MIAMI -- After the Atlanta Falcons routed the New England Patriots, 41-10, on Nov. 8, coach Dan Reeves had a special message for his team.
"Dan told us he would do the `Dirty Bird' in downtown Atlanta if we go to the Super Bowl," wide receiver Terance Mathis said.
"And that was the first time he ever mentioned Super Bowl to us, and it was the first time he ever talked to us about the Super Bowl. You could feel the electricity in the room, and you know you had a chance to do something special."
The Falcons have done something special. They will play the Denver Broncos in Super Bowl XXXIII on Sunday.
It's not only the first time in the history of the franchise that the Falcons have made it, but it also represents a remarkable turnaround for the club and the coach.
In Reeves' first year, the team started out 0-5 and 1-7. Sixteen months later, the Falcons are in the Super Bowl.
"There were a lot of times this year you knew this group was special, but it started last year," Reeves said. "The attitude they had then, the way everybody stuck together, that was when I first saw the signs of something special."
Reeves is no stranger to the Super Bowl. This is his ninth trip overall and fourth as a head coach.
But this has been the toughest trip yet. He has been fired twice -- by the Denver Broncos in 1992 and the New York Giants two years ago -- since his last trip after the 1989 season, when the Broncos lost to San Francisco, 55-10. He also underwent quadruple bypass heart surgery last month.
He took over a team that has only three first-round picks among its 22 starters. His quarterback (Chris Chandler) is a journeyman. His running back (Jamal Anderson) was a seventh-round pick in 1994.
"He tells us he's been around a lot of teams, but that this team is very special," Mathis said. "We don't have the big-name superstars. We don't have the multimillion-dollar players. We're just a team. When he came in, that's what he put together -- a team."
The Falcons are a team filled with the kind of players Reeves was -- scrappy overachievers.
Reeves was an undrafted quarterback out of South Carolina who made the Dallas Cowboys' roster as a running back and became a disciple of Tom Landry.
Noted for his discipline, he quickly changed the ways things were under former Falcons coach June Jones and put his stamp on the team.
Linebacker Cornelius Bennett, who played in four Super Bowls in Buffalo before joining the Falcons in 1996, said: "It was total chaos. We had 46 guys doing their own thing on Sundays, and during the week you got your 53 guys and even guys on the practice squads had attitudes. It was just a mess. I don't know how it got like that, but I'm so happy that's behind us."
He added: "I thought June Jones was a fine person, but it took somebody like Coach Reeves to come in here and put his foot down. Not necessarily chewing guys out, but just knowing his presence demands respect. And as a player, that's something I truly love."
Running back Jamal Anderson said the atmosphere changed from Reeves' first speech.
"Losing was not going to be accepted, regardless of what the franchise had been through," he said.
Reeves has never tolerated losing and he will compete at anything. He once showed a group of sportswriters that he could put a dime near the edge of a table, set up a cup and blow the dime off the table into the cup.
When the sportswriters suggested he do it with a nickel, he thought it might be too heavy, but got it in. So, they raised the stakes to a quarter. Reeves couldn't do it.
Later in the evening, though, he dragged a sportswriter back to his hotel room, went to the bathroom, put a quarter on the edge of the counter and blew it into a saucer. He kept working at it until he could do it.
The same thing happened when a golf pro bet Reeves $5 he couldn't bounce a golf ball and catch it in the back of his hand. Reeves lost the bet. He went home and started practicing on his patio in 30-degree weather. He was able to catch the ball 238 times in a row.
"Dan and Mike Ditka are the two greatest competitors I've ever seen, in all facets of life," said Gil Brandt, the former Cowboys personnel chief who first signed Reeves as a player.
"They used to be roommates [at training camp]," Brandt said. "They'd play darts. It was like a Super Bowl."
It was typical of Reeves that after he underwent open-heart surgery Dec. 14, he had a news conference four days later and then had to be readmitted to the hospital because he had rushed his return.
He was back on the sideline for the playoff victory over the San Francisco 49ers. His mere presence inspired the team.
"He didn't have to say a word because it was all over his face," Mathis said. "He has that cockiness that makes everybody confident around him. I'm telling you, if Dan isn't around, we don't win that game."
The Reeves way is working in Atlanta because he's getting the chance to do things his way.
"This is my team, my family now," Reeves said.
A need for control