Normally, when new head coaching searches start in the NFL, owners have a tendency to go after the hot offensive head coach or coordinator like Steve Spurrier a few years ago or like Jason Garrett of the Dallas Cowboys, but the Atlanta Falcons took a different approach to hiring a head coach last season.
Instead of going the road of so many owners, Arthur Blank went after a defensive coordinator in Mike Smith of the Jacksonville Jaguars. Some defensive coordinators struggle as head coaches because they have no idea how to run an offense and try to take too much on their plate, but Smith—unlike his predecessor, Bobby Petrino—found success in his first year as head coach and led his team to an 11-5 regular season record and to the playoffs.
Smith started by hiring some of the best and brightest young offensive minds in the NFL, bringing in Mike Mularkey—formerly the offensive coordinator and tight ends coach with the Miami Dolphins—and Bill Musgrave as quarterbacks coach.
Mularkey, who was the head coach of the Buffalo Bills a few years ago and was also the offensive coordinator with Pittsburgh Steelers, had a reputation of being one of the best offensive minds in the game. He created offensive schemes to showcase the talents of All-Pros Hines Ward and Antwaan Randle El. While with the Steelers, he earned the nickname “Inspector Gadget” because of all the trick plays he used.
Before he arrived in Atlanta, Musgrave—a former quarterback himself—help developed such talents as Matt Schaub at Virginia, who is also a former backup quarterback with the Falcons. While under Musgrave’s tutelage, Schaub broke 22 school records.
The combination of Musgrave and Mularkey proved to be just what the doctor ordered for then-rookie quarterback Matt Ryan. Unlike most rookie quarterbacks, Ryan barely struggled as a starter and that can be attributed to having experienced offensive minds behind him.
Smith was also wise to retain Emmitt Thomas as assistant head coach and secondary coach and Brian VanGorder as defensive coordinator. Thomas briefly took over as interim head coach when Petrino left for Arkansas. VanGorder was the linebackers coach the previous year with the Falcons. Keeping both of these coaches on his staff made the transition for the players—and Smith, for that matter—easier.
Mike Smith built the foundation of his team by combining some old familiar faces with some new faces and, to this point, it looks as if that combination is working for this young Falcons team.