Can Mike Smith Turn Around the Falcons?

by Ilan Mochari on February 5, 2008 @ 23:18:36 PDT


Let's not mince words: The Atlanta Falcons (4-12) had a disastrous 2007 campaign. Sloppy play wasn't the only problem: The Falcons front office got egg on its face when head coach Bobby Petrino resigned after 13 games so he could take the reins at the University of Arkansas. Secondary coach Emmitt Thomas coached the final three contests. The Falcons went 1-2 and cemented their draft position: They'll pick third, fourth or fifth, depending on a coin flip at the Scouting Combine in February.

Jan. 13 - exactly two weeks after their season-ending 44-41 win over the Seattle Seahawks - the Falcons announced the hiring of Thomas Dimitroff, 40, as the club's new general manager. Dimitroff had spent the last five years as Director of College Scouting for the New England Patriots. Ten days later the Falcons introduced Mike Smith, 48, as the team's new head coach. Smith had served as defensive coordinator of the Jacksonville Jaguars for the past five seasons (2003-07). Smith is the 14th head coach in Falcons history.


Smith has coached in some form or fashion for the past 26 years, mostly on the defensive side. He began as a quality-control assistant at San Diego State (1982-85), on a staff that also included Brian Billick, former head coach of the Baltimore Ravens. Smith began dating the sister of Billick's wife; he eventually married her and became Billick's brother-in-law. In 1986, Smith went to Morehead State, where he coached the defensive line. Next, Smith spent 12 seasons at Tennessee Tech (1987-1998) in various capacities: special teams coach, defensive line coach and, ultimately, defensive coordinator.

Smith's NFL career began in 1999, when the Ravens hired Billick. Smith promptly came aboard as the defensive line coach. At the time, the Ravens linebackers coach was none other than current Jaguars head coach Jack Del Rio. Both Smith and Del Rio earned Super Bowl rings in 2000, coaching units on a Ravens defense that surrendered only 165 regular-season points. In 2002, with Del Rio departing to become the defensive coordinator of the Carolina Panthers, Smith became the Ravens linebackers coach. He worked with Pro Bowl linebackers Ray Lewis and Peter Boulware.

In 2003, Del Rio, entering his rookie season as the Jaguars head coach, hired Smith as the defensive coordinator. Smith held the job for five seasons. In 2007, the Jaguars defense ranked 12th in yards allowed and 10th in points allowed; in 2006 the Jaguars ranked second in yards allowed and fourth in points allowed; in 2005 the Jaguars ranked sixth in both yards and points allowed; in 2004 the Jaguars ranked 11th in yards allowed and seventh in points allowed; and in 2003, Smith's first season as defensive coordinator, the Jaguars ranked sixth in yards allowed and 18th in points allowed. In short, Smith built a track record of consistency. It's easy to see how that appealed to the Falcons: Last season, led by their since-departed defensive coordinator, Mike Zimmer (now the defensive coordinator of the Cincinnati Bengals), the Falcons finished 27th in yards and 29th in points allowed.

Still, there's been skepticism about Smith's hiring. Some critics have asked why the Ravens - for whom Smith worked for four years - didn't interview him to fill their own head coaching vacancy, opting instead for Philadelphia Eagles defensive backs coach John Harbaugh. In addition, defensive end Marcellus Wiley, who played defensive end for Smith for two years in Jacksonville, told ESPN that the Jaguars locker room didn't view Smith as a shot-caller. "It was the Jack Del Rio show," Wiley said, crediting Del Rio and linebacker Mike Peterson with instilling the squad's leadership as well as toughness.

Wiley is the only player to publicly badmouth Smith, so far. In fact, Peterson, cornerback Rashean Mathis, defensive end Paul Spicer and defensive tackle Marcus Stroud have all praised Smith for his schemes, teaching ability and work ethic.

In-house Impact

Smith has always relied on a talented defensive tackle tandem to anchor his 4-3 scheme. His Ravens squads boasted the formidable combination of defensive tackles Tony Siragusa and Sam Adams. With the Jaguars, Smith coached Stroud and two-time Pro Bowl defensive tackle John Henderson.

Of course, Falcons defensive tackles Montavious Stanley and Jonathan Babineaux hardly inspire comparisons to those hallowed pairs. However, a deeper look reveals some potential on the Falcons line. Defensive tackle Rod Coleman spent 2007 on Injured Reserve, but he is only 31 and has three seasons with more than 10 sacks. Defensive tackle Trey Lewis started five games as a rookie before landing on Injured Reserve in Week 12. Defensive end John Abraham, 29, has four seasons with 10 or more sacks. His counterpart, defensive end Jamaal Anderson, started 16 games as a rookie first-round pick. To develop this promising group, Smith hired Ray Hamilton as defensive line coach. Hamilton spent the past five seasons with Smith, coaching the defensive line in Jacksonville. He clearly understands Smith's run-stuffing principles, and their collective track record with the Jaguars speaks for itself.

Smith has not yet hired coaches for the linebackers and secondary, but he's employed the previous coaches of those units in different capacities. Brian VanGorder, the Falcons linebackers coach last season, is now the defensive coordinator. VanGorder and Smith should be on the same page; they spent 2005 together in Jacksonville, with VanGorder as the linebackers coach.

Meanwhile, Thomas, who coached the Falcons secondary last season before becoming the interim head coach, is now the assistant head coach. Whether Thomas and Smith will mesh remains unclear.

On offense, Smith hired Mike Mularkey as offensive coordinator. Mularkey's previous stints as an offensive coordinator were with the Pittsburgh Steelers (2001-03) and Miami Dolphins (2006). Mularkey was also the head coach of the Buffalo Bills in 2004 (9-7) and 2005 (5-11). Though Mularkey won't be in over his head, he and Smith have never worked together. Mularkey also inherits a shaky quarterback situation, with veteran quarterback Chris Redman still No. 1 on the depth chart, ahead of first-round disappointment quarterbacks Byron Leftwich and Joey Harrington. To assist Mularkey, the Falcons are bringing back quarterbacks coach Bill Musgrave for another season. Musgrave worked with Smith in Jacksonville in 2003 and 2004, when Musgrave was the Jaguars offensive coordinator. However, Musgrave has no history with Mularkey, so their chemistry is untested. Mularkey also has never worked with new wide receivers coach Terry Robiskie.

Fantasy Impact

The fantasy player with the most to lose may be wide receiver Roddy White, who caught 83 passes for 1,202 yards and six touchdowns last season. Can White's success continue under Mularkey? In Mularkey's previous stint as an offensive coordinator, with the 2006 Dolphins, not a single wideout surpassed 750 yards receiving or 70 receptions. Wide receiver Wes Welker (New England Patriots) led the team with 67 catches while wide receiver Marty Booker topped the squad with 747 receiving yards. The Dolphins quarterback that season was none other than Harrington. The fantasy silver lining to the 2006 Dolphins offense was running back Ronnie Brown, but even he did not dominate, amassing a somewhat pedestrian 1,008 rushing yards and five touchdowns.

However, Mularkey's players did enjoy fantasy success during his years with the Bills and Steelers. From 2001-02, then-Steelers wideouts Hines Ward and Plaxico Burress (New York Giants) surpassed 1,000 receiving yards. In 2004, former Bills and current Houston Texans wide receiver Eric Moulds caught 88 passes for 1,043 yards with five touchdown; wide receiver Lee Evans caught 48 passes for 843 yards and nine touchdowns. Meanwhile, Bills running back Willis McGahee ran for 1,128 yards and 13 touchdowns.

All of this means that a slump for White is possible but not likely, especially with a veteran hand like Robiskie - who's coached four different receivers to 1,000-yard seasons - helming the position.

The other X-factor for White is that no one knows who the Falcons quarterback will be. True, Redman closed the season as the No. 1; however, Harrington has experience in Mularkey's scheme, and Leftwich has a relationship with Smith from their Jacksonville days. Further complicating the situation is the looming high draft pick, which many believe the Falcons will use to select their quarterback of the future with the name of Boston College quarterback Matt Ryan being the one most commonly associated with the pick.

Though White may remain a fantasy force, the Falcons backfield remains a fantasy mess. Mularkey's history - with Brown, McGahee, and retired running back Jerome Bettis - suggests that he prefers relying on one primary back. Alas, the Falcons roster doesn't have one; instead, second-tier running backs Warrick Dunn (720 yards, four touchdowns) and Jerious Norwood (613 yards, one touchdown) are slated to return.

How the tight end position will fare under Mularkey is also a mystery. A former tight end himself, Mularkey knows the position well. Nevertheless, a tight end has never posted gaudy numbers for Mularkey. The best tight end season under Mularkey came in 2006, when former Dolphins tight end Randy McMichael (St. Louis Rams) had 62 catches, 640 yards and three touchdowns. Now Mularkey gets to work with incumbent Falcons tight end Alge Crumpler. Last season, Crumpler (42 catches, 444 yards, five touchdowns) posted his worst stats since his 2001 rookie year. Whether Mularkey can help Crumpler return to his days as a top fantasy tight end is anyone's guess.

On defense, the Falcons already had some terrific individual fantasy players. Under VanGorder, linebackers Michael Boley (93 solo tackles, three sacks) and Keith Brooking (84 solo tackles, two sacks) had excellent seasons in 2007. Their statistical supremacy should continue, now that VanGorder is the defensive coordinator. Both Smith and VanGorder coached in Jacksonville when Jaguars linebacker Mike Peterson had his superb 2005 season (95 solo tackles, six sacks).

Cornerback DeAngelo Hall (63 solo tackles, five interceptions, 16 passes defended) should also continue to be a solid fantasy defender with Thomas staying aboard as assistant head coach. Though Jaguars cornerback Mathis had a poor fantasy showing last year - 53 solo tackles, one interception - he had 18 interceptions and 170 solo tackles in Smith's system during the previous three seasons. Those statistics suggest that Hall - who, like Mathis, is a left cornerback in a mostly man-to-man scheme - should continue to amass solid numbers for fantasy owners.

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About Ilan Mochari

Ilan Mochari has been a KFFL contributor since 2007.

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