Photo Credit: Acroterion - Wikipedia

By Zane Miller

After being taken with the first overall pick of the 1975 NFL Draft by the Atlanta Falcons, quarterback Steve Bartkowski would immediately take over the starting role following a disastrous 1974 season for the Falcons, with their offense finishing dead last in the league by a wide margin, scoring a paltry 7.9 points per game. While the offense was still not great in 1975, Bartkowski played a major part in making the team more respectable with 17.1 points per game. However, the next two seasons would be fraught with injuries for Bartkowski, as he would start only 12 of the Falcons’ 28 games during that span as a result.

In 1978, however, Bartkowski would have a strong comeback season, leading Atlanta to a 9-7 record and their first playoff appearance in franchise history. After defeating the Philadelphia Eagles in a nailbiter in the first round 14-13, the Falcons would fall to the Dallas Cowboys 27-20 in the second round. Though Bartkowski and company would be unable to repeat the same success the next year with an underwhelming 6-10 finish, the start of the following decade would be beyond what likely even the most die-hard Falcons fans could have imagined.

Bartkowski’s finest game of the 1980 regular season came on October 19th against the hapless New Orleans Saints, throwing four touchdown passes for 202 yards in a 41-14 rout, with two of those touchdown passes going to rookie tight end Junior Miller. Despite holding a modest 4-3 record following this game, the Falcons would explode through the rest of the second half of the regular season, losing only one more time in their final nine games to earn their first-ever NFC West title at 12-4, with Bartkowski starting every game. He led the league in touchdown passes with 31, while his 3,544 passing yards put him in fifth, 15 more than sixth-place finishers Lynn Dickey of the Green Bay Packers and Ron Jaworski of the Philadelphia Eagles to finish in a tie with Jaworski for third in MVP voting.

Bypassing the wild card round thanks to their NFC West title, Atlanta would remain at home on January 4th, 1981 to face the Cowboys, the same team which had eliminated them from the playoffs two years prior. With a spot in the NFC Championship Game on the line, Atlanta would grab the early advantage courtesy of a field goal and a 60-yard touchdown pass from Bartkowski to longtime wide receiver Alfred Jenkins. Just like that, the Falcons were up 10-0 midway through the first quarter. Nearly as quickly, however, the Cowboys fought back with a field goal-touchdown combo of their own, evening up the contest early on in the second quarter.

After another outstanding catch by Jenkins from Bartkowski to put Atlanta back in the red zone, running back Lynn Cain would put the finishing touch on the drive, punching it in to make it a 17-10 contest at halftime. Once the third quarter got underway, however, the Falcons defense which had finished in the top-five during the regular season stepped up once again, holding Dallas off the board throughout the frame. This enabled the team to double their lead, as Bartkowski found fullback William Andrews for the only scoring drive of the third, providing the Falcons a 24-10 cushion with 15 minutes left in regulation. However, the Cowboys would not go down so easily.

The fourth quarter would see the Cowboys orchestrate a methodical drive which paid off with a short touchdown run, though Atlanta responded with a field goal after an interception from safety Tom Pridemore set the team up with a short field. Leading 27-17 with less than four minutes to go, it seemed as though the Bartkowski and the Falcons had done everything needed to put themselves in position for their first NFC title matchup. However, a Dallas touchdown would make it a one-possession game once again, putting Atlanta’s offense back on the field needing just one first down to essentially seal the game. This did not happen, as a short-yardage run by Cain on third down was stuffed, forcing a punt with under two minutes remaining.

Despite the limited time, the Cowboys would drive their way down the field, culminating in the go-ahead touchdown catch by future Hall of Fame wide receiver Drew Pearson with 47 seconds to go. Fortunately for Atlanta, the ensuing extra point would be no good, leaving the opportunity open for a field goal to send the game into overtime. However, after a tripping penalty on the kickoff pinned the Falcons back near their own 10-yard line, the odds would be further stacked against them after Bartkowski went down for a sack on the shadow of their own goal line. Although a nice catch from wide receiver Wallace Francis would bring the Falcons just one yard away from a first down to keep their hopes alive, Bartkowski would be unable to convert on a pair of passes, turning the ball over on downs and giving Dallas the 30-27 win. Both Bartkowski and Cowboys quarterback Danny White finished the matchup with similar stat lines, as White threw for three touchdowns and 322 yards and an interception while Bartkowski claimed two touchdown passes for 320 yards and an interception as well.

Despite the Falcons’ 1980 playoffs ending in heartbreaking fashion, Bartkowski would post similar numbers in 1981, getting 30 touchdowns for 3,829 yards. However, the defense which had been among the best in the league the previous year was not nearly as effective in 1981, leading to a disappointing 7-9 finish in spite of the dominant offense. Bartkowski and the Falcons would put together one more playoff season in 1982, with the strike-shortened nine-game regular season necessitating an expanded playoff field, though the team would fall in the first round to the Minnesota Vikings 30-24 in what would be the final postseason game of Bartkowski’s career.

After mediocre seasons in 1983 and 1984, Bartkowski would go down with an injury early on in the 1985 campaign, his final in a Falcons uniform. With the team moving on from Bartkowski to give David Archer a shot at the starting role, he would join the Los Angeles Rams for the 1986 season. Although Bartkowski played well enough with the Rams to win four of his six starts, this wasn’t necessarily due to his on-field play as he threw for just two touchdowns and 654 yards through six games. With first round pick Jim Everett waiting in the wings, Bartkowski was benched in favor of Everett as the team went on to qualify for the playoffs, though they would promptly be eliminated in the opening round by the Washington Redskins (now Washington Commanders) with Bartkowski not taking the field during the contest. During the offseason, Bartkowski announced his retirement, finishing with 59 career wins.

After retiring from the NFL, Bartkowski began work with a construction company named DPR Construction as a business development contractor, a role he held as recently as 2018, with his son Phil also working with the company in a leadership capacity. In 2005, Bartkowski was diagnosed with colon cancer, but thankfully would survive the disease following successful treatment. Although the Falcons have no retired jersey numbers, Bartkowski’s #10 has been removed from circulation since the 1990 campaign, as he was also officially inducted into the Atlanta Falcons Ring of Honor in 2004.