The MMQB presents NFL 95, a special project—unveiled every Wednesday from May through July—detailing 95 artifacts that tell the story of the NFL, as the league prepares to enter its 95th season. See the entire series here.
Atlanta’s transformation from a city of finicky football fans to fervent supporters, along with the Falcons’ shift from occasional playoff team to a perennial contender, can be traced to one white dinner napkin. Sound ridiculous? Consider what was written on it. Atlanta joined the NFL in 1965, making the playoffs six times under founding owner Rankin Smith (and later his son, Taylor). But the Falcons never recorded consecutive winning seasons, and the team’s lone Super Bowl appearance was marred by the arrest of safety Eugene Robinson for soliciting a prostitute the night before the game. Fan support was lukewarm.
In 2001, Taylor Smith decided to sell the franchise. Home Depot co-founder Arthur Blank was an eager suitor, and over dinner the men reached an agreement. To consummate the deal, Blank began writing the contract on a napkin. Initially, Smith was skeptical. Is this guy serious? Yet soon enough, both men scribbled their names on the makeshift contract, a $545 million deal. While the Falcons enjoyed immediate success under Blank, they endured a rough patch in the mid-2000s, especially after quarterback Michael Vick pleaded guilty for his role in operating a dogfighting ring. With an emphasis on drafting homegrown talent and strengthening community ties, the Falcons have emerged as a model franchise, leading the NFC in wins since 2008 while effortlessly selling out the Georgia Dome. The napkin, if you will, wiped a clean slate.
— Emily Kaplan