Flowery Branch — Not to bring up a depressing precedent, but Jim Mora was 17-8 after 25 games as Falcons coach and 9-14 thereafter. Mike Smith is 16-9 after 25 games, his Falcons having lost three of four.
At issue now: Can Smith do what Mora conspicuously could not, which is right a team going wrong?
These Falcons can still make the postseason. They can also miss the playoffs and finish without that forever-sought second consecutive winning season. This season can go either way now, and it’s the head coach’s job to make it go his way.
The Falcons go to New Jersey for a game Sunday against the Giants, who are likewise 5-4 but are coming off a bye. For the first time under Smith, the Falcons seem to be dealing from weakness. They lost a game in Charlotte they should have won. The prized tailback has a bad ankle. The prized quarterback is in a funk. The famous kicker can no longer kick.
Mora had Plan A. Indeed, he got the job because he dazzled the Falcons’ brass with his charts and briefing books. But, as Mike Tyson famously said, everybody has a plan until they get hit in the mouth. The Falcons got hit in the mouth in the middle of Year 2 under Young Jimbo and he never came up with Plan B.
Smith figures to find one. He is a better coach than Mora, and Smitty has better coaches around him. Even without Turner — all Smith would say Monday was that he’s “confident Michael Turner will play again in 2009” — there’s enough offensive talent on hand to make do. That’s provided Ryan gets its going again, which likewise falls on the coaching staff.
Ryan proved as a rookie he has all the attributes of a winning NFL quarterback. His coaches must isolate what’s not working — be it mechanics or mind-set or decision-making — and administer the antidote. “That’s our job,” Smith said, “and not just with Matt Ryan. Our job as a coaching staff is to make sure we turn over every stone and look in minute detail to help our players perform better.”
If there was a word of the day at 4400 Falcon Parkway, it was “precision.” Mora once held a goofball Monday briefing in which his theme was “fight on!” Smitty is too much of a pro for such sophomoric glop. He’s a technical guy, a taskmaster, a coach’s coach.
“We have to be very precise in what we’re doing,” Smith said. “One person not doing his job on a play can lead to failure of the play, and one play can cost a ballgame.”
Believe it or not, professionals are more motivated by details — and the desire not to be embarrassed come Monday’s film sessions — than by happy talk and bromides. Mora wanted his men to fight their way out of a hole; Smith wants his players to play their way out of it. Big difference.
As dark as it seems now, this season isn’t nearly lost. Only four NFC teams have more victories than the Falcons, and of the other three 5-4 teams, the Falcons will face two of them. This team can still get where it needs to go, and I’m thinking it will. I’m still thinking 10-6, still thinking playoffs.
And I’m thinking, not for the first time, that Mike Smith is no Jim Mora. Thank goodness for that.