Mike Smith tries not to curse a lot, certainly not in public. Even when recounting those few times this week when he dropped verbal grenades during film sessions, he edited himself for public consumption, either because he was afraid his mother might be hiding behind a tree (”Sometimes I say things that my mother wouldn’t want me to say”) or because he was concerned that I wouldn’t edit for him.
“Like, ‘I can’t believe we (pause) did that. Or, ‘That was a bad (pause) call.’ Or, ‘Why did I make that (pause) decision?’”
And yes, he really paused.
It’s generally wise for a coach to have a self-edit button. Expletives, fist-pounding and thrown objects play well with a segment of the fan base and can make you a star on YouTube. But the act gets old real quick, particularly with players. It’s more important that a coach knows he can command his players’ attention when needed. And about that: We’re about to find out how successful Smith was in connecting with the relative zombies who walked onto the field at Carolina last Sunday.
The Falcons play host to the New York Giants. The last time the teams met, the Giants wiped their shoes on the Falcons to open the playoffs (24-2) and went on to win the Super Bowl.
It’s debatable what’s really on the line this game. In theory, the Falcons could get blown off the field at the Georgia Dome and it wouldn’t matter. They’re 11-2. They’ve clinched the NFC South and, even with a loss, would still be in a good position for a first-round bye and home field in the playoffs.
But for perception, it means everything. This isn’t just about how the most second-guessed 11-2 team in NFL history measures up against the Giants. It’s also how the Falcons rebound from last week’s 30-20 loss at Carolina (which saw the Falcons fall behind 23-0). Every team has bad games. Great teams generally don’t have them in December.
The Falcons have generally responded to defeat well under Smith. They haven’t lost consecutive games since losing to Philadelphia and New Orleans in 2009, a span of 47 games. Overall, they’re 19-3 following losses under Smith, including 11 straight wins.
“It’s important to see how we respond,” center Todd McClure said. “We know the Giants are good and in the last few years they’ve been really good in December and they’ve gone on to win championships. So I guess it’s somewhat of a measuring stick.”
Not just for the players, but for Smith.
He understands that the focus is less on his unprecedented regular season success as a franchise head coach (53-23) than it is his playoff record (0-3). The Giants game impacts everybody’s comfort level going into January.
Smith laid into his players after the game Sunday. Then again on Monday in a team meeting. On Wednesday, players could sense Smith was still upset, and it filtered down to the rest of the coaching staff. “Even in defensive meetings on Wednesday, [Mike Nolan] was like, ‘OK, what coach Smith said Monday …’”
McClure said it’s easy to tell when Smith is upset.
“His face turns red,” he said. “He sticks his lip out, his chin out. You don’t have to hear him talk to know he’s ticked off.”
“On a scale of one to 10, it wasn’t a 10-through the roof thing,” Tony Gonzalez said. “But it was up there.”
Logic says this is when Smith turns the screw on players. But he said he would do the same if the Falcons were coming off a miserable performance in September.
“Guys have to know when they do something that it’s not acceptable,” he said. “You can’t change just because something happened in a different month.”
But isn’t there a greater sense of urgency now?
“Sure, in terms of it being near the end of the season. People don’t remember you for September and October, they remember you for December and January. We know that. This is when we all get judged.”
– By Jeff Schultz
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