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How Bartkowski and the Falcons grew strong

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Most press releases I get in the mail never make it past my wastebasket. One that did recently was from the National Football League - a reminder that Steve Bartkowski of the Atlanta Falcons has a chance to become the first quarterback in almost 20 years to lead the NFL in touchdown passes in consecutive seasons.

At this point Bartkowski has only an outside chance of accomplishing the feat , since he trails Dan Fouts of San Diego 32-29 with one game left for each. Thus Y. A. Tittle (the last to win back-to-back TD titles in 1962-63) can probably rest easy. But there is a story here in how Steve went from throwing a modest 17 touchdown passes in 1979 to 31 in 1980 and another big year this season.

''When Atlanta made Bartkowski the No. 1 pick in the 1975 draft and began using him right away, that was a pretty good indication of the kind of talent he had,'' said quarterback coach Dick Wood. ''The point is, when you find a young man with a throwing arm like that, you can afford to show patience and build around him.''

''But the one thing people outside football never take into consideration is that no matter how much talent is there, the experience factor can only be bought with time,'' Wood added. ''Usually it takes four or five years of practice, game experience, and learning to recognize defenses before a kid becomes a complete quarterback.''

During the same time Bartkowski was growing as a football player, so was the Falcon organization, until in 1980 its personnel suddenly matched that of most contending NFL franchises.

''I think what you had last season when Atlanta won the NFC West was a quarterback and his team maturing at relatively the same time,'' Wood explained. ''The good players improve every year and Steve is that kind of individual. You just get smarter and you begin to see things on the field that often were only a mystery to you a season before.

''For example, in pro football you don't go out and force a lot of things offensively. Basically, you take what the defense gives you and exploit it. If the other team decides to give your top pass receiver double coverage on every play, then they've left themselves open somewhere else and it's up to you to recognize this.''

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