Dirty Bird’s Soaring Thanks to Coach of the Year Candidate Mike Smith
By David A Lane Predictem.com
No one in the media or anywhere else can honestly say they expected anything from this 2008 edition of the Atlanta Falcons. Between their starting quarterback going to jail for dog fighting and their head coach abandoning the team during the middle of last season, this team was falling fast and it seemed close to making it the NFL’s rock bottom worst. Much to most people’s amazement, these Falcons have impressed and turned it all around in no time- and much of the credit has to go to rookie coach Mike Smith getting the job done with a rookie quarterback, castoff running back, and a no name defense- who have over-achieved like no other NFL team this season.
Not many coaches can say they were coaching football even while in high school but Smith did after a season ending injury. He played college football at East Tennessee before coaching in stints at places like Tennessee Tech, Morehead State, and San Diego State. Primarily a defensive coach, his defense at Tennessee Tech was among the top ten in the country while he was defensive coordinator there and it began to earn him some acclaim. While at San Diego State he met future Baltimore Ravens head coach Brian Billick who later hired him to coach there in 1999.
From all accounts Smith has always been both very organized and an extremely hard worker every step of the way. One of the things that makes him a successful coach is that he allows open communication with his players, going so far as to even allow them to voice opinions and submit their input. This fresh approach seems to work well with the football player’s he coaches; while being an idea most old school coaches would scoff at.
In Baltimore, it didn’t take long for him to find success as a coach when the 2000 Ravens won the Super Bowl behind a very stingy defense that gave up a record low amount of points in sixteen games that season. As the linebackers coach there, his unit whose members included Peter Boulware and Ray Lewis was the best in the NFL. The Jacksonville Jaguars hired him away in 2003 making him defensive coordinator there and almost immediately the team’s strength became its defense. One can surmise there are many reasons behind Jacksonville’s sudden fall from grace this year but Smith’s leaving to become head coach in Atlanta is no doubt the greatest.
What is truly amazing is just how quickly he has transformed this group into winners- they were a lowly 4-12 in 2007- throwing out the notion that a team has to ‘learn’ how to win. With this guy, a lot of the conventional thinking gets thrown by the wayside which is exactly one of the reasons why his team loves him. Another example of this has to be how he immediately started a rookie quarterback in Matt Ryan (61% com, 2625 yds, 13 tds, 6 int) - almost any NFL coach or ‘expert’ would tell you this a certain recipe for disaster- who has done nothing less than run (and pass) with the opportunity and has played well way beyond his years in leading his team to an 8-4 record.
Sunday’s 22-16 victory at San Diego was as dominant a performance as any the Tennessee Titans or New York Giants have played all season- yet they did it as a 5 ½ point underdog. The defense held all pro running back Ladainian Tomlinson to a season low 29 yards and kept one of the top rated quarterback’s in the league Phillip Rivers in check all game long- a feat not many teams have been able to do all season. Falcons running back Michael Turner who was with the Chargers last year but was allowed to leave via free agency, is one of the many success stories here having rushed already for 1208 yards, a 4.3 yards per carry average, and he’s had 13 total touchdowns. Jerious Norwood has been a solid back who has also really contributed by running the ball at 5.4 yards per carry average and being third on the team in pass receptions. Roddy White (68 rec 1085 yds 6 tds) and Michael Jenkins (34 rec 520 yds 3 tds) are able receivers who get open for Ryan and don’t often drop his passes.
What is clear is that the players have bought into Smith’s program and are already close to reaping the benefits- these guys are going to be here to stay in coming seasons. Maybe it shouldn’t have come as a surprise to see this guy turn the Falcons around so fast because as a coach he has always had success with a formula of winning drive and relentless energy that seems to rub off on his teams. Now the question is how long they will remain being undervalued in the public’s eyes- they are a whopping 8-4 against the spread this season- and how far they will go in the playoffs? My guess is the answer will be farther than anyone ever expected!