ATLANTA — Larry Munson, the late and revered University of Georgia broadcaster – the Peach State’s version of Dave Niehaus – used a phrase that could describe the task facing Atlanta sports fans this morning.
“Hunker down,” Munson would implore the Bulldogs’ defense during a goal-line stand in the fourth quarter. “I know it’s asking a lot, you guys, but hunker down.”
Although the Atlanta Falcons are awaiting their playoff opener today, the division-round game against the Seattle Seahawks has the urgent feel of a goal-line stand in the final minute.
That the Falcons are looking to avoid their fourth one-and-done playoff exit in five years accounts for some of the trepidation. Well, OK, more than some.
The regular-season record of Falcons coach Mike Smith is 56-24, second-best in the NFL since 2008. But if Smith’s playoff record falls to 0-4, it’s not inconceivable general manager Thomas Dimitroff could replace the franchise’s leader in career coaching victories.
The sense of angst around Atlanta goes beyond Smith and the Falcons. Over the past year and a half, events – both on the field and off – have compelled sports fans to fear Murphy’s Law: If something can go wrong, it will.
• Atlanta’s NHL team was sold in the summer of 2011 to a group that relocated the Thrashers to Winnipeg and renamed them the Jets. While hockey never has been an easy sell south of the Rust Belt, Atlanta is full of transplants from the Northeast. Hockey was thought to be viable when the NHL expanded here with the Flames in 1972.
Seventeen years after the Flames left for Calgary, hockey still was thought to be viable when the Thrashers were born as an expansion team. But front-office squabbling and an inept management combined to put the franchise over the fiscal cliff: It lost $130 million between 2005 and 2011.
Hockey lovers in Atlanta have come to grips with the realty they now must travel to Nashville, Tenn., or Raleigh, N.C., to watch the sport at its highest level. Atlanta is 0-for-2 with the NHL. It will be a long time before it has a chance to go 1-for-3.
• The 2011 Atlanta Braves qualified for the playoffs, which is not news: Since 1991, the playoffs have been held without the Braves only four times.
But the way the Braves were eliminated was a controversy that will be remembered longer, and more vividly, than Atlanta’s first and only World Series title of 1995.
Trailing 6-3 in the eighth inning of their one-game wild-card playoff against St. Louis, the Braves had runners at first and second with one out when Andrelton Simmons hit a pop-up. Cardinals shortstop Pete Kozma drifted back on the play as left fielder Matt Holliday jogged in to try to make the catch.
Kozma froze, yielding to Holliday. Holliday froze, yielding to Kozma. The ball fell for a hit, apparently loading the bases with one out.
Or apparently not.
Left field umpire Sam Holbrooke made a belated, poorly judged decision on the play – he implemented the infield-fly rule – which pretty much extinguished both the rally and the Braves’ season.
Turner Field fans are not known for their rowdy behavior, but they responded to Holbrooke’s call with a cascade of cups and bottles that took 19 minutes to clean up.
• The bad vibe from the 2012 baseball playoffs continued into Georgia’s Southeastern Conference championship football game against Alabama. With no timeouts remaining and six seconds on the clock, Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray had the Bulldogs, down 32-28, inside the ’Bama 10-yard line.
Murray threw a last pass that was tipped but retrievable, and receiver Chris Conley – acting on impulse – caught the ball at the 5 instead of allowing it to fall incomplete. Conley was tackled, and Alabama, instead of Georgia, went on to dominate Notre Dame for the national championship.
The relocation of the Thrashers, the ball that wasn’t caught in the Braves’ wild-card game, the ball that was caught in the Bulldogs’ SEC title game: No wonder Atlanta fans are hunkering down in anticipation of the Seahawks.
Atlanta is on a roll, but it’s a wrong-way roll.
Last Wednesday, former Braves star Dale Murphy, among the most beloved athletes ever to wear an Atlanta uniform, was rejected in his 15th and final year of eligibility for the Hall of Fame.
Figures. Who can serve as a more appropriate example of the Murphy’s Law climate pervading Atlanta than a guy named Murphyfirstname.lastname@example.org