To borrow from Dr. Johnson, nothing concentrates the mind like being rushed to the hospital with chest pains. To those of us who follow the Falcons, news that Mike Smith’s team had returned from Charlotte without its coach had a different concentrating effect. It made us ponder a sobering question: If the Falcons were to be without Smitty for however long, how would they be?
Answer: Not nearly as good.
Because Mike Smith works so diligently to take no credit, we forget how much credit is due. He isn’t just the best coach in Falcons history — he’s the best coach in Falcons history by the width of Grady Jackson.
If we don’t count the assorted interims and we count Marion Campbell only once — although we do list Grover Cleveland as both the 22nd and 24th President of these United States — the Falcons have had 11 head coaches in their 46 seasons. Only three of those have compiled a winning record while based here: Leeman Bennett, who was 46-41; Jim Mora, who was 26-22, and Smitty, whose worksheet of 41-20 renders him the Birds’ version of Vincent Thomas Lombardi.
This is how good Smith has been: No other Falcons coach — not even the estimable Dan Reeves, who took this team to a Super Bowl — ever managed consecutive winning seasons. If the Falcons beat Jacksonville on Thursday night, Smitty will have gone 4-for-4. Add Norb Hecker and Norm Van Brocklin and Dan Henning and Jerry Glanville and June Jones and the 13 games of Bobby Petrino and the two terms of Swampy Campbell together, and you’ll get a total of four winning seasons.
For more than four decades a forlorn franchise sought a man this good, and now that one has been found and retained the man himself acts as if the Falcons are still doing him a favor to let him coach. Actually, it’s the other way around. With Mike Smith, we don’t get the rages of Van Brocklin or the smugness of Henning or Mora or the gimmicks of Glanville or the exit strategy of the Tyrannosaurus Rat Petrino. We get instead a professional coach coaching professionally, and thank goodness for that.
No, Smith hasn’t yet won a playoff game, and that gnaws at him. Everything gnaws at him, which might be a reason he wound up in the hospital. He doesn’t want to win a Super Bowl to burnish his own legend. In Smith’s mind, there’s nothing legendary about him. He’s just a guy who goes to work early and stays late, same as all the other guys coaching in the NFL. Like every assistant, he wanted to run his own club someday, but the feeling persists that Smitty could have spent another 10 years as a defensive coordinator and retired a happy man.
In Smith’s mind, he got outrageously lucky. A franchise that had been wrecked turned to a Jacksonville assistant who, far from being a Hot Name, had the sort of name seen on registers at no-tell motels. The Falcons gave him a chance, and 11 1/2 months later they were in playoffs. He hasn’t dazzled us with verbiage or blinded us with ego. He has just gone out and won two of every three games. His winning percentage, you might be surprised to know, is better than Sean Payton’s, better even than Bill Belichick’s.
This isn’t to say this season has been a smooth ride. Through 13 games this has been the most nettling of Smith’s tenure. He tries his best never to say anything critical of his players, but a couple of times he has let it slip that his Falcons haven’t yet played anything resembling “a complete game.” (After losing in Houston, he even allowed that was “mad.”) This is the most talented roster he has had, and it hasn’t yet played to capacity. That said …
It’s 8-5. If the playoffs commenced today, the Falcons would qualify as the NFC’s No. 5 seed, and if you get in you can stick around. (The Falcons know this too well. Smith’s playoff losses have been to a 9-7 Arizona team and to sixth-seeded Green Bay, both of which reached the Super Bowl.)
There’s a chance these Birds could do something similar. They’re talented enough, and they play better defense than Green Bay or New Orleans. If this offense ever clicked for four quarters, who knows what might happen?
But enough. We can worry about the playoffs later. For now, it’s enough to know that the most difficult season under Smitty has put the Falcons in position to finish 10-6, and there were times — heck, there were decades — when just breaking .500 would have been cause for civic celebration. In his humble way, Mike Smith has changed all that. He has made us expect more and better. He’s a heck of a coach.
By Mark Bradley