Attention, fans of the Detroit Lions, St. Louis Rams, Cleveland Browns, Seattle Seahawks, and Oakland Raiders! There is reason to hope that the 2009 NFL season will not be filled with frustration, embarrassment, and disappointment.
Over the past 10 seasons, eight teams that reached or won the Super Bowl had a losing or .500 record the previous season. That obviously doesn’t mean that all of these teams that struggled last season are playoff bound, but at least there is a sliver of hope.
The Atlanta Falcons are a team that can attest to the belief in a quick reversal of fortune. The Falcons were 4-12 in 2007, and were facing the prospect of replacing a franchise quarterback and a head coach.
All Atlanta did last season, though, was post a record of 11-5 and make the playoffs.
How did the Falcons make their improbable turnaround? They became a model of consistency by starting at the top and working down—that’s how.
The Falcons hired a shrewd president, a bright general manager, and a hard-nosed head coach and made key offseason personnel moves.
By now, everyone knows about the players on the field who helped the Falcons become one of the best teams in the NFL. Matt Ryan, Michael Turner, and other key players helped the city forget about the Michael Vick and Bobby Petrino nightmares.
However, the Falcons made the best moves in 2008 in areas that weren’t directly visible on the football field.
Here is a look at the key coaching and front office personnel who helped the Falcons go from 4-12 to formidable foes:
Head Coach Mike Smith
When Atlanta hired Smith on Jan. 23, 2008, he was hardly the most popular or sexiest coaching candidate. Smith had been a quiet presence as the defensive coordinator for the Jacksonville Jaguars, but he wasn’t a household name on the coaching carousel.
Smith was a key figure in the Baltimore Ravens’ Super Bowl championship team in 2000 before serving as defensive coordinator for the Jaguars from 2003-07. Under his leadership, Jacksonville’s defense was ranked fourth overall in the NFL.
Smith’s coaching resume began at his alma mater, Tennessee Tech. While at Tech, he led the Golden Eagles to a top 10 ranking in total defense in 1997 and 1998.
Offensive Coordinator Mike Mularkey
The Falcons got a coach with a strong pedigree when they hired Mularkey to run the offense. Mularkey spent eight seasons (1996-2003) on the successful coaching staff of the Pittsburgh Steelers under former head coach Bill Cowher.
Mularkey was the offensive coordinator for Cowher his final three seasons in Pittsburgh. During that time, his offense led the league in rushing and finished third in total offense in 2001.
Mularkey was the head coach of the Buffalo Bills in 2004 and 2005, and he led the Bills to the playoffs in ’04 with a 9-7 record. Prior to that season, Buffalo hadn’t reached the playoffs since 1999.
Defensive Coordinator Brian VanGorder
Although VanGorder did have the NFL experience that Smith and Mularkey did, he still brought with him an impressive resume.
Prior to taking over the defense last year, VanGorder spent one season coaching linebackers for the Falcons. He was also the head coach of Georgia Southern University in 2006 and was the linebackers coach for Smith in Jacksonville in 2005.
From 2001-04, VanGorder was the defensive coordinator for the Georgia Bulldogs in the Southeastern Conference. In 2003, he won the Frank Broyles Award as the nation’s top assistant coach.
General Manager Tom Dimitroff
Although he is only 42 years old, Dimitroff has been around football for most of his life and has learned from some of the best minds in the game.
In New England, Dimitroff was directly responsible for drafting players like cornerback Ellis Hobbs, running back Laurence Maroney, cornerback Asante Samuel, tight end Ben Watson, and nose tackle Vince Wilfork.
Dimitroff directs football operations for the Falcons, and has the final authority in signing free agents, choosing draft picks, and making trades.