Former Atlanta Falcons coach Dan Reeves dies at 77

AP photo by Ric Feld /Atlanta Falcons coach Dan Reeves adjusts his headset at the start of a game against the Detroit Lions at the Georgia Dome on Dec. 22, 2002.

ATLANTA - Dan Reeves' talents off the football field were recognized early on by Tom Landry.

Reeves was still suiting up for the Dallas Cowboys when Landry, the franchise's longtime head coach, made him an assistant during the twilight of his playing career.

At 37, Reeves landed his first head coaching job, pulled off a trade to acquire quarterback John Elway and built the Denver Broncos into a powerhouse that reached the Super Bowl three times in a four-year span. At the final stop of nearly four uninterrupted decades in the NFL, Reeves guided the Atlanta Falcons to their first Super Bowl.

The only blemish on his record: four blowout losses in the big game.

Reeves, who did win a ring as a player with the Cowboys but will be remembered mostly for a long, largely successful coaching career marred by those four defeats, died Saturday of complications from dementia. The Georgia native was 77.

A statement released by his family through former Falcons media relations director Aaron Salkin said Reeves died "peacefully and surrounded by his loving family at his home in Atlanta." Reeves is survived by wife Pam - his high school sweetheart - and children Dana, Lee and Laura as well as grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

Reeves was a versatile running back who played a key role in the Cowboys becoming an NFL powerhouse in the 1960s under Landry, the team's first head coach who held that post through the 1988 season. But his own coaching career - stretching over three teams and 23 seasons - is where he truly left his mark on the league.

Including a stint with the New York Giants, Reeves totaled 190 regular-season coaching victories - ninth in NFL history - but he joined the Buffalo Bills' Marv Levy and the Minnesota Vikings' Bud Grant as the only coaches to go 0-4 in the Super Bowl, with all of Reeves' losses by at least 15 points.

Even so, Elway called him "a winner" - words even more striking coming from a Pro Football Hall of Famer whose bitter falling out with Reeves over offensive philosophy led to the coach being fired by the Broncos.

"The football world lost a heck of a coach and man," said Elway, who now runs the football operations in Denver. "I owe a lot to him - he was instrumental in my career and growth as a quarterback. We were able to win a lot of football games together."

After taking over as Denver's coach in 1981, Reeves worked out a blockbuster trade to acquire Elway after the former Stanford star was drafted No. 1 overall by the Baltimore Colts in 1983. The quarterback became the centerpiece of a team that won three AFC titles and five AFC West Division crowns and earned six trips to the playoffs during Reeves' 12-year tenure.

Denver never won it all under Reeves, though, losing 39-20 to the Giants to cap the 1986 season, 42-10 to the Washington Redskins the following year and 55-10 to the San Francisco 49ers to cap the 1989 season - still the most lopsided loss in Super Bowl history. Despite those defeats and a bitter parting after the 1992 season, Reeves is remembered fondly in Denver, where he was inducted into the Broncos Ring of Honor in 2014.

Reeves' relationship with Elway deteriorated over the quarterback's desire to open up the offense. Believing that Elway and offensive coordinator Mike Shanahan were working together to undermine his authority, Reeves fired Shanahan for insubordination after the 1991 season. That only worsened the relationship with Elway, leading to Reeves' firing a year later.

"We may not have always seen eye to eye, but the bottom line is we won a lot of games together," Elway said. "Looking back, what I appreciate about Dan is how he gradually brought me along to help me reach my potential."

Reeves took over the Giants in 1993 and led the team to the playoffs in his first season, his only postseason appearance with New York. He was fired after four seasons, but Giants co-owner and CEO John Mara remembered Reeves as "one of the finest men I have ever been around in this business."

Reeves moved on to the Falcons, taking his coaching career back to the Peach State, where he was a high school standout in Americus, Georgia, before playing quarterback for South Carolina in college.

In Atlanta, he brought a sense of professionalism to a franchise that had experienced little success for most of its history. It paid off in his second season in 1998, when Reeves guided a rollicking team nicknamed the "Dirty Birds" to a 14-2 record and the franchise's first trip to the Super Bowl.

After Reeves underwent emergency heart surgery, the Falcons beat the heavily favored Minnesota Vikings in an overtime thriller at the Metrodome to win the NFC championship, prompting the coach to attempt the arm-flapping dance star running back Jamal Anderson and other players had made the team's trademark.

"My guy!" Anderson wrote on Twitter. "I am going to miss DR, a first class human, and a most excellent coach. My thoughts and prayers are with Pam, his family. A family man first. Respect & love, RIP Coach Reeves!"

Reeves again came up short of a championship, losing 34-19 to Elway and a Broncos team coached by Shanahan.

Reeves engineered another huge trade that brought quarterback Michael Vick to the Falcons as a No. 1 draft pick. The veteran coach made his final playoff appearance in the 2002 season, when Atlanta became the first road team to win a playoff game against the Green Bay Packers, but Vick was injured during the 2003 preseason and Reeves was fired after Atlanta won just three of its first 13 games.

He ended his coaching career - and 39 uninterrupted years in the NFL - with a record of 190-165-2. Counting his nine playoff appearances, his record was 201-174-2.

Reeves' supporters have pushed for him to be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Marty Schottenheimer is the only coach not in the Hall of Fame with more wins than Reeves (200), but he never reached the Super Bowl. Grant (158) and Levy (143) never won a Super Bowl and had fewer wins than Reeves, but both are in the Hall of Fame.

Said Elway: "When you look at all Dan did in this league with all the success, all the Super Bowls and all the wins, I don't think there is any question he belongs in the Pro Football Hall of Fame."

Reeves remained in Atlanta after his retirement, most notably serving as an adviser to Georgia State University when it launched a football program that now plays in the Sun Belt Conference.

As a head coach, he was known for his gruff, no-nonsense approach and an offensive philosophy that favored a physical running game. But he had plenty of success with two of the game's most dynamic offensive players, Elway and Vick, defying those who labeled him as old-fashioned and out of touch.

With his distinctive Southern drawl, Reeves could be honest to a fault, such as when he spoke openly of the rift that led to his departure in Denver - and opened up a lot of old wounds - during the lead-up to the Falcons facing the Broncos in the Super Bowl.

"There's still a lot of hurt that won't ever go away," Reeves said. "You never will forget those things."

He rarely held grudges, though, even with members of the media he had clashed with. In his later years, he would gladly take phone calls to discuss the issues of the day, once joking when a reporter identified himself: "OK, what did I do wrong now?"

Former Giants running back Rodney Hampton praised Reeves for the way he was treated during their four years together in New York.

"He taught us how to be men," Hampton said in a story on the team's website. "When I first got there, we used to always stay at hotels (the night before home games). He told us, 'You're grown men, you should know what to do to take care of yourself.' So when he got there, we stayed at our own place, our own house."

Hampton, a former University of Georgia standout, rushed for 4,161 yards with Reeves as coach, even though the running back endured persistent knee trouble.

"He took care of me," Hampton said. "He would understand that I can't lift all the weights and I can't do all that running in practice. He would always say, 'Hey, you do what you've got to do on Sundays, and I'll take care of you during the week.'"

Daniel Edward Reeves was born in Rome, Georgia, but grew up in Americus, in the southwestern part of the state. He was a three-year starter at quarterback for South Carolina from 1962-64 and also played baseball for the Gamecocks.

Better known as a runner than a passer, Reeves was not drafted. He signed with the Cowboys, who initially wanted him to play safety but wound up moving him to running back. He emerged as one of the team's key players just as the Cowboys were establishing themselves as what became known as "America's Team."

He started all 14 games at halfback in 1966, leading the Cowboys in rushing with 757 yards and eight touchdowns. Dallas made its first playoff appearance but lost to the Packers in a 34-27 shootout for the NFL championship, missing a chance to play in the first Super Bowl.

The following season, Reeves rushed for 603 yards and five touchdowns, again starting every game, as the Cowboys made another run to the playoffs. Again, they were thwarted by Green Bay one win shy of the Super Bowl, losing to the Packers on a touchdown in the closing seconds of the famed "Ice Bowl" at frigid Lambeau Field in Wisconsin.

A knee injury in 1968 forced Reeves into a more limited role the rest of his career. Landry recognized his abilities off the field, asking Reeves to serve as a player-coach while runners such as Calvin Hill and Duane Thomas rose to prominence.

The Cowboys made their first Super Bowl during the 1970 season, losing to the Colts. Dallas finally won the championship the following year with a 24-3 victory over the Miami Dolphins. Reeves retired as a player after the 1972 season, becoming a full-time assistant on Landry's staff.