FLOWERY BRANCH — When the going gets tough, like it is right now for the 5-4 Falcons, the team internally looks to its veterans for leadership.
In part, that’s why coach Mike Smith has a key veteran within each position group and empowers his “Over 30” club. The group is working overtime this week to help the team rebound from a difficult 26-23 overtime loss to the New Orleans Saints.
“What separates good teams and not-so-good teams is how you respond to the adversity,” said quarterback Matt Ryan on Wednesday.
They are trying to put a failed fourth-down attempt in their rearview mirror and make sure they are ready for the Tennessee Titans (5-4) at 4:15 p.m. Sunday at the Georgia Dome.
“The message will be, ‘you’re flustered from last week; get that over with and get ready for this week coming up,’’’ 13-year veteran linebacker Mike Peterson said. “As far as last week, last week is over. In this league, the good thing about it is that you get another shot. It’s not Week 16.”
Smith, who’s in his fourth season, remains steadfast behind his decision and has not wilted under the wave of criticism that he has received locally and nationally.
“Not at all,” Smith said when asked if he has been shaken from the experience. “Every day is a learning experience, I will say that. You learn every day that you wake up.”
Smith’s even-keeled approach has helped the Falcons to post three consecutive winning seasons and make two trips to the playoffs. He was named coach of the year by Sporting News in 2008 and 2010.
“It’s hard when you first come into the league, the emotional ups and downs are — you are just really high and really low,” Ryan said. “One of the things that I think helps is experience, trying to keep that even pulse throughout the year, understanding that there are going to be some tough times and are going to be some good times. Keeping that even-keel mindset is really important.”
Some of the players don’t understand what all of the fuss is about.
“It was not his first time going for it on fourth down,” said running back Michael Turner, who was tackled on the crucial play by a sea of Saints. “Maybe it was his first time doing it in that situation, but we went for it on fourth down plenty of times. I don’t know the percentage of us making them, but I think it’s pretty good.”
Turner, 29, is not quite in the “Over 30” club, but he’s the senior member in the running backs’ room.
Turner, who turns 30 in February, embraces his mentoring role.
“It was a tough loss,” Turner said. “But we have to show the young guys how to respond after a tough loss and not go into the tank. It’s a long season. We’ve played nine games, so we still have a lot of football to play.”
Tight end Tony Gonzalez oversees the tight ends and the receivers.
“My message is simple, let’s go out and get a win,” Gonzalez said. “You’ve got the next game. You can get out anything that you’re frustrated about. You can prepare a little bit better. Maybe we can even realize how good we are as a football team”
One thing really bothers Gonzalez. He talked about it Sunday after the game and brought it up again Wednesday unsolicited.
“We can’t hurt ourselves with penalties,” Gonzalez said. “When you get those really silly penalties that can be avoided, it’s not fair to everybody else that is working hard. We have to go out there and make sure that we nip that in the bud right away.”
Peterson is feeling a good vibe despite the adversity the Falcons are trying to overcome.
“We won’t have a letdown,” Peterson said. “You don’t see anybody pointing fingers or anybody walking around with their heads down. Everybody is aware of the situation. We lost a game that we feel like we shouldn’t have lost. OK, it’s over. Let’s get ready for next week.”
–D. Orlando Ledbetter, The Atlanta Falcons beat blog