Wiedmer: Will Falcons' awful error spare others from making the same mistake?

Dallas Cowboys cornerback C.J. Goodwin (29) and Atlanta Falcons wide receiver Olamide Zaccheaus (17) watch an onside kick during an NFL football game in Arlington, Texas, Sunday, Sept. 20, 2020. (AP Photo/Ron Jenkins)

Could the Atlanta Falcons' loss become the Howard Hustlin' Tigers' gain?

If Howard coach John Starr has anything to say in the matter, it should.

After watching the Falcons inexplicably fail to so much as attempt to field a late onside kick against Dallas on Sunday, a stunning mental blunder that allowed the Cowboys to soon boot a game-winning field goal as the game clock struck zero, Starr immediately turned his attention to Monday's practice.

"Yes, we have special teams work every day," he said on Monday morning. "Yes, we'll cover that. We don't want that to happen to us."

A mile or so away at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, second-year Mocs coach Rusty Wright was thinking the same thing.

"Yes, I watched it," said Wright, who's been a Falcons fan most of his life, having grown up just north of Augusta. Ga., in South Carolina.

"I couldn't believe what I was seeing. I was in shock."

But just like Starr, he intends to make sure the Mocs learn quickly from the Falcons' grievous error in judgement.

"I was joking about it with a couple of our players during this morning's workout," said Wright, whose team will play but one game this season, on October 24 at Western Kentucky, due to the coronavirus pandemic canceling the Southern Conference season.

"But we'll definitely go over it. You'll face something like that two or three times a year. So we need to cover it again."

For Starr, there was a funny side to Atlanta's 40-39 loss to Dallas.

"My wife's a lifelong Cowboys fan," he said. "My son's a huge Falcons fan. There was quite a texting war going on at my house."

But for Wright, whose first Falcons experience was a 25-7 win over the Green Bay Packers inside Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium in October of 1979 - "That was back when they'd still have the dirt infield in the middle of the football field from the Braves playing there," he recalled - it was hard to swallow watching six Falcons stand as if frozen while Dallas fell on the onside kick just as it reached its 10-yard minimum to be recovered by the kicking team.

"I always tell our players to get down in a Derek Jeter crouch," said Wright of the former New York Yankees great. "If you're standing straight up, like a lot of the Falcons were, you're not ready to dive on the ball. But if you're crouched like Jeter always was in the infield, you're ready to pounce on the football. If he'd been out there Sunday, Derek Jeter wouldn't have let that happen."

Of course, as Wright was also quick to point out, the football is oblong in shape. It takes odd bounces despite the best intentions to prevent such actions.

"When I was coaching at Chattooga, we had a kicker who shanked a kickoff off his foot in such a way that the ball actually went backward." recalled Starr. "Our kickoff team was kind of like the Falcons on Sunday. They just stared at the ball for a few seconds. No one knew what to do. Eventually, one of our guys fell on it, but it was still the other team's football."

Wright yearly shows his players a clip from a Football Championship Subdivision playoff game between Northern Iowa and Wofford where the receiving team, in this case Wofford, ended up looking like the Falcons against the Cowpokes.

"Northern Iowa had scored to pull within 21-14," said Wright. "They kick off into the end zone and the Wofford player fails to catch it and take a knee. He lets the ball roll, thinking it's like a punt. No, it's a live ball on a kickoff and Northern Iowa ran down and fell on it for a touchdown. Just like that, Wofford went from a 21-7 lead to a 21-all tie in a span of a few seconds."

It will probably take a span of several seaons for Falcons Nation to get over this one. But because of the Dirty Birds' blunder, it will hopefully take at least as long for football teams everywhere to make the same mistake.

Still, one day after what is being judged as the second-worst collapse in Falcons history - but still way behind that blown 28-3 third quarter lead against the New England Patriots in the 2017 Super Bowl - Wright was philosophical about the defeat.

"I've seen it too many times before," he sighed. "And not just the Falcons. I've also always been a fan of the Braves and Hawks. This was just another in a long list of disappointing losses by Atlanta teams."

Now we'll see if it can be a learning tool to prevent such losses elsewhere.

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com.