In nine seasons as an NFL franchise, the Atlanta Falcons had yet to get a taste of postseason football. Then in 1975, they took a step to change that by packaging their third overall pick, along with right tackle George Kunz, to the Baltimore Colts for the first overall pick in the 1975 NFL Draft. The Falcons used the pick to select quarterback Steve Bartkowski out of the University of California.
In his rookie season, Bartkowski completed 115 passes for 1,661 yards with 13 touchdowns and 15 interceptions. The Falcons only finished 4-10 but Bartkowski was named to the NFL All-Rookie team after the season.
He injured his knee five games into the 1976 season. In 1977, he was benched for the first half of the season in favor of Scott Hunter before regaining his starting job in Week 8.
In 1978, Bartkowski again started the season on the bench, this time in favor of June Jones. He took the job back in Week 4 after the Falcons got off to a 1-2 start. He led the team to an 8-5 finish, including a five-game winning streak, and the first playoff appearance in franchise history.
Bartkowski had the greatest season of his career in 1980. He led the Falcons to a 12-4 record and a first-round playoff bye. As a passer he completed 257 passes for 3,544 yards with 30 touchdowns and 16 interceptions. In the divisional round game against the Dallas Cowboys, Bartkowski put the Falcons in position to win. He passed for 320 yards and two touchdowns to put the team ahead 24-10 heading into the fourth quarter, but the Cowboys came back to win 30-27.
Bartkowski led the Falcons to the playoffs one more time. In the strike shortened season of 1982 he led the Falcons to a 5-4 record, good enough for a Wild Card date against the Minnesota Vikings. The Falcons let this game slip through their fingers too, losing in the fourth quarter 30-24.
Until Matt Ryan came along, Bartkowski held all the Falcons passing records. In 123 games he completed 1,871 passes in 3,330 attempts for 23,470 yards and 154 touchdown passes. Interceptions is the only passing record he still holds with 141 to Matt Ryan’s 133. Surprisingly, despite the high interception total, Bartkowski did hold the franchise record with 197 passes without an interception until Ryan passed him last season.
Steve Bartkowski may not have had the career that everyone expected from him when he became a first overall draft pick but he did lead the Falcons to the franchise’s first three playoff appearances and he’s fondly remembered by fans for that.