Unassuming Mike Smith has Falcons soaring

Posted Jan. 12, 2011 @ 9:26 a.m.
Posted By Dan Parr

As he watched the Falcons lose to the Saints on the night of Dec. 27, Phil Richart tried to think of a word — one that fit the situation the Falcons were facing and one that would register with Falcons head coach Mike Smith. The 68-year-old retiree helps mold Smith less now than when he coached him on the varsity football team at Father Lopez Catholic High School in Daytona Beach, Fla., more than 30 years ago.

Richart sends his postgame analysis to Smith each week from his home in Orlando shortly after the Falcons play. He did it after Smith coached his first preseason game for Atlanta in 2008, and it became a tradition. The messages are brief. Richart says he's not overly inspirational. It's not anything that will bring Smith to a higher level of coaching consciousness.

"I don't know that he's listening," Richart said. "He's kind enough to put up with me."

Of course, Smith is hanging on every word and he always replies. Smith's not one to ignore anyone and he's certainly not going to blow off his old coach, for whom he babysat when the only child in the Richart family, Larry, was growing up.

Smith is a coach's coach. He's the son of a coach. He started coaching for Richart when he was a senior in high school after a broken arm cut his season short in the second game of the year, and he remembers the names of his first youth basketball and baseball coaches.

Those are his mentors, but he soaks up knowledge wherever he can find it.

"No one is beneath (Smith) as far as learning," Falcons GM Thomas Dimitroff said. "He believes he can learn from anyone. Anyone from the custodial staff all the way to the top of the organization."

Plus, Richart's evaluations can be a pleasant break from the others that come his way.

"His critiques are probably a little less critical than some of the mail I might get during the week," Smith said.

Atlanta's three-point loss to New Orleans at the Georgia Dome that Monday night marked only the fourth Falcons home defeat during Smith's tenure, and it prevented them from locking up the division title and the No. 1 seed in the NFC. It was far from a crisis situation — the Falcons would go on to blow out the Panthers the next week to secure that top seed — but in the immediate aftermath of the missed opportunity against the Saints, Richart's message emphasized a theme that was familiar to both him and Smith.

"I sent him an e-mail that in capital letters said, 'REGROUP,' " recalled Richart, a heart attack and stroke survivor.

Some thought Smith was in too far over his head inheriting a team that had just experienced a season in which its franchise player was sent to prison and its previous head coach quit after 13 games to take a college job. Smith came to Atlanta as a relative unknown after serving as the Jaguars' defensive coordinator for five years.

Most observers believed it would take a massive rebuilding effort, and perhaps a few seasons, to turn Atlanta into a winner. Smith and the Falcons operated on their own schedule, however.

No head coach in Falcons history has had more wins in his first three seasons. And Atlanta had never had back-to-back winning seasons, let alone three in a row, before Smith led to them to finishes of 11-5, 9-7 and 13-3.

In fact, since he took over in '08, only one head coach in the league, the Patriots' Bill Belichick, has more regular-season wins than Smith's 33.

The first steps he took after he was hired didn't have much to do with installing new schemes or on-field matters, but they played a significant role in healing a broken franchise.

Smith immediately opened up lines of communication between the players and the coaching staff. He also introduced himself to all of his co-workers, not just the 53 players on the active roster.

They were small steps that made a big difference, and Smith was a veteran when it came to regrouping by the end of Year One, a year that saw him earn The Associated Press' NFL Coach of the Year honors.

It may have something to do with things he experienced and the dues he paid while serving as an assistant in stops at San Diego State, Morehead State and Tennessee Tech during his 16 years at the collegiate level. Perhaps it has to do with being the oldest of eight kids — he has four sisters and three brothers — and watching his parents, Sam and Carol, who were both teachers, at least primarily — Smith's father took on "more odd jobs than you could shake a stick at," according to Richart — work hard to keep their children in private school.

Smith just doesn't change much, even when the perceptions other people have of him evolve.

Those who knew Smith before he became a head coach say he's just as grounded as he was before having success at the highest level of his profession.

"Mike is the same guy he was three years ago as far as a person," said Dimitroff, who was hired several days before Smith. "He's a humble guy. He's a very genuine person. He has a really good combination of humility and confidence."

Mike Peterson, a linebacker who's in his 12th NFL season, has known Smith since '03, Peterson's first year as Jacksonville's starting middle linebacker and Smith's first season as the team's defensive coordinator. Peterson credits Smith as "the main, and probably the only, reason" that he signed with Atlanta, where he has started 29-of-32 games, before the '09 season.

"Smitty's still the same Smitty," he said. "He carries himself the same way. He speaks to the team the same way he spoke to the defense when he was the D-coordinator (in Jacksonville). That's a good thing."

Peterson said he and his Jaguars teammates had a pretty good idea of where Smith was headed from the beginning, and they used to tell him he was going to be a head coach before long. Smith wouldn't have it, though.

"He was like, 'Nah, I'm not going anywhere,' " Peterson said. "Never really thought of it until we actually started winning and the defense started getting in the limelight."

All of the attention that followed Falcons owner Arthur Blank's decision to make Smith his head coach, which wasn't greeted with exuberance from fans or analysts from around the league, caused Smith to adjust. He has gone from the career assistant who dodged the spotlight to bobbing his head along with his players and Blank on a bus in a nationally aired commercial advertising the NFL's Play 60 campaign. While Smith said the focus should be on his players, it didn't take him long to notice eyes were going to follow him, regardless.

"Everybody in the building is looking toward you for how the feel of the building is going to be," Smith said. "If you're not upbeat, everybody's watching, and they may not have the right attitude when they come in. ... When I was fortunate enough to get this job, one of the things that I told myself — and I've tried to stay true to it — is I'm never going to have a bad day.

"I might have bad moments in the day, but at the end of the day it's going to end up being a good day."

Some might call that an unrealistic, or perhaps an unhealthy, mental approach. Smith doesn't spend time worrying about whether it is or not.

"You can always tell his mind is spinning," Falcons C Todd McClure said. "He manages a lot of things. He's very detail-oriented, from our schedules to letting us know, ahead of time, days we're going to be off. He had our schedule ready all the way up to the Super Bowl back in March."

Now that schedule to the final game of the postseason has been nearly completed. The Falcons are only two home wins away from it.

The team still remembers what it's like to be one-and-done in the playoffs. It lost the only playoff game it has played under Smith back in his first season on the job. He calls the postseason experience of losing at Arizona in the wild-card round valuable, but he doesn't try to predict what effect it will have on his team this year. That's not Smith's style.

He's not interested in discussing the team's "internal" goals or the contract extension that probably will be coming his way this offseason. Smith has one year left on a four-year deal that reportedly was worth between $8 million and $10 million.

"There's a time and a place for that," Smith said. "Now is not the time or the place. It's important for us to have all of our energy and focus on the next game."

It's that commitment to looking ahead and never getting too satisfied with how far he has come and the disciplined core that it comes from that makes Richart so proud. Smith regroups over and over again, regardless of whether the last game was a win or a loss or whether the last moment went well or poorly.

It's hard to lose when you don't allow yourself to have a bad day.

Richart hasn't been to a game at the Georgia Dome, although Smith has invited him. The old coach has been hesitant to be around a big crowd ever since health issues affected his vision.

If the Falcons do make a playoff run, though, Richart is going to have a hard time staying put.

"If they make the Super Bowl, I think (Smith) could talk me into (going)," he said. "I would go down early enough where I could see him so I don't mess up any of his preparation times and such. I wouldn't want to do that.

"And hell, he wouldn't let me."

The coach still knows Smith too well.


This column was first published in the Jan. 16, 2011, print edition of Pro Football Weekly, which also contains features on Bears QB Jay Cutler, the Patriots' unsung RB duo, and rehired interim coaches Leslie Frazier and Jason Garrett, as well as previews of all four divisional playoff games and an early fantasy draft board for 2011. The PFW print edition is on sale at retail outlets across the country and also online at PFWstore.com, where both print and electronic (PDF) versions can be purchased.