When your star player is convicted and sentenced to prison on felony charges, that is usually a bad omen of things to come. Such was the case for the Atlanta Falcons when quarterback Michael Vick accepted a plea bargain and was sentenced to 23 months in prison on dog fighting charges. Thus, began the downward spiral of a team that was built on the identity of a singular player.
In the aftermath, Falcons owner Arthur Blank, who felt betrayed by Vick, told ESPN’s Chris Mortensen: "We are resolved to get this franchise back on the rebound and become the most successful in the NFL."
Ironically, Atlanta’s 2007-2008 season would require everyone—Blank, players, fans, and coaches—with a connection to the Falcons to channel up a magnitude of resolve.
Blank replaced Jim Mora with University of Louisville head coach Bobby Petrino to the tune of five years and $24 million. It’s safe to assume that Petrino accepted the job thinking that he would get a chance to coach Michael Vick. Unfortunately for Petrino, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell suspended Vick indefinitely, pending some resolution to his felony dog fighting charges.
The loss of Vick and the addition of Petrino combined for a perfect storm of drama. In football circles, Bobby Petrino is known as a no-nonsense coach, who preaches accountability and demands perfection, but his rigid style immediately rubbed Falcons players the wrong way.
Infamously, during a nationally televised game against Carolina, then-Falcons cornerback Deangelo Hall received an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty that basically handed the Panthers the victory. After the play, Hall openly engaged in a shouting match with Petrino and assistant coach Joe Whitt, Jr.
From that moment on, Petrino’s relationship with players was touch-and-go and finally came to a head when, with three games remaining, Petrino resigned his post to become the head coach at the University of Arkansas.
Reeling from the loss of Vick, the sudden departure of Petrino and the end to a hapless season, Arthur Blank set out a mandate for change, which began with stripping team president Rich McKay of his responsibilities as general manager. Blank sought to make a splash so he went after—who else?—the “Big Tuna,” Bill Parcells.
With a tentative deal in place to become Atlanta’s head of football operations, Parcells told ESPN’s Chris Mortensen: "I’m pretty sure I’m going to do it…I don’t think there’s any deal breakers here." Apparently, negotiations hit a snag because, overnight, Parcells snubbed Blank and accepted a similar job offer with the Miami Dolphins.
In light of the snub, Blank hired Thomas Dimitroff, who served as the director of college scouting for the New England Patriots, as general manager. Conversely, the coaching search was not resolved quite as easily.
The Falcons interviewed Dallas Cowboys offensive coordinator Jason Garrett, who later turned down the job; Indianapolis Colts assistant head coach Jim Caldwell, who withdrew himself from consideration; and Dallas Cowboys assistant coach Tony Sparano, who eventually signed on to become the head coach of the Miami Dolphins. Four other candidates were interviewed before the Falcons introduced Jacksonville Jaguars defensive coordinator Mike Smith as the team’s new head coach.
Smith, who promised a back-to-basics approach, arrived in Atlanta with an impeccable resume. As a linebacker at East Tennessee, Smith captured defensive MVP honors twice and as a senior, set the single season record for tackles (186).
After a few collegiate coaching stops, Smith landed in Baltimore, where he served as the defensive line coach from 1999-2001 and in 2002, he served as the linebackers coach. In 2000, Smith was a part of the staff that led the Ravens to a victory in Super Bowl XXXV.
After former colleague Jack del Rio landed the job as the Jacksonville Jaguars head coach, he hired Smith to serve as the team’s defensive coordinator. From 2003-2007, Smith led a defensive unit that ranked consistently in the top 10. In fact, in 2006 the Jaguars ranked second overall in total defense.
Finally, in 2008, the Falcons hired Smith to serve as head coach. Under Smith’s tutelage, the Falcons went from a record of 4-12 in '07-'08 to 11-5 in '08-'09, which garnered Smith Coach of the Year honors, narrowly edging out fellow rookie Dolphins head coach Tony Sparano.
Although Smith spearheaded the effort, he didn’t do it all alone. Atlanta’s coaching staff includes accomplished coaches, former players and even, a Hall of Famer.
Mike Mularkey serves as Atlanta’s offensive coordinator. Mularkey played tight end in the NFL for the Vikings (1983-88) and the Steelers (1989-91). In 1995, he served as the tight ends coach for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and from 1996-2000, served in the same post for the Pittsburgh Steelers.
In 2001, Pittsburgh promoted Mularkey to offensive coordinator. Once promoted, Mularkey, along with fellow assistants Ken Whisenhunt and Russ Grimm, created an offensive scheme that utilized two-back and two tight end power sets and was predicated on a power running attack.
In his first two years as offensive coordinator, the Steelers ranked third and fifth in total offense, respectively. In 2001, the Steelers led the league in rushing. In 2004, Mularkey was named as the head coach of the Buffalo Bills, where he amassed a record of 14-18.
In 2006, Mularkey joined the Miami Dolphins initially serving as the offensive coordinator and later, as the tight ends coach. In 2008, Mularkey joined the Falcons.
On the defensive side, Brian VanGorder serves as the defensive coordinator. In 1989, VanGorder joined the collegiate ranks of coaching after serving as the head coach of several high schools in Florida, where he posted a 52-16 record and captured Coach of the Year honors on seven occasions.
After coaching stints at Grand Valley State, Wayne State, Central Michigan, Central Florida and Western Illinois, VanGorder was hired as the defensive coordinator at the University of Georgia.
During VanGorder’s tenure from 2001-2004, the Bulldogs consistently ranked in the top 10 in total defense. Furthermore, during those four seasons, the Bulldogs amassed a record of 42-10, captured the SEC title and SEC East Division championship and earned three bowl game berths. In 2003, VanGorder received the Frank Boyles award, which is given to the nation’s top assistant coach.
In 2005, VanGorder served as linebackers coach for the Jacksonville Jaguars and in 2006, he was hired as the head coach at Georgia Southern University. Finally, in 2007, he joined the Falcons staff as linebackers coach before being made the defensive coordinator.
While every Falcons coach is instrumental in the team’s success, none has been more responsible for holding the team together after the Petrino debacle than assistant head coach Emmitt Thomas.
Emmitt Thomas played as a defensive back for the Kansas City Chiefs for 13 years (1966-1978), where he finished his career with 58 interceptions which ties him for the eighth-most ever in NFL history. Moreover, Thomas’s stellar play and contributions to the league have recently earned him election to the NFL Hall of Fame.
In 1979, Thomas began his coaching career at Central Missouri State. From 1981-85, Thomas served as an assistant coach for the St. Louis Cardinals. From 1986-94, Thomas served as the wide receivers and defensive backs coach for the Washington Redskins. In 1995, he was hired as the defensive coordinator for the Philadelphia Eagles.
During Thomas’s tenure, the Eagles ranked fourth in total yards in 1995, fifth in total defense in 1996, and first in run defense in 1998.
In 1999, Thomas accepted the position of defensive coordinator for the Green Bay Packers. From 2000-01, Thomas led the Vikings defensive unit; in 2000, the Vikings ranked sixth in rushing defense.
In 2002, Thomas joined the Falcons as a defensive assistant and in 2007, after Bobby Petrino’s abrupt resignation, Falcons owner Arthur Blank chose Thomas to serve as the team’s interim head coach. With Thomas at the helm,the Falcons concluded their tumultuous 2007-08 with a victory against the Seattle Seahawks.
In 2008, Falcons head coach Mike Smith named Emmitt Thomas as the assistant head coach.
Over their many years in football, the coaches on the Falcons staff have acquired a wide-range of knowledge from their myriad experiences. Aside from their wealth of football knowledge, coach Smith and his staff have provided something that had eluded the Falcons, especially in the prior season: stability.