A year ago, when he met his players for the first time, Mike Smith was almost as much in the dark as we were. Oh, he knew what he wanted to say. How he wanted to act. What he wanted to do. But would they listen? Would they follow?
“You don’t get a feel,” the Falcons coach said Wednesday. “You’re basically just giving them your mission statement.”
They listened. They followed. When Smith meets with his players Friday night on the eve of his second training camp, nobody will be in the dark about the head coach with the generic name. We know Mike Smith now, even if, as he says, “It’s hard to be high profile with a name like Mike Smith.”
The Falcons won more than anybody expected last season, but Smith’s name tends to come up as the reason why long after the quarterback or the general manager. It shouldn’t.
Football teams are a reflection of their coach. The Falcons went to the Super Bowl in 1998, not merely because of Jamal Anderson, Chris Chandler and a solid defense, but because the players followed Dan Reeves.
Several years later, the team started great but imploded just as quickly under Jim Mora, in part because that pretty much sums up Mora’s personality. Yes, he’ll run through a wall for his players. But he’ll sometimes run through a wall when there’s an open door right in front of him.
The Falcons unraveled under Bobby Petrino because the worst way to deal with a professional athlete – men — is to scold them like six-year-olds, and then act like a coward and hide (like a six-year-old) when all they want to do is have a conversation. In the end, Petrino couldn’t hack being with grownups. So while others slept, he scrammed for Arkansas where he could be czar again.
Smith doesn’t spontaneous combust, like Mora. He doesn’t hold his breath and throw fits like Petrino. The Falcons won last year because Smith walked into a fractured locker room, set the tone and everybody bought in. They’ll win this year because players know their head coach won’t accept anything less and they want to fight for him.
Do you know how rare that is in pro sports?
On Wednesday, Smith’s evolution from quasi-obscurity to local hero was in full view. He spoke at a season-ticketholders luncheon at a Buckhead restaurant. Afterwards, a roomful of people — who a year ago wouldn’t have known Smith if he knocked on their front door and asked to mow their lawn — waited in line to shake his hand, take his picture and get his autograph.
General manager Thomas Dimitroff wasn’t in here in 2007 but he read the CliffsNotes. He had a prototype in mind for what the Falcons needed. “Mike came in and he was a real football coach. There’s no pretense about him at all. He came in and it was all about communicating with his players. There were no ulterior motives.”
Smith sensed good things early. The Falcons won their opener against Detroit, but a loss the following week at Tampa Bay felt almost as gratifying to Smith. The team fell behind 17-0 but didn’t fall apart, even while losing, 24-9. Players “showed their mettle,” he said, “and there was a calmness on the staff. That was a big indicator to me of how we were going to be the rest of the season. I didn’t know how many games we would win. But I knew we had the wherewithal to handle tough situations.”
He has had jobs before, as an assistant, where the players clearly didn’t care much for the leadership. You didn’t have to look on the scoreboard to know it, Smith said. “You can sense it by the interaction in the building. You just know, ‘This isn’t good. I’m not going to like the outcome.’”
That wasn’t a problem last season. Players listened and followed. Success starts before the snap.