There is a strange dynamic at work in a coach’s third season. In year one, everybody is trying to impress the new boss. In year two, there is still a sense of newness and often a motivational carryover from the success or failure of year one.
In year three, there can be a settling effect. Do you know what Mike Smith’s great concern is for the Falcons in year three? Settling. Complacency. The team’s loss of an edge.
We see this in sports all the time. We saw it with the Falcons under Jim Mora. He commanded their attention in his first season. By his third, the standard had changed. Problems were overlooked. Players will tell you he played favorites. Attention to detail was lost. Excuses increased. Respect from the locker room waned. The team tanked.
“One thing I’m personally trying to avoid is the sense of complacency because we’ve been here for two years now,” Smith said Thursday, before the question was even asked. “If you think you have all the answers, you don’t. We can’t stay status quo. We have to make some changes.”
The Falcons open their third mini-camp under Smith Friday in Flowery Branch. He wanted to implement his plan and establish direction in 2008. He did. The Falcons went 11-5 and made the playoffs. He wanted to maintain success and smooth out the edges in year two. That didn’t quite happen. The combination of injuries and a more difficult schedule certainly fed into the 9-7 finish. Nonetheless, Smith wasn’t thrilled with the outcome. He took it personally.
“I was very disappointed personally that we didn’t make the playoffs,” he said. “We don’t state our team goals publicly. But making the playoffs obviously was one of them. We didn’t reach our goal. That should be a motivating factor for all of us.”
Perceptions change quickly in the NFL. Imagine for a moment what would happen if the Falcons missed the playoffs again in 2010. Fair or not, some would start to look at Smith, Thomas Dimitroff and Matt Ryan a little cross-eyed.
Atlanta fans should be familiar with this. There was a time when Mora, Rich McKay and Michael Vick appeared to be long-term franchise cornerstones.
Smith again: “Each Sunday, you get what you earned.” And there were too many Sundays last season when there were things that he simply didn’t like. They all fed into a lack of consistency.
Young? Yes. Injured? Yes? Satisfactory excuses? No.
Smith is a players’ guy. He is liked and respected for his openness and directness. So in this mini-camp and then training camp in July, he is not suddenly going to turn into a screamer. He’s not going to hold his breath and turn blue when a player simply wants to have a conversation (Bobby Petrino).
But he is raising the bar.
“I’m not going to change the way I’ve done my job in the first two years,” he said. “I’ll demand more simply because we’re in the third year and I expect more. You hear me talking about the process all the time. We should be further along in that process in the third year.”
The changes will be subtle. “To the average person sitting on the hill,” he said, “it won’t look very different.” Tweak practices. Alter weight room sessions. Change the way information is presented to players. New software will allow coaches to zero in on specific players while watching game tape.
Here’s a more natural evolution: That tape will now include Falcons’ players more than in the past. When coaches were trying to teach scheme in years one and two, they had to roll tape of the Jacksonville defense and the Pittsburgh offense.
“Guys on defense have been looking at Marcus Stroud and Rashean Mathis for two years,” Smith said. “Now we have enough of a Falcons library where they can watch themselves.
“We have to keep them on their toes so the message doesn’t get stale. Familiarity can breed mediocrity.”
We’ve seen it close-up.