Falcons coach Mike Smith doesn’t believe that his squad is the automatic favorite to win the NFC South just because the New Orleans Saints, the defending division champs, have been embroiled in a bounty-filled offseason marked by suspensions, lawsuits and contract disputes.
“I don’t necessarily believe that,” said Smith, when asked on the American Century Championship conference call today. “I know that the NFC South has been one the most competitive divisions for a number of years. Most certainly before I got to the Falcons, there was the worst-to-first story for three or four years. It’s very competitive.”
The Saints have been hit hard by bounty-gate suspensions and have not worked out a long-term deal with quarterback Drew Brees.
“In the division, we have three outstanding quarterbacks that have proven themselves and then there is the young one in Josh Freeman that is going to be a great quarterback as well,” Smith said. “It’s a fun division and I don’t think the offseason is any different. We all will prepare and get ready to go play.”
Smith knows that quarterback Matt Ryan, who has a 43-19 regular-season record, but is 0-3 in the playoffs, will face pressure to return the Falcons to the playoffs and post a victory. Ryan has guided the Falcons to the playoffs in three of his four seasons in the league, but has been eliminated by the eventual NFC Super Bowl representative each time.
“I think the head coach and the quarterback position are the most scrutinized positions in an organization,” Smith said. “I think ultimately we are both going to be judged on success in the postseason. There have been a lot of teams and a lot of players that have broken through and gotten that first win. That’s why we are doing everything in our power to figure out how to get that done.
“That comes with the territory when you don’t have the success that people expect. The expectations are very high in Atlanta, so there are going to be people talking about it. We just have to keep our heads down, keep preparing and doing the things that we’ve done. We know that we’re doing it the right way. We just have to figure out how to play better at the end of the season.”
Smith also addressed the addition of safety Chris Hope, who was signed after the completion of minicamp.
“Chris is a very experienced safety, who’s going to give us depth,” Smith said. “That was one of the areas in the offseason that we felt like we needed to address. Chris has some experience with our defensive backs coach Tim Lewis, which I think is a positive.”
Smith is expecting the offense to get a boost from second-year players Julio Jones and Jacquizz Rodgers.
“Last year was a very unique year for the players, the coaches, the fans and the personnel department,” Smith said. “It was very difficult when there were so many unknowns for Julio Jones, Jacquizz Rodgers and our entire rookie class. You’ll see great steps in terms of their production simply because they’ve had an opportunity to understand not only what we do as the Atlanta Falcons, but what the NFL game is all about.
“They were at a big disadvantage in my opinion last year in terms of coming in on the 25th of July and not really having an opportunity to spend time with the coaching staff and understand the actual sequencing of what a work week should be like. Julio had a very good year for us last year and so did Jacquizz. I think they’ll be integral parts of the success we have this year.”
The Falcons open training camp on July 26. They open the regular season on the road at Kansas City on Sept. 9.
“I’ve been very impressed with their team,” Smith said of the Chiefs. “Romeo Crennel did a great job when he stepped in there as the interim coach. Romeo is an outstanding football coach and an even better person. Scott Pioli has done a very good job in building the roster there in Kansas City. They were a team that had an exorbitant amount of injuries last year. It will be a battle. . .I anticipate that they are going to be a much better team than they were last year, if they can keep all of the guys healthy. ”
Ryan has played in the popular tournament in Lake Tahoe, which will be held July 20-22 and televised on NBC, over the past three offseasons and told Smith about it.
“I’ve been hitting a lot of balls and hopefully, I will not finish last,” Smith said. “That’s the goal that I’m going to approach this with, have a good time and raise some money for charity.”
–D. Orlando Ledbetter, The Atlanta Falcons beat blog