A coach can be as revered or despised as any team or player, but one coach that has been seemingly overlooked altogether is Falcons head coach Mike Smith.
Yet, it seems that, this season, the Falcons have been slighted at every turn.
Having gone undefeated through the first half of the season, Atlanta was still not favored as the best team in the NFL.
Moreover, while coaches make their yearly trips to the hot seat, Smith receives little adoration and even comes under fire for not having attempted a two-point conversion in the Falcons’ first loss of the season to the New Orleans Saints.
Here are three reasons to give Smith his due.
When Smith arrived in Atlanta in 2008, the Falcons had not reached the playoffs since they lost the 2004 NFC Championship to the Philadelphia Eagles.
More immediately, Michael Vick had just been convicted on dog fighting charges and Smith’s predecessor, Bobby Petrino, had left in the dead of night to coach the Arkansas Razorbacks.
Smith inherited a 4-12 team that he wasted no time rebuilding.
Success did not stop there. Though the Falcons lost the division in 2009—being beaten out by a 13-3 New Orleans Saints team that went on to win the Super Bowl—a 9-7 record was enough for Smith and the Falcons to record the first back-to-back winning seasons in franchise history.
The biggest criticism of Smith and this Falcons team has undoubtedly been their inability to win in the postseason, particularly when they clinched the No. 1 seed, going 13-3 in 2010.
However, though they are 0-3 in the playoffs, each loss has been to a team that has played in, or, more often, won the Super Bowl that year.
From 2008 to this season, the Falcons are 51-21 under Smith, equal to a .708 winning percentage.
Smith coached under defensive coordinator Rex Ryan with the Ravens until 2002. When Ryan went to the Jets, he entered a situation similar to that which Smith entered in Atlanta: a struggling team with a rookie starting quarterback.
Despite some early playoff success, from 2009 until now, Ryan’s Jets are just slightly above .500 at 31-25.
Smith joined the Jacksonville Jaguars under Del Rio in 2003 as the defensive coordinator there. Del Rio was there until 2011 and in his tenure his winning percentage was even worse, going a total 73-63.
In fact, Del Rio only had three winning seasons with the Jaguars. All three came with Mike Smith on staff.
Sean Payton, Tom Coughlin and Bill Belichick are all names that dominate the “top coach” conversation, but in the last four years Smith has been nearly as successful.
Since Smith has been a head coach, only the Baltimore Ravens have made more playoff appearances. In that same time, the Falcons, Steelers, Colts, Patriots, Eagles, Saints and Packers have all reached the playoffs three times.
Almost all of these teams have arguably top-ten coaches.
All of the Falcons’ playoff runs have been earned with big winning streaks late in the season. In 2012, success has come early to Atlanta.
Through the first eight games of the season, the Falcons were undefeated. Their one loss came when they could not score from the 2-yard line late in the game to win.
Despite the prowess of the Atlanta pass attack, the Falcons have had to fight for wins this season. Through the first nine games, the Falcons are 5-1 in games decided by a touchdown or less. It is those games where decision-making on the field and the sidelines is pivotal.
Their most convincing wins have come against Denver, Philadelphia and Dallas, all of whom are in the playoff picture currently. In their final seven games, the Falcons face division opponents four times and have three games against teams with winning records.
These games should test Smith and the Falcons, but they will just as likely reaffirm their regular-season dominance. If they stay hot, this could be the year that Smith solidifies his place in the top coaching conversation with a Super Bowl win.