They are winning because the owner cares and spends money.
They are winning because the general manager has made moves that look smart today and project well for tomorrow.
They are winning because they have a quarterback who seems to have discovered the road map to Canton and a wide receiver who just busted through that door that reads: “Superstar.”
But mostly the Falcons are winning because of their coach. It doesn’t work without Mike Smith. The money, the structure, the decisions, the athletic wonder of Matt Ryan and Roddy White – none of that translates into a 9-2 record this season and 29-14 over two and a half years if everybody isn’t following the head coach.
“We can all have grandiose visions,” general manager Thomas Dimitroff said. “But if the head coach is not carrying the torch, it’s all for naught.”
To this point, Smith is the NFL’s coach of the year. This week’s counterpart, Raheem Morris of Tampa Bay, is getting justifiable praise. So should Rex Ryan (New York Jets), Andy Reid (Michael Vick/Philadelphia) and maybe that guy in New England again (Bill Belichick).
But the Falcons have won a lot of games in a lot of different ways. They have beaten Baltimore and Green Bay and are tied with the Patriots and Jets for the NFL’s best record. They are getting better by the week.
In the 42 years before Smith’s arrival, this franchise had never managed consecutive winning seasons. They’re already assured of their third straight winning season under him. That’s not all talent and chemistry, it’s leadership. Smith ranks only ninth in Falcons games coached (43) but already fourth in wins (29). There’s a consistency in confidence and expectation level now that never has existed before.
Smith won big in his first season but so did Jim Mora. He differentiated himself in year two. Players played hard late in the season even when injuries contributed to a 6-7 start. They won their final three games. Then came this offseason’s self-analysis. Smith knew the potential perils of year three.
“Sometimes familiarity is not a good thing,” he said. “It’s natural for a staff and players to get into a routine and become comfortable with one another. It was important that we looked at all levels, starting with me, and we held ourselves to higher expectations.”
We’ve seen so many cartoons on the sideline here. From Marion Campbell to Jerry Glanville, from Mora to Bobby Petrino. How did the Falcons finally get it so right?
When Dimitroff was hired, he knew his coaching candidates were “accomplished” so he decided to focus less on Xs and Os than personality. He valued the coach-general manager relationship and wanted someone who shared the same vision on how to build a team. He had grown up in the NFL and saw how egos could fracture an organization.
“I wanted someone who would not only talk but listen,” Dimitroff said.
He interviewed Smith, Rex Ryan, Leslie Frazier, Jim Schwartz and Jason Garrett. Garrett had already decided to stay in Dallas. Dimitroff offered the job to Smith over the others.
When asked why Smith has been so successful, Dimitroff said: “He has a unique combination of levity and football street smarts. He has the ability to know when things need to be light and when to turn it on and off. He knows his players and is cognizant of the different personalities in the locker room.”
Notice how there’s nothing in there about plays or schemes?
Smith said he never wondered if he would be a good head coach. It follows that he never doubted himself.
Ask him who has had the greatest influence on him and he’ll name four coaches: Former Baltimore head coach Brian Billick “is the most organized guy I’ve ever been around.” Cincinnati coach and former Ravens’ defensive coordinator Marvin Lewis “had a knack for making everybody feel like they were a part of the game plan.” Another former Ravens assistant, Mike Nolan, had a defensive background but coached wide receivers one year in Baltimore. “We would talk in a defensive vernacular about what offensive guys were trying to do,” he said.
Finally there was Jack Del Rio, then a young Baltimore assistant and later Jacksonville’s head coach. Smith talked to him about the players’ mindset. Quoting: “I’d ask Jack, ‘What are they thinking at this time of the season? How about in March? Are they concerned about this?’”
And you wonder why Smith relates so well to players?
His keys to success are not great secrets: communication, character, team work. But getting players to buy in and watching them follow the coach — that’s a rare sight around here.
♦Falcons head coaches ranked by wins Coach (seasons) Games W-L-T Dan Reeves (1997-03) 109 49-59-1 Leeman Bennett (1977-82) 87 46-41 Norm Van Brocklin (1968-74) 89 37-49-3 Mike Smith (2008-) 43 29-14 Jerry Glanville (1990-93) 64 27-37 Jim Mora (2004-06) 48 26-22 Dan Henning (1983-86) 64 22-41-1 June Jones (1994-96) 48 19-29 Marion Campbell (1974-76; 87-89) 68 17-51 Norb Hecker (1966-68) 31 4-26-1 Pat Peppler (1976) 9 3-6* Bobby Petrino (2007) 13 3-10 Wade Phillips (2003) 3 2-1* Emmitt Thomas (2007) 3 1-2* Jim Hanifan (1989) 4 0-4* (*Interim coach)
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