FLOWERY BRANCH – If NFL coaches aren’t collectively the most paranoid group of individuals on Earth, it’s only because somebody is counting the building on the other side of the barbed-wire fence, where Cheswick, Martini and R.P. McMurphy are betting cigarettes in a poker game.
I’m not sure when this level of Patton-vs.-Rommel secrecy began. But I can confirm from my days in San Francisco that Bill Walsh’s eyes would morph into fireballs at practice any time a reporter took notes that might be referencing Joe Montana throwing to Jerry Rice (because, well, who knew)?
I bring this up because as the Falcons approach their season opener Sunday in Kansas City, coach Mike Smith is taking secrecy to amusing levels. He was asked the other day about his starting right guard and cornerback. His response: “I’m not going to discuss it because I’m not going to give a competitive advantage to our opponent.”
He was asked about his punt returner: “I can’t tell you who our punt returner is going to be, either.”
He was asked about the backup quarterback: “I would not answer that question based on giving someone a competitive advantage.”
OK, seriously? The Chiefs are panicking in defensive meeting rooms, not having finality over the Falcons’ backup situation? The state secret of Luke McCown or Dominique Davis gives the Falcons a distinct advantage?
“Yes,” Smith reaffirmed Wednesday.
He will play you in “Stratego” and make you beg for mercy.
I informed Smith on Wednesday that, for AJC competitive reasons, I couldn’t tell him if I would be covering Sunday’s game.
“Touche,” he said, smiling, and held out a hand for a fist bump.
The Falcons seem to have become an increasingly secretive organization. That’s fine. It doesn’t differentiate them much from most NFL teams. But Smith should understand that the reason the team has had a string of one-and-done appearances has nothing to do with the other team not knowing who’s going to return punts.
All of those minute, perceived strategy “edges” go out the window when a 300-pound left tackle is getting Winnebagoed by a pass rusher. Or a cornerback blows his transmission in pass coverage. Or the quarterback is turning the ball over. And that’s why the Falcons have failed to win playoff games.
If Smith is being less forthcoming with information — and certainly media access in this training camp was tighter than in previous years — it’s no wonder. The pressure on him has been ratcheted up. The Falcons being just a very good regular-season team doesn’t satisfy the masses any more, least of all Arthur Blank. So Smith is seeking any edge he can get. But what’s a real edge and what’s imagined?
Smith doesn’t believe he’s any tighter now than before. “There’s certain information at certain times of the year that may be more important to not talk about,” he said. “Later in the year, when there’s more film and people have time to evaluate you, it’s probably not that big of a deal.”
He also now claims the No. 2 quarterback situation hasn’t been settled, though he says his mindset would be the same even if it had been.
These are not to be confused with those areas that most believe determine winners of football games.
“Running, tackling and blocking,” Falcons running back Michael Turner said.
I felt compelled to ask Turner if he was starting. He laughed.
“I don’t know. They haven’t announced the starters yet. I guess we’ll know when they have the introductions.”
I asked center Todd McClure. “Talk to the gray-haired man,” he said.
I asked Ryan. “As far as I know,” he said. (Broke him.)
Projections for the Falcons are all over the board. Some see Julio Jones, new coordinators, new philosophies and think, “Super Bowl.” But there’s emotional scar tissue from the past two seasons. Locally, this team seems to be flying under the radar.
“I guess everyone’s sitting back and waiting,” Turner said, “and if we’re fortunate enough to make the playoffs, they’ll see what happens then. That doesn’t bother us. We’ve got to make people believe. Hopefully we’ll get back there and make some noise when we get there.”
In a few days, there won’t be any secrets. We’ll know what really matters.
By Jeff Schultz