Atlanta Falcons: 30 greatest players in franchise history

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44. . QB. (1975-85). Steve Bartkowski. 12. player

  • Atlanta Falcons Ring of Honor (2004)
  • 2x Pro Bowl (1980-81)
  • NFL passing touchdowns leader (1980)
  • NFL passer rating leader (1983)
  • Led NFL in completion percentage in 1984 (67.3 percent)
  • Architect of Big Ben Right (1978) and Big Ben II (1983)

The Falcons had not had very much success in their early part of their history. While they had several good players, a lot of their issues came from lackluster quarterback play (Okay, Bob Berry was decent). That all changed when Atlanta used the No. 1 overall pick in the 1975 NFL Draft on California Golden Bears signal caller Steve Bartkowski.

So what if he was taken ahead of arguably the greatest running back of all-time in Walter Payton? Payton did play at the Division II level and Atlanta really needed a quarterback. Bartkowski started right away as a rookie in 1975, but didn’t have his breakout campaign until 1978. Coincidentally, that would be the first time Atlanta ended up making the NFC playoffs.

Coming off the Grits Blitz campaign of 1977, Bartkowski would go 8-5 as a starter and be the architect behind arguably the greatest regular season play in franchise history: Big Ben Right. Atlanta was riding a four-game winning streak with a playoff berth within reach. However, the Falcons would find themselves down 17-6 just outside the two-minute warning.

The Falcons would score, but were down by four points. They needed a touchdown to beat the emerging NFC West rival New Orleans Saints. Orchestrating an 80-yard drive, Bartkowski would call the play Big Ben Right, essentially a Hail Mary to the end zone as he scrambled to the right.

His 57-yard pass to the end zone would be tipped by wide receiver Wallace Francis to wide receiver Alfred Jackson. This win over New Orleans would ultimately catapult the Falcons’ first-ever playoff berth.

Over time, Bartkowski would improve as a passer for Atlanta. He made back-to-back Pro Bowls in 1980 and 1981, as he threw for over 30 touchdowns in both campaigns. Only 10 quarterbacks have ever thrown for 30 touchdowns in consecutive seasons at any point of his career.

Bartkowski would play with the Falcons through the 1985 NFL season. He led the team to its first three playoff berths in franchise history. In 1980, he led the league in touchdown passes. 1983 saw him led the league in passer rating.

That year featured Big Ben II, which Bartkowski beat another NFC West rival in the San Francisco 49ers on a Hail Mary. 1984 saw Bartkowski complete a league-best 67.3 percent of his passes for a terrible Falcons team.

Until Matt Ryan came along, Bartkowski was the franchise leader in pretty much all passing categories. He still holds the records for most interceptions in franchise history at 141. Bartkowski finished his Falcons career with a 55-66 record, completing 56.2 percent of his passes for 23,470 yards, 154 touchdowns and 141 interceptions.

He is in the College Football Hall of Fame after his brilliant career at Cal. In 2004, Bartkowski was one of the first four Falcons to be inducted into the Ring of Honor.