Falcons' foreign policy

The last time opportunity knocked on Mick Luckhurst's door in Hillsborough County, when it counted in the standings of the National Football League, four seconds were left to play and the Atlanta Falcons were in arrears to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers by a point. Luckhurst cranked up his foot and whacked at the ball. The result was a hollow feeling. A defensive player named Scott Hutchinson got a hand on the ball. It sailed sidewise and wide of the goal posts. Defeat was instant. The game was over.

The season was 1981, Luckhurst's first in the procession of Falcon placekickers, all the way back to Lou Kirouac. The one whose job he had won, Tim Mazzetti, worked in a broadcast booth that night. The losing coach was Leeman Bennett, and when Luckhurst later missed a kick that could have won a game in Cincinnati, a 10-6 season became a 7-9 season and the Falcons became playoff wallflowers.

The rookie is still here, a veteran now, 28 years old, a husband and father and landholder on the shores of Lake Lanier. Opportunity came again on what is known as "Orange Sunday," that is when all parishioners are pledged to come to Tampa Stadium dressed in enough flaming orange to set off a fire alarm. The premise is that the rival team will be so impressed at this outflow of Buccaneer patriotism that they will wilt in fear. I guess.

Not once, but twice opportunity came again to Mick Luckhurst. Again, four seconds were left. Again some swashbuckling Buccaneer got a meathook on the ball, but this time it only changed the trajectory to a spiral. The three points tied the game at 20 points apiece as time ran out. No hollow feeling. `My work is easy; they have it hard'

In 12 minutes of overtime, as prescribed by NFL law, the Falcons were unable to find the way to the end zone. Fourth down arose on the 15-yard line, and again Luckhurst was summoned. Thirty-four yard field goal, Falcons win this time, 23-20. Again the losing coach is Leeman Bennett, dropped like a hot potato in Atlanta and now trying to build the Buccaneers into something seaworthy. Luckhurst responded cheerfully after the game, and his position was admirably political. "The guys get all the credit," he said in his imported accent. "They work and sweat and take a pounding getting the ball in position, then this foreigner comes off the bench and kicks the ball through the posts. My work is easy. They have it hard."

This was one they won without their fastball. They stumbled through the first half, in which Steve Young, the million-dollar-a-year quarterback, personally accumulated 191 yards of offense, the Falcons en masse 190. The Falcon defense shut Young down with 37 yards the last 41 minutes. "We had a mental adjustment at the half," Marion Campbell of the Dept. of Defense said wryly.

Mike Pitts, the defensive end, said the theme of their leader's sermon was, "If you have any guts, go out and shut them out." And they did. "We learned something today," Campbell had added. "We learned we got to start a little faster than we been starting, and that's a valuable lesson." Young, who was having the best game of his brief NFL career, had embarrassed Campbell's troops just before the half. David Archer had fumbled, John Cannon had recovered and Tampa Bay had the ball on the Falcon 21. Young dropped back to pass, the Falcon defense opened up like the Red Sea and he took off up the middle on a touchdown run right past the bewildered Bret Clark. This supplied Campbell much evangelical fervor for his halftime preachment.

This delivers the Falcons to previously uncharted territory, the fairyland of a 4-0 record. Four games don't make a dynasty. It's a good start. What does impress about this one was, they weren't at their best, as in New Orleans, and as in Dallas, and they yet managed to win. "Mark of good teams," they always say.

Erase one play and it never would have been. Luckhurst never would have reached the kicking ground. The Falcons had drawn within six points but had stalled there, seeing and sawing about trying to make a little profit in the last quarter, and able only to bank another Luckhurst field goal. Now they were within three points. Time was running low. So were downs; it was fourth and two at the Bucs' 38. Archer went into passing gear, but instead hit reverse, and only when he had retreated as far as the Falcon 45 was he able to spring loose from three big orange-suited pursuers and get a pass off to Sylvester Stamps. The play actually covered 32 yards but was good for 15 in the book, and a first down.

Otherwise, Tampa Bay owns the ball. It's over. There's no "foreigner" kicking another field goal. Leeman Bennett prepares a winning speech, Dan Henning takes the losing theme. It was that close. He is no wonder boy, but it was another wondrous performance for David Archer to add to his collection. Another mountain climbed. Nothing pretty, not the stable producer of the past three games, but timely, for after the euphoria of Dallas, this is the kind of game in which this kind of team, new to the red velvet world, is most vulnerable.