win on the road
No. 9: Claude Humphrey gets call to Canton
No. 8: Playoff win in the ‘Frozen Tundra’
No. 7: Matt Ryan’s first NFL pass
No. 6: Hail Mary pass known as’Big Ben II’
No. 5: The Trade to get ‘Bart’