Mike Smith, the Atlanta Falcons Coaching Staff Still Have Things To Prove

John McCurdyCorrespondent IMay 15, 2009

OAKLAND, CA - NOVEMBER 2:  Head Coach Mike Smith of the Atlanta Falcons stands on the field in the midst of his players wearing his radio headset during a break in the game against the Oakland Raiders on November 2, 2008 at the Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum in Oakland, California. The Falcons defeated the Raiders 24-0. (Photo by Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images)

Did you catch the episode of Extreme Makeover that featured the entire Atlanta Falcons coaching staff?

Well, in case you missed it, let me sum it up for you: It went pretty darn well. This group no longer bears any resemblance to the dysfunction that resulted from Bobby Petrino's midseason departure in 2007.

Thank goodness!

Of course, that being said, every season brings new challenges for each NFL club, so don't expect any Dirty Bird director to be resting on his laurels in 2009.

Who proved himself the most last season, and who has the most work to do in preparation for the upcoming campaign?

You've Done Well, Sir

Mike Smith, Head Coach

You expected me to be down on last year's AP NFL Coach of the Year?

Video Play Button
Videos you might like

Much credit should be given to new Falcons GM Thomas Dimitroff; he used his New England pedigree and personal smarts to overhaul a dungheap of a roster.

But I don't think anyone could or would argue that Smith, hired from Jacksonville (where he served as an extremely successful defensive coordinator), did a remarkable job in his first season.

A ridiculously devoted man, Smith took up coaching at age 18 (!) after breaking his arm playing linebacker in high school.

After a college career at Tennessee Tech (he both played and coached), he quickly ascended to the pro ranks, where he served as D-coordinator for the Super Bowl-winning 1999 Baltimore Ravens.

With the Jags, he brought along such studs as Marcus Stroud, John Henderson, and Rashean Mathis.

Then, for those of you who've been living under a rock, he led the Falcons to exponential improvement in '08.

Exactly how he did it can't be described in words (watching games is perhaps the best way to see how well he can integrate all pieces of a team), but something tells me the extra wins had something to do with his dedication and straightforward communication style.

I wouldn't say Coach is finished, but as long as he keeps it up, we feel pretty safe here in Hotlanta.

Brian VanGorder, Defensive Coordinator

Yes, I am a recent University of Georgia grad, and yes, the heaping of accolades I'm about to execute might have a little tiny something to do with VanGorder's years with the Dawgs.

However, much like the case with Smith, it's widely accepted that Brian did darn good with what he was given last season.

He got an exceptional season out of John Abraham, age be damned, and always figured schemes that played to his group's strengths.

He will be tested more this coming season, as he loses linebacking leaders Keith Brooking and Michael Boley, but the acquisition of Mike Peterson (a former Jag) and the maturation of the secondary make consistency a more probable path than backslide.

Keep It Up, You Ain't There Yet

Bill Musgrave, Quarterbacks Coach

I'll be honest with you: Coming into 2008, I wasn't sure Musgrave was the man to break Matt Ryan into the NFL.

When your recent "accomplishments" include guiding Joey Harrington in his, um, astonishing 2007 season, you can't exactly win people over at first sight.

But dig a bit deeper into Musgrave's history, and the indications that Matty Ice would kill it were there. The guys that Bill has worked with throughout his playing and coaching careers constitute a Hall of Fame checklist.

Ever heard of Jeff George (who he coached), Joe Montana, Steve Young, John Elway, or Peyton Manning (all of whom he backed up)?

Guess that storied bunch imparted a few lessons on Musgrave, who should get plenty of nods for Ryan winning Offensive Rookie of the Year.

Still, how much of Matt's success was determined by the signal caller's own personality? Ryan put together an impressive season despite the receiving corps still being in the developmental stages, but was it Musgrave or the system in general that truly allowed for this?

Next season will be telling.

Mike Mularkey, Offensive Coordinator

Doubting the man who gave the Falcons the power to climb to sixth in the league in offense would be foolish. "Tight ends coach for the '07 Miami Dolphins" might not be the most attractive thing on a résumé, but Mularkey certainly quieted the haters a good bit this past campaign.

The way he balanced the ground attack by utilizing Michael Turner just enough and bringing along Jerious Norwood at the perfect pace was brilliant. That he turned a disaster of an air game into a sickly efficient machine (7.9 yards per reception) is nothing short of a miracle.

Better yet, he demanded no spotlight himself and made sure no player got too cocky for his own good.

Despite a lack of priors (head coach of the Bills in '04 and '05 isn't terribly impressive), Mike made Atlanta a feared point-scoring menace.

Still, he was fortunate more than talented in that he received a relative embarrassment of riches in his first season.

Both Ryan and Turner were delivered by the brass and were able to take teams by surprise; how will they hold up?

And Now for the Real Test

Glenn Pires, Linebackers Coach

Pires waves goodbye to franchise staples Brooking and Boley this season, and though he answers to VanGorder, the pressure will first be on him to seamlessly incorporate newcomer Peterson and defensive back convert Coy Wire.

He was in Miami until last season, and while the Fins' record didn't show much, the names of the boys he tossed out there week after week can't be ignored.

There was Zach Thomas and Joey Porter last year (and he got stellar performances out of both, though many said both were through), and before that, he worked with the defensive line and Jason Taylor and Adewale Ogunleye.

Let me do more than name-drop here, too; I'll point out that he contributed massively to the Falcs soaring to 11th in the league in sacks, and also that he brings along youngsters remarkably well in addition to dealing with older fellas (check Curtis Lofton's spike in production last year, despite playing between the aforementioned powerhouses).

But Pires will be close to starting from scratch this campaign in terms of chemistry; I love that Peterson led the Jaguars in tackles last season and that Lofton has improved so much already, but how Pires (who has stints with Syracuse, the Detroit Lions, and the Arizona Cardinals on his curriculum vitae) meshes his new guys with each other and the rest of the defense will be critical.

Chris Scelfo, Tight Ends Coach

It's pretty natural that expectations rise when your team picks up one of the best receiving tight ends in the game.

Scelfo, who has head coaching experience at Tulane (and that's about it), has his work cut out for him after Atlanta picked up Tony Gonzalez from the Chiefs this offseason.

If I heard it one time last season, I heard it a million times: All the Falcons need to become the best O in the league is a good tight end.

Now that Anthony has arrived, Scelfo faces the daunting task of kneading a big pass-catching threat into the space where block-first Ben Harstock was in 2008.

But we can toss these positives on the table for the man: The receiving corps is not crowded, though Roddy White and Harry Douglas made big strides, and Mularkey was once a tight ends coach himself, so he should provide much-needed guidance.

I'll just mention that the "pupil" in this situation has 12 times the NFL experience his "teacher" does; you take that how you will.

The Falcons will make for a story this year, either way; whether it's a tragedy as the team sinks to the bottom again or a triumph as they notch they first back-to-back winning seasons will, in large part, be up to these men on the sidelines and in the boxes.


The latest in the sports world, emailed daily.