This happened. And it happened on the morning after the Falcons were eliminated in the NFL playoffs in 1982. Leeman Bennett was the coach, Eddie LeBaron the GM and Tom Braatz the third man in line. Out front was Rankin Smith Jr., then occupying the presidency.
It was a season shortened by a strike, from Sept. 19 to Nov. 21. The Falcons resumed action by winning four games, including a defeat of New Orleans in Atlanta. In the final game on the schedule they were blown out in New Orleans, 35-6, a team they had shut out three weeks before. That set up the divisional match against Minnesota in Minneapolis.
Steve Bartkowski had had a mystifying game in New Orleans, and started on the same level against the Vikings. So dismal a performance that Bennett benched him in the second quarter and brought in the backup, Mike Morosco. The Falcons rallied. (If I’m not mistaken, this was a game in which Mick Luckhurst, the placekicker, scored a touchdown.) There is no mistake about what follows.
After watching the game on television, I sensed that something dire was afoot, and early the next morning I headed for the Falcons camp in Suwanee, arriving just after 8 o’clock. Shortly thereafter, Leeman Bennett came in, with a stern expression on his face. I followed him into his office, no one else around, as far as I knew. After a short exchange, and before I could even ask the question, Leeman said (and there was anger in his eyes): “He’ll never take another snap for me.” There was no doubt of whom he spoke. For two games in a row, Bartkowski had been out of sync, both at New Orleans and in Minnesota. Sadly, Leeman was right. Bartkowski never did take another snap for him, but not for reasons of Bennett’s own choosing.
You see, on the plane from Minneapolis, Rankin Jr. had blown a gasket, well fueled by beverages, and ordered that Bennett be fired. LeBaron, the loyal servant—concerned about his own job—and backed by Braatz, followed up. Instead of Bartkowski taking the charge, LeBaron announced that Leeman Bennett was fired.
By this time, other reporters may have arrived—I’m not certain—but I had been the only one who heard Leeman Bennett make his declaration. The Falcons had advanced to the playoffs the season before, lost in the closing minutes to Dallas at old Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium, and made the playoffs again in ’82.
Leeman landed at Tampa Bay later, but never was the same coach again. No one had ever taken the Falcons that far into the postseason, and wouldn’t again until Dan Reeves arrived—and now under the keen leadership of Mike Smith.