FLOWERY BRANCH — The oldish-looking coach who has been accused of putting his quarterback in leg shackles and handcuffs insists that his reputation is undeserved.
“Everybody may have this vision that coach Smith is a 50-plus-year-old, gray-haired conservative guy,” Mike Smith said Tuesday. “But that’s not the case. By nature, I am not a conservative person. We are going to be aggressive and we are going to be physical.”
With Smith as their head coach and Matt Ryan as their quarterback, the Falcons have gone 33-15, easily the best three-year run in franchise history. So criticism obviously is in short supply. But with two quick playoff exits and Ryan fizzling in both postseason games — four interceptions, two fumbles, two turnovers returned for touchdowns – shortcomings tend to get magnified by the populace.
Some of the postseason problems obviously fall on Ryan. But general manager Thomas Dimitroff recognized that his team needed another weapon on offense, leading to draft day pyrotechnics and the selection of Julio Jones. Now the team needs to make another change — this one more philosophical.
The Falcons go as Ryan goes, and the only way we’re going to know just how far they can go is if they put more in the hands of their quarterback and open up the offense. With Roddy White on one side, Jones on the other, Tony Gonzalez in the middle, the addition of running back Jacquizz Rodgers and the expected improvement of receiver Harry Douglas, the Falcons have the potential to be as explosive as any offense in the NFL.
Ryan is not one to complain. Fact is, there hasn’t been much to complain about. But we’ve seen before what can happen when the Falcons have turned Ryan loose. Wins at New Orleans and Green Bay in 2008, and over Cincinnati and Baltimore last season come to mind.
Notwithstanding Smith’s contention that he is not conservative, there’s a sense in Flowery Branch that offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey resides to Smith’s left.
Ryan said with the addition of Jones, “It probably changes what we do a little bit. You change to the personnel you have.”
When asked if there have been times when he has wanted the offense to be more aggressive, Ryan said, “You can’t be frustrated as a player. There was no dissension or anything like that. I think everyone was on board. Winning 13 games [last season] the way we did it is not an easy thing to do. But I think this year things probably will be a little bit different.”
White already has seen a difference in training camp, saying: “We have to throw the ball down field, and in the first five practices we’ve done that a lot — more go routes, more posts, a lot more things down the field to get guys open.”
Ryan realizes it’s on him to make it work.
Last year’s playoff loss to Green Bay stuck with him through the offseason. He had two key first-half interceptions against the Packers by Tramon Williams: one from the Green Bay 26 when he attempted to hit Michael Jenkins in the end zone (the score was tied 14-14) and the other, a crusher, when he misfired on a sideline pass to White just before halftime, and Williams picked it off and returned it 70 yards for a touchdown (make it 28-14).
“That’s the one that keep you up at night,” Ryan said. “When you’re in that position, especially before the half, it’s such a critical time in the game and you can’t make mistakes.”
Some of Ryan’s critics think the Falcons have protected him, that he doesn’t have the arm strength to operate a more wide-open offense. But that ignores evidence to the contrary. Playoff turnovers have been about mistakes, not arm strength. Smith certainly believes in him.
“I’m not going to give away state secrets,” he said. “But when you draft a player with [Jones'] skill set, it creates a different dynamic on your football team. That’s something we’ve embraced.”
It should be a show worth watching.
By Jeff Schultz