Mike Smith and his Atlanta Falcon coaching staff don’t seek the spotlight. They don’t steal the headlines.
All they have to do is win. And so far, that’s all they’ve been doing.
Some coaches lack recognition because they have never earned it. The Atlanta Falcons’ coaches, on the other hand, are overshadowed for a much different reason, a reason with which they surely have no problem.
Quite simply, the stars of the show—at least in the media’s eyes—are the players and the front office brass.
Former Home Depot CEO Arthur Blank bought the Falcons prior to the 2002 season. After several years of success both on and off the field, Blank drew national attention as he endured an unimaginably nightmarish 2008 with the Falcons.
While the Michael Vick saga brought Blank more unwanted attention than anything else, head coach Bobby Petrino quit on the team with three games remaining in the season. Not to mention, Bill Parcells snubbed Blank in the offseason after looking poised to become the president of football operations.
The next targeted guru, however, did not bail on Blank. Last offseason, highly-touted general manager prodigy Thomas Dimitroff signed on to run the ship for Atlanta’s moribund football franchise. Working with current Patriots head coach Bill Belichick and current Chiefs president Scott Pioli in both Cleveland and New England, Dimitroff was New England’s director of college scouting from 2002 to 2007 after scouting for the Browns.
Dimitroff drew rave reviews for his work in New England, which featured two Super Bowl titles. It did not take long for the football whiz to make his biggest mark on the NFL as head of the Atlanta Falcons’ brain-trust.
Amidst substantial calls for the team to draft DT Glenn Dorsey with the third overall pick in the 2008 NFL Draft, Dimitroff snagged QB Matt Ryan. He also signed running back Michael Turner. The rest of 2008, of course, is history.
Bottom line: when your franchise boasts guys like Blank, Dimitroff, Ryan, and Turner—just to name a few—you don’t need outlandish, spotlight-hungry coaches. For example, Jon Gruden probably would not have been the choice had he been looking for work last offseason instead of this one.
Enter Mike Smith.
Smith broke into the NFL coaching rankings in 1999 as the head of linebackers for the Baltimore Ravens. In his four-year tenure there, he worked with a heralded corps of linebackers that included Ray Lewis, Peter Boulware, and Adalius Thomas. Smith also earned a Super Bowl ring in 2000 too.
In 2003, an offer to become the defensive coordinator for the Jacksonville Jaguars lured Smith away from the defensively dominant Ravens. From 2003 to 2006, the Jaguars finished fourth in total defense, third in scoring defense, and fifth in rushing defense (combined totals over those four years).
Look no further than Atlanta's recent signings of defensive end Chauncey Davis (resigning) and linebacker Mike Peterson (from Jacksonville) to understand Smith’s value, specifically to his players.
I had the chance to talk with both Davis and Peterson this offseason, and I asked them about the deciding factors in their decisions to suit up for the Falcons.
When asked if he explored other options during free agency, Davis responded, “I was pretty set on coming back. We finally got a coaching staff that’s going to here.”
Davis, of course, was referencing Petrino’s 2008 bailout, in which he bolted Atlanta for the University of Arkansas.
As a long-time Jacksonville Jaguar, Peterson has already worked extensively with Smith.
“It started with the coach and the coaching staff,” Peterson said of his interest in playing for the Falcons. “As a person, he (Smith) is a straightforward guy. As a player, you want a coach who shoots you straight, so you know what to expect from him.”
Smith is aided by a capable staff, with defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder and offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey.
VanGorder joined the Falcons in 2006 as the team’s linebacker coach, and he was elevated to coordinator when Smith took the head job in 2008. Smith and VanGorder previously worked together in Jacksonville during the 2005 season. VanGorder also has experience in the college ranks, at both the University of Georgia (defensive coordinator) and Georgia Southern (head coach in 2006).
Like Smith, Mularkey inched his way up the coaching food chain. He started in Pittsburgh coaching tight ends before becoming the team’s offensive coordinator under Bill Cowher. Success with the Steelers, including a rushing attack that led the NFL in 2001, earned Mularkey a head coaching job with the Buffalo Bills.
After two years as head man in Buffalo and two seasons as an assistant in Miami, Mularkey followed Smith to Atlanta prior to the Falcons’ 2008 resurgence.
The offensive genius is best known for his creative work in Pittsburgh with—among others—versatile threats Kordell Stewart, Hines Ward, and Antwaan Randle El. Fondly referred to as “Inspector Gadget,” Mularkey has to be nothing short of giddy over welcoming Pro Bowl tight end Tony Gonzalez into Atlanta’s already vast array of offensive weapons.
Of course, the coaching staff does not end there. If you follow the Falcons closely enough in 2009, you will surely familiarize yourself with the names Emmitt Thomas, Glenn Pires, and Paul Boudreau.
An assistant head coach, Thomas oversees the secondary, which is arguably the team’s most glaring question mark heading into the upcoming season. Thomas' tutelage of rookie safety William Moore could be critical.
Pires, who directs the linebackers, will be working with a new batch of starters following the departures of Keith Brooking and Michael Boley. The Falcons are high on up-and-coming linebacker Curtis Lofton, who will roam the field inside Peterson and possibly Coy Wire.
Boudreau is the offensive line coach, and aside from injuries, the only issue that could conceivably hinder what should be an offensive juggernaut is the o-line. If Ryan has time to throw and Turner has holes through which to maneuver, the Falcons’ offensive arsenal is going to be absolutely lethal.
So go ahead, gawk over Ryan torching defensive backs with perfect spirals. Cringe with excitement as Turner runs over 250-pound linebackers. Praise Dimitroff for putting who knows how many Pro Bowlers on the offensive side of the ball at the same time. And applaud Blank for assembling what looks like a squeaky-clean crop of players and coaches.
But just remember, there’s something more to these Atlanta Falcons.
The coaches. The unsung heroes.