Former Falcons quarterback Steve Bartkowski was never truly appreciated outside of Atlanta.
Prior to 2008, when the discussion of great Atlanta Falcons quarterbacks was opened up, Steve Bartkowski would inevitably become a name that was discussed.
When you discuss Falcons quarterbacks now, one name immediately comes to mind.
And rightfully so. Ryan has broken every conceivable Falcons franchise record for a quarterback, has won a league MVP award, and has led the Falcons to several NFC Championship Game appearances and one Super Bowl.
No other quarterback in the history of the Atlanta Falcons even came close to what Matty Ice has accomplished, and he’s still not done.
But what about Steve Bartkowski?
He played on losing teams, he suffered numerous injuries, he never won a Super Bowl or even advanced to a conference championship game. All tell-tale signs of a failed quarterback, right? Unless you were a fan of the Falcons during the 1970s and 80s, you probably don’t really think about Bartkowski as being elite or praise-worthy.
He’s a footnote to many fans … “Oh yeah, that guy who could literally throw the ball over 100 yards?” … but he should be admired and revered. Not just by Atlanta fans, but by anyone who appreciates great quarterback play.
Not because Bart (as he was commonly known) didn’t make mistakes, have bad games, or become mired in terrible seasons. But because of what he had to endure playing for a franchise like the Falcons during that era.
To look at Bartkowski’s stats without ever having seen him play a down of football, a casual fan might think “decent quarterback, thew too many interceptions”. His 24,124 career passing yards lands him 80th all-time in NFL history. More than Roger Staubach, less than Jim Harbaugh.
A respectable career.
But Steve Bartkowski’s career was so much more than just respectable. Yes, In terms of the vast spectrum of NFL history, it was a good career, but given where he played and the adversity he had to face, his career was actually nothing short of miraculous.
Taken with the first overall pick in 1975 out of Cal, Bartkowski was looked at as the guy who would change the fortunes of a nine-year-old team who — until that point — had only two winning seasons, had never even come close to a playoff berth and who had just fired legendary coach Norm Van Brocklin.
Hey, but no pressure, right?
Bartkowski and the Falcons in quick recap form: 11 seasons, three winning seasons, three playoff berths (one of them a gift from the NFL in the strike-shortened 1982 season), and one division championship.
Twice the Falcons were in a position to make a serious Super Bowl run, and twice they were thwarted via 4th quarter playoff comebacks by the Dallas Cowboys.
There were never two consecutive winning seasons during this stretch.
That’s hardly changing the fortunes of a franchise.
But he did. He not only provided more wins, more excitement, and actual hope for fans, but he put the Falcons on the map.
Steve Bartkowski’s greatness should be tied to more than just wins
There seems to be little appreciation for what Steve Bartkowski had to endure, both physically and mentally, and how without him, the Falcons may have been a team to fold its tents and either dissolve or relocate to another city (and prior to 1975, there had already been talk of that happening).
Why does his career pale in comparison to some of his contemporaries, and why couldn’t Atlanta win more with such a generational talent at the helm? In football, one man can only do so much. It takes more than just a great quarterback to sustain franchise success in the NFL.
During his career, Bartkowski was sacked on 9.3 percent of his dropbacks, with that number ballooning into double-digits in five different seasons (including a massacre-like 17.6 percent in 1977).
Some contemporaries of Bart by comparison; Dan Fouts is at 5.4 percent, Brian Sipe is at 6.1 percent, Danny White is at 7.6 percent, and Joe Montana is at 5.5 percent.
Matt Ryan has only been dropped on 5.1 percent of his pass attempts, considered high by today’s standards.
In short, Bartkowski took a pounding — especially his knees — every season. The rules were much different during his era, with almost zero protection for quarterbacks and none of the player-safety rules the league currently has in place.
Seeing Bartkowski crumpled on the ground, surrounded by teammates and trainers was an all-too-common sight for Falcons fans. He underwent seven knee operations while he played, and four more after retiring.
Bart spent a lot of time trying to heal.
Despite that, he refused to just give in and quit. By 1982, when Bartkowski was in his Pro Bowl prime, his knees had all the stability of Tinker Toys, yet he persevered and statistically put together some fine seasons.
How important was Bartkowski to the Falcons?
The Atlanta quarterback missed 42 games due to injury over 11 seasons. The Falcons went 14-28 in those games. Safe to say, his presence mattered on the field. Even when battered and hobbling, Bartkowski, his 6’4 frame, and the howitzer attached to it was an intimidating sight for opponents.
Yet when you hear the great quarterbacks of that era mentioned, Bartkowski’s name is rarely uttered other than by a few stray Falcons fans who witnessed and recognized his greatness.
His arm was as good, if not better than any quarterback in the league at that time. Nobody, but nobody, could throw a tight, spiraling, deep pass and hit receivers in stride the way Bartkowski could. His arm elevated the game of late-round pick or undrafted receivers like Wallace Francis, Alfred Jackson, and Alfred Jenkins.
If Fran Tarkenton was “The Mad Scrambler” and Ken Stabler was “The Snake”, then Bartkowski should have been known as “The Professor”.
Back shoulder throws and corner fades? Practically invented by Bartkowski. Watching him play was like watching a scientist confidently mix the ingredients to a never before seen formula.
It was at times, amazing to behold.
But his talent and determination were betrayed in the trenches, where Atlanta’s offensive and defensive lines often found themselves out-manned, putting Bartkowski and the rest of the team in impossible situations.
Outside of the 1980 season, when the Falcons may very well have had the best collection of talent in the league, it’s a miracle the team won as many games as they did (and absolutely would not have without Bartkowski).
He transformed the franchise and probably kept the Smith family from divesting themselves of the team.
Mission accomplished, Bart.
Steve Bartkowski will likely never be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, but that doesn’t mean he wasn’t a Hall of Fame player. He was all that and more in Atlanta.