ATLANTA – Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan was wearing flip-flops at his news conference.
For most players, this wouldn't be a big deal. But Ryan doesn't speak to the media until he's ready, and that means collared shirts, slacks, even coat and tie. Flip-flops just aren't ever part of the equation … until Sunday night.
We've just spent more time than you possibly wanted to know about Matt Ryan's footwear to give you a sense of how off-kilter the Falcons' locker room was after a stunning 28-24 loss to the 49ers in the NFC championship game. This was a team that was broken, a team unsure of what to do with this crushing pain on their chests, a team too numb to even rage at the sudden end of their season.
"It's hard," said Falcons cornerback Dunta Robinson. Then he paused for a full 10 seconds before repeating the same two words, again and again.
Alfred Lord Tennyson said it's better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all, but Tennyson damn sure wasn't a Falcons fan. (Then again, he did write "Tears from the depth of some divine despair/ Rise in the heart, and gather to the eyes,/ In looking on the happy autumn-fields,/ And thinking of the days that are no more," so he's at least familiar with the Atlanta sports vibe.) When you dare to hope, you set yourself up for even deeper pain.
The Falcons, mediocre for most of their near half-century of existence, have, outside of the 1998 season, only recently – like, last-seven-days recently – edged their way into that rarest of conversations: legit Super Bowl contender. And for 30 minutes on Sunday, they were there. Right. Freaking. There.
To have that possibility ripped away from them – no, that's too passive of a sentence, to give away that possibility – that was more than most of the team could bear to contemplate on any deep level.
"We're in shell shock," safety Thomas DeCoud said.
"I'm numb," fullback Mike Cox said.
"I don't know what to feel," Robinson said.
They didn't say much of note, obviously. There was talk of reviewing game tape, of looking forward to next season, of getting the hell away from football for a bit to let this all settle. There was also talk of how good San Francisco was, of how the 49ers took advantage of every opportunity and the Falcons didn't. And that was it. Really, what do you say in these situations? How do you suffer one of the toughest days of your professional life and put it all in context within just a few minutes?
Still, to their credit, they all talked, every single one of them, at length and in as much detail as they could manage. The ever-provocative Roddy White, chastened by the loss, nonetheless faced up to the largest bank of cameras of any player in the locker room. Julio Jones could take no joy in his simply astonishing first half. Allegedly-now-retired Tony Gonzalez stood at his locker and proclaimed himself almost certain that this was it, he was done with football (If there's a fingernail's-grasp hold on hope that Atlanta fans can take from this, it's that Gonzalez didn't slam, bar and lock the door on his return. And if he comes back, he said, it would be in a Falcons uniform.)
They knew, all of them, that chances like this don't come along very often in the NFL, where the average career lasts less than three years. They knew that young quarterbacks like Colin Kaepernick, Russell Wilson and Robert Griffin III are set to own the NFC for the next decade. They knew that they were up by three scores and let it go, that they were just 10 yards from the Super Bowl and failed again and again.
Hope hurts the most when it vanishes.
Nearly an hour after the game, the Falcons' locker room was all but deserted. Tape and Gatorade bottles and gum wrappers lay everywhere, leaving the locker room looking like it had hosted a spectacularly lame party. And in one corner, Robinson still sat in his padded chair, still wearing his compression shorts, still talking to any and all media who approached. (His commentary did eventually expand past "It's hard.")
The police guarding the locker room door fidgeted. A couple of clubhouse attendants started picking up the trash scattered on the floor. Just outside the door, 49ers players and their jubilant families walked past on their way to the team buses.
Robinson kept talking. He knew he couldn't make sense of what he'd just experienced. No one could. But he kept talking. When he finished, that would be it. The Falcons' season would be over once and for all. So he kept talking. It was the only thing left that he could do.
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