For the umpteenth time, on Thursday Night Football, Falcons head coach Mike Smith was horrendously out-coached by his peer in the Crescent City. Frankly, it wasn't even close. While the score—17-13 in favor of New Orleans—reminded us that Saints fans may deservedly worry with matchups like the Seattle Seahawks and Carolina Panthers around the bend, when it came to crunch time, Payton had what it took.
He always does.
It seems so long ago (especially at 2-9) that the Falcons were mere seconds away from a Super Bowl. It was the perfect setup for Falcons success in the post-Bountygate NFC South with both the Panthers and Tampa Bay Buccaneers floundering as well. Now, in 2013, the Panthers have taken a huge step forward, the Saints are back in business, and even the lowly Bucs are making notches in the win column.
Why, again, does Smith get a free pass?
Is it the winning percentage? Because that's the only good reason. Admittedly, it's a darn good one. Smith is 58-33 in his almost six years as a head coach. That's almost 64 percent of games won, which puts him just outside of the top 20 all time.
Yet, in a league that is consistently worried about "what have you done for me lately," and more importantly, realizing that wins are not the end-all, be-all of statistical analysis (sorry, Tim Tebow), it's worthwhile to ask oneself if Smith is driving the train in all of those 58 wins—or is he just along for the ride?
To use the player comparison: Is Mike Smith the coaching version of New York Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez? Passable with a ton of talent around him, but easily exposed and buttfumbly when the going gets tough?
Am I saying he is? No.
Am I saying that the Falcons need to start having these discussions? Yes.
Grantland writer Bill Barnwell keeps a closer eye on coaches and coaching decisions than most and had this to say recently about the temperature of Smith's seat:
Injuries are an obvious cause for the struggles of the 2-8 Falcons, and Smith's 56-24 record heading into the season should give him more rope than this. Atlanta is a truly decimated team that might be responsible for the biggest year-to-year decline in league history by the time the season's up, but Smith will get another crack at the job.
Jeff Schultz of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution has started to question if Smith is beginning to lose the locker room:
The Falcons have lacked focus, an edge and confidence. There were warning signs last season when they unraveled down the stretch of both home playoff games against Seattle and San Francisco. This season, they haven’t looked like a well-coached, cohesive group since they broke training camp.
They have looked sloppy and unprepared. Every week is another mutating blob of turnovers, penalties, missed assignments and mis-tackles. That’s either poor coaching, poor listening or both.
General manager Thomas Dimitroff is one of the smartest men in the game. He's assembled a pretty darn good roster that has been beset by injuries. While one would like the team to be a little deeper on defense and on the offensive line, it isn't as if there aren't good players on the field. Honestly, the Falcons are still too good to be this bad.
It also isn't as if other teams don't have injury issues to contend with. Let's also not pretend that injury issues haven't gotten coaches fired before—right, Ken Whisenhunt? Right.
Smith is supposed to be a defensive genius, but the defense is among the worst in the league. Maybe you're not winning individual matchups, but can't you manage to engineer some pressure? The Falcons—even after the injuries—have more bare talent on their defense than the Saints do right now. The difference is the Saints defensive coordinator has been putting his players in position to win.
If quarterback Matt Ryan were hurt and Smith's defense was being let down by some third-stringer at QB and a moribund offense, that would be one thing. No, on the contrary, both the offense and the defense have regressed in 2013, which not only highlights the injuries, but also maximizes the focus on every single coaching mistake.
How can you not score touchdowns in the red zone? How do you settle for field goals again and again when you have nothing to lose?
How can you fail to adjust your offense as your quarterback gets battered and bruised behind little protection?
What is it, you'd say, you do here?
I agree with Barnwell and others who feel that Smith is going to get the free pass that he is clearly getting from the media and from the Falcons. If he continues to make mistakes on the sidelines every single week and his coordinators continue to get out-schemed on a weekly basis, it will be more difficult to justify his "Get out of Jail Free" card.
If the only real reason to keep Mike Smith around is his winning percentage, these are the talks we have to have as that number plummets.