FLOWERY BRANCH — If the Falcons defeat the Oakland Raiders on Sunday, they’ll probably have to beg coach Mike Smith to take the game ball.
“He deserves something,” safety William Moore said. “I’m sure we’ll come up with something.”
The Falcons’ humble leader likes to deflect any attention away from the head coaching office. But with another win, he’ll tie Dan Reeves for the most victories in franchise history, with 49.
The 5-0 Falcons are prohibitive favorites to defeat the Oakland Raiders (1-3) at 1 p.m. Sunday at the Georgia Dome.
If they win, awarding Smith a game ball, in a traditional postgame ceremony, might not go over too well. Smith probably would try to give it back to the players, his assistant coaches, general manager Thomas Dimitroff or owner Arthur Blank.
“Knowing Smitty, he probably wouldn’t be too happy if we did that,” center Todd McClure said. “He’s going to try to downplay it as much as possible. But I think it shows what this organization has done over the last four or five years. From all the way at the top, they are trying to get a winning culture around here. They brought in the right guy for that.”
McClure is the only player on the roster who’s played for Reeves, who posted a 49-59-1 record and took the franchise to its only Super Bowl appearance, and Smith.
“Those two guys, to me, are really similar,” McClure said. “Coach Reeves was even-keeled. You got the same guy every week. You knew what you were going to get. It’s ironic that both of those guys have had the most success in this franchise with that approach.”
Since being named the Falcons’ head coach in 2008, Smith has climbed the franchise’s coaching chart quickly.
He opened with an 11-5 record in 2008 and followed that with 9-7, 13-3 and 10-6 records before this season. The Falcons won the NFC South title after the 2010 season and have been to the playoffs in three of the past four seasons.
Last season marked the Falcons’ first consecutive playoff appearances since they started playing in the NFL in 1966.
If Smith ties the victory mark, don’t expect a wild party. Maybe a few fireworks from the event-day staff and a note on the scoreboard.
“I’m concerned about Oakland this week,” Smith said when asked about any celebration plans. “Then, we’ll move on to the bye week and do our preparation for self-scouting and find out where we are at. We are going to have big challenge this week.”
It’s that doggedly methodical approach to football that has allowed Smith to turn the Falcons into winners.
“He stays grounded, and he has to keep us grounded,” Moore said. “We need to stay focused and worry about the next week.”
For Smith, football is simple.
He has the team rally around a few basic concepts that embody a team approach to winning.
Smith has helped change the fortunes of the Falcons by getting the players, some who are still with the team and others who have moved on, to buy into his five pillars of success.
In every team meeting after a game, on either Monday or Wednesday, he let’s them know how they did with penalties, turnover ratio, time of possession, opponents’ field-position start and the Falcons’ field-position start.
“You want to be the least-penalized team in the league or close to the top,” Smith said.
All of those stats involve the offense, defense and special-teams units performing at a high level.
“If you’re at the top of the league in those five things, you’re usually going to like where you’re at, believe it or not,” Smith said. “The offensive guys look at yards. The defensive guys look at yards given up. But if you look at those five things, it’s really important in terms of the success of a team.”
The Falcons currently lead the NFL in fewest penalties (16 for 127 yards) and are tied for first in turnover differential (plus 10). They are fourth in time-of-possession average (32:47).
Smith had never been a head coach at any level before being selected to lead the Falcons. After 16 years coaching in the college ranks, he cut his teeth in the NFL working with the Baltimore Ravens and the Jacksonville Jaguars.
Smith, who switched offensive and defensive coordinators this offseason, believes in delegating and holding everyone accountable.
“I don’t believe in micromanaging,” Smith said. “I believe you’ve got to have a macro view. When you are a position coach or a coordinator you’ve got to have a micro view. You’ve got to concern yourself with only one thing and not really worry about anything else. I’ve been very fortunate to have a great staff, guys around me that have been doing a great job of preparing their groups.”
After being hired as the head coach, Smith vowed that he never call a play on offense, defense or special teams on game day. He prefers to put his hands on things during meetings and practices during the week.
“I’ve been pretty good at it,” Smith said. “I can’t say that I’ve not done it, but not very often. I’m not smart enough to call a defensive game and be the head coach.”