Suddenly, the Atlanta Falcons were imploding during Super Bowl LI in Houston right before the very eyes of John Smoltz. From his second-row seat at NRG Stadium, he was close enough to scream, "Oh, shoot," into the ears of the guys blowing a 25-point lead. Instead, he said as much to his pals nearby as old memories rattled around his head.
Not these memories, ranging from Smoltz starring for the Atlanta Braves as one of the most clutch starting pitchers of all-time to his stint out of nowhere as an unhittable closer to his return as a starter with a fastball that continued to smoke its way to the Baseball Hall of Fame.
I'm talking about those other memories.
The excruciating ones.
"Yep [pause, sigh]. Brutal," Smoltz told me over the phone from his home in Atlanta, easing into a laugh. He was referring to two things: His absolutely loaded Braves team doing the unfathomable by blowing the 1996 World Series despite winning the first two games at Yankee Stadium, and the Falcons clobbering the New England Patriots on Sunday on both sides of the ball before turning a 28-3 lead near the end of the third quarter into an overtime defeat of 34-28 that still doesn't make sense.
"After all these years, the one that just does not leave the gut is 1996, and these things stay with you," Smoltz said of that whole World Series, but Jim Leyritz's game-tying three-run homer during Game 4 at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium sent the Braves reeling the most. "Losing something like that is a difference maker for the history of the organization. Hey, I'm telling you. We win that World Series, we win four out of five. That's why 1996 hurts so much. No doubt in my mind, because we have back-to-back titles with that victory, and we keep the key people together. I mean, we were up 6-0 in Game 4."
The Falcons were up 25 in the third quarter. Still, at the time, most folks were estimating the size of the parade already planned for Peachtree Street in downtown Atlanta, but Smoltz wasn't one of them. We're back to 6-0 in Game 4, always resting near the front of his forehead. Plus, he just sensed trouble for his adopted NFL team. That was despite the Patriots missing an extra point after closing their deficit to 28-9 and watching a subsequent onside kick end up in the hands of the Falcons heading into the fourth quarter.
"When Atlanta has it right there and didn't score, that's the first time I turned to my buddies and said, 'Oh, shoot,'" Smoltz said, and he had several more moments uttering similar phrases. As the game tightened, and then tightened again, he kept watching the Falcons panic with weird calls and sloppy plays, while Patriots quarterback Tom Brady stayed cool in search of a fifth Super Bowl ring. Then, courtesy of those memories, Smoltz kept thinking about the worst thing that happens for teams that blow it big time.
"It's the plane flight back home," Smoltz said. "As I was telling my buddies as we were leaving the stadium, there won't be a worse plane flight, period. You've got nothing to do but to reflect. You're just sitting there. You're numb. At least some of the people onboard are trying to figure out what the heck just happened. In football, wow. Who knows what happens to the Falcons now? Golly, that's such a, that's just such a ..."
Smoltz didn't finish, but since I've known him forever, I'll do it for him. This collapse for the ages by the Falcons is just such a reminder that three major professional sports teams in Atlanta have their own Curse of the Bambino or Curse of the Billy Goat. In addition to 1996, there were all of those other times during the Braves' Major League-record streak of 14 consecutive division titles through the 1990s and beyond when they couldn't grab the ultimate prize beyond the 1995 World Series. The Hawks had Basketball Hall of Famer Dominique Wilkins, along with a nice supporting cast of Doc Rivers, Kevin Willis and Spud Webb, but it didn't matter. Since the Hawks moved to Atlanta in 1968, they haven't been close to a league championship. The Falcons became an NFL expansion team for the city in 1966, and after decades of mediocrity, they shocked folks in the 1998 season with their only other Super Bowl appearance. They were embarrassed by the Denver Broncos. Then came Sunday, which is the worst of them all.
"I mean, I was just coming off the Cubs World Series win, and the storyline couldn't have been any bigger between the Cubs and the Indians, because somebody had to win, and somebody had to lose," said Smoltz of the Cubs grabbing their first World Series championship last fall in 108 years. Smoltz followed every pitch, because he took his greatness from the playing field to the broadcast booth, where he does splendid work as the primary TV analyst for FOX during its national baseball games. "The storyline for what I've lived through for 25 years here in Atlanta is that Atlanta doesn't get many favorable comments when it comes to sports. So the backdrop is, I wanted so badly for the Falcons to win, not only for the guys but for the city."
Which is significant coming from Smoltz, who is Mr. State of Michigan, especially regarding the Lions, the Tigers, the Pistons, the Red Wings and all things Michigan State. When the Falcons began streaking in the second half of the regular season, he hugged the team, and it didn't hurt that he is friends with Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan. So, for just the second time ever, Smoltz attended a Falcons home game when they crushed the Green Bay Packers in the NFC Championship Game. After that, he got Super Bowl tickets through his bosses at FOX, and for the longest time, he liked what he saw.
Then again, so did everybody else. Into the third quarter, Ryan had a perfect passer rating, and the defense brutalized Brady with five sacks and endless pressure.
Just like that, Brady became Brady again.
"When the game starts to get closer as an athlete, it's such an experience to see the hype and the emotion, and the only hope you have of winning games of that magnitude is to play it in slow motion," Smoltz said. "Guess who everyone talks about who plays it that way the best?"
Oh, it's Brady, but the same was true of Smoltz, owner of a postseason record of 15-4 with a 2.67 ERA. He nearly struck out a batter per inning (199 in 209 innings pitched) when October came around, and he did it with poise under pressure. Let's just say Ryan doesn't resemble Brady or Smoltz after nine years in the NFL, and I'm talking about the league's MVP during the regular season who completed 17 of 23 passes in the Super Bowl for 284 yards and two touchdowns for a ridiculous passer rating of 144.1. If you're wondering, a perfect passer rating is 158.3. It's just that Brady had his big mistake in the second quarter with a pick-six, when the game wasn't on the line. Ryan's came in the fourth after he led the Falcons away from a potential game-winning field goal from close range. He took a sack instead of throwing the ball away, and in contrast to Brady and Smoltz, his world went from slow to fast during the clutch.
"Brady and the other side have been through this type of atmosphere so many times before," Smoltz said of the Patriots making their seventh Super Bowl trip under the Bill Belichick-Brady regime, with those five victories. "There's so much to be said for living during that moment, and not being out of the moment. It's not an out-of-the-body experience. It's feeling more comfortable as the game goes on and when things get crazier. I have this saying, 'When you start thinking about things other than what you prepare for and execute, you've got a chance for mistakes and problems.' Everything starts weighing on you, especially that emotional change of momentum. "
So you just lost the 1996 World Series or the 2017 Super Bowl, and you're trying to make sleep your friend sooner rather than later.
What do you do?
"As long as the day was for the Super Bowl, it seemed like it was over in a flash, and I can only empathize with what that feels like when it sinks in for a player for the Falcons," Smoltz said. "What just happened, and how did it happen? That's what you're thinking. Then everybody's got the answers about why did this happen, and why it shouldn't have happened, and who gets the blame? It's one of the worst feelings in the world. You can only make a determination as an athlete that you're going to find something to learn from the experience."
I'm guessing that philosophy works. For verification, check out Smoltz's plaque in Cooperstown or his Sports Emmy that's surely on the way.