Mike Smith works hard to reveal little, but those who know the man consider him a terrible loser. When his team fails, he doesn’t just feel bad — he agonizes. It’s fair to say that the Falcons’ failure to win a playoff game under this coach bothers this coach, who won a Super Bowl as a Baltimore assistant, more than it does anyone else.
On a Wednesday in August, the day before the Falcons would begin their exhibition schedule, Smith spoke of January. Sometimes he would stop himself — he is still Mike Smith — and insert a boilerplate, “Can’t put the cart before the horse — we’ve got to get there first.” But mostly this was Smitty being as candid as Smitty ever gets, at least for public consumption.
“When we get there,” he said, meaning the postseason, “we’ve got to play better football. We’ve got to coach better football. Look at the past two years — teams that play well in December and January [a reference to the late runs made by the Packers and Giants, both of whom beat the Falcons en route to the Super Bowl] … All playoff teams have talent; it’s the teams that play their best games in the playoffs that move forward.”
Then, speaking of his team: “We’ve got to do something better than we did last year, especially when we get to the postseason. Everybody knows that.”
The Falcons are exiting a tricky offseason. It’s never easy to change what has, at least from September through December, been working. We’ll never know if Smith would have fired coordinators Mike Mularkey and Brian VanGorder had they not been hired by somebody else, but we do know he was moved to cut ties with line coach Paul Boudreau, whose work in 2008 helped make Smith the NFL coach of the year.
Smith: “When you’re going through a process of building [as was the case in 2008], you have a foundation, but you have to be able to improvise and adjust. You do it every Sunday — you plan for one thing and something else happens. We don’t want to change things at the center of our philosophies, but you do have to tweak. And sometimes decisions are not always black-and-white — they’re subjective.”
More Smitty: “We’re going into this season wanting to be a better team than we were last year. We’ve always had high expectations. This year’s expectations are much higher than last year’s simply because we’re another year along in this maturation process.”
And more: “We’ve made significant changes in our roster, additions that we feel have strengthened us. We feel we’ve identified a lot of areas we need to improve. Trading for [cornerback] Asante Samuel will help us match up. We’ve not been a very good third-down team. We’ve also addressed and are addressing an area we felt we need to improve, and that’s the offensive line.”
To date, the coach has been pleased. “I like the way the guys have worked the first two weeks. They’ve worked hard, worked smart. I liked the way we went up to Dalton [for Monday's scrimmage against the Tennessee Titans]. I really was impressed with what we did throwing the football. We got a chance to look at different protections, and the work Matt [Ryan] and the receivers and the tight ends did was most impressive.
“There’s a lot of energy out here. It’s very competitive. … Any time there’s more competition, there’s going to be an energy. When you work hard and play fast, that leads you to be a team on edge.”
The Falcons didn’t lose in the playoffs last season (or the season before, or back in January 2009) because their work ethic was suspect. They lost because they got outplayed, duh, and maybe because they weren’t quite sure they were destined to win. The Falcons have been a good team ever since Smith started coaching them, but an edgy one? That’s a bit different, and not unwelcome.
“I believe you win in the locker room before you ever go out there,” Smith said. “You’ve got to have inner strength. Your foundation is laid in March, April and May. We’ve done a good job this offseason laying that foundation.”
The Falcons have four exhibitions and 16 regular-season games before they can think about January, but the cold truth is that nobody in Flowery Branch thinks about much else. This team has spent four years building. It’s time to finish the project and cut the ribbon.
Looking toward Thursday’s game, Smith said: “There are going to be some things that look the same, but there’ll be some things that look different.”
Then, speaking of his team’s design: “You don’t blow it up. You just try to adjust and make it better.”
By Mark Bradley