NFC South: Atlanta Falcons

Atlanta Falcons owner Arthur Blank took a few moments to address a variety of topics during a phone interview with ESPN.com on Friday.

First and foremost, Blank discussed the process of the coaching search, which is just about complete. The Falcons are expected to introduce Seattle Seahawks defensive coordinator Dan Quinn as the next coach as early as Tuesday, with Quinn set to coach in Sunday's Super Bowl. The Falcons cannot sign Quinn to a contract or introduce him as the new coach until the Seahawks complete their season.

[+] EnlargeArthur Blank
AP Photo/Tim IrelandAtlanta Falcons owner Arthur Blank has restructured the team's front-office structure.
"What's different this time around is we ended up with one or more coaching candidates that are going to be playing on Sunday," Blank said. "That by itself and the NFL rules, which I agree with, are very specific. ... Certainly it's a lot more challenging. The patience of our organization was certainly really tested. But we felt we needed to make the right long-term decision, not the right short-term decision."

Blank was asked if he decided at some point during the process that a defensive-minded coach would be the best fit moving forward.

"No," Blank responded. "It's not about offense or defense. You're really hiring a CEO for a football team and a leader who can hire the best coordinators and position coaches. Whatever side of the ball, you expect the head coach to be the head coach of the offense and the defense and the special teams. And that was one of our goals. Whatever history he may have had was interesting, but not something that affected the process."

Blank was asked how much power the new coach would have over the 53-man roster.

"I don't like the word power," he said. "I don't like to use it personally. I don't like to use it professionally. What we want to build is an organization that depends on partnership and collaboration. And I think the head coach candidate that was selected is a firm believer in that and has demonstrated that over a long period of time.

"If you look at the most successful franchises -- these two that are playing Sunday (New England and Seattle) and others in the history of the NFL -- you'll see a tremendous amount of closeness, collaboration and partnership between personnel and coaching. And when the draft pick is made, the team is taking the name off the board. When there's a free-agent signing, then the team is signing that player."

Speaking of power, the Falcons did some front-office restructuring earlier in the month, taking away general manager Thomas Dimitroff's responsibilities related to the draft and free agency and putting the onus on assistant general manager Scott Pioli in those areas. From the outside look in, it looks like Blank lost some confidence in Dimitroff's ability to evaluate talent.

"Absolutely not," Blank said when asked if he lost confidence in Dimitroff. "I think it's an opportunity for Thomas to continue to use his talents, and he will from a talent-evaluation standpoint. He'll be heavily involved. But he'll be more dependent on Scott Pioli and his talents. And their ability to work together is a credit to both of them. Now, they've each worked for each other, which is unique in an organization.

"Again, I think the word power is not appropriate. We have two people with extraordinary backgrounds in personnel. Scott, in my opinion, was underutilized in his first year with us. He's got a rich background from New England. And draft-wise, he got very high grades from Kansas City, although he's obviously not there. And Thomas was named executive of the year twice in the NFL. It's clearly a matter of how do we maximize the talent that we have in the building and take advantage of the best resources that we have to produce the best product we can. I think this alignment allows Thomas to still be heavily involved, where he should be, but it allows Scott to run the draft process or the free-agency process. And obviously, they're both dealing with the new head coach."

Dimitroff and the new coach will report separately to Blank. Pioli will report to Dimitroff.
Another member of the previous Atlanta Falcons coaching staff could remain with incoming head coach Dan Quinn.

Running backs coach Gerald Brown, who interviewed for the same position in Oakland, is not going to join the Raiders' staff, according to sources -- an indication that Brown could be retained by the Falcons.

If that comes to fruition, Brown would join special-teams coordinator Keith Armstrong, defensive line coach Bryan Cox, wide receivers coach Terry Robiskie and tight ends coach Wade Harman (formerly the assistant offensive line coach) as holdovers from Mike Smith's staff.

Brown just completed his seventh season with the Falcons. Two of his backs have made the Pro Bowl: running back Michael Turner (2008, 2010) and fullback Ovie Mughelli (2010).

The Falcons are likely to upgrade the running back position this offseason. That could mean the release of veteran Steven Jackson, which would create a $3.75 million cap savings for the Falcons. Brown spent plenty of time getting rookie Devonta Freeman up to speed this past season, and Freeman should be a big part of the team's plans moving forward.

Quinn, who is expected to be introduced as the Falcons' 16th head coach next Tuesday, has the bulk of his staff already in place. Besides the aforementioned holdovers, Kyle Shanahan is set to become the offensive coordinator and Richard Smith the defensive coordinator. Former Tampa Bay Buccaneers head coach Raheem Morris is joining the Falcons as the assistant head coach/defensive backs.
The Atlanta Falcons will name former assistant offensive line coach Wade Harman the team's next tight ends coach, according to multiple league sources.

Harman, who worked alongside offensive line coach Mike Tice last season, came to the Falcons in 2014 following 15 seasons as the Baltimore Ravens' tight ends coach. He is credited with helping the development of former two-time Pro Bowler Todd Heap and working with three-time Super Bowl champ Shannon Sharpe.

Harman will replace Chris Scelfo, who obviously won't be back with the Falcons. As it looks now, the Falcons will retain four assistant coaches from Mike Smith's staff under expected new head coach Dan Quinn: special-teams coordinator Keith Armstrong, wide receivers coach Terry Robiskie, defensive line coach Bryan Cox and Harman.

Kyle Shanahan will be named the Falcons' new offensive coordinator, while there is a Washington Post report about one-time Tampa Bay Buccaneers head coach Raheem Morris being Quinn's defensive coordinator.

The Falcons need a makeover at the tight end position, so Harman could help with the process. The team didn't have the luxury of Tony Gonzalez last season, so tight end wasn't a position of strength. Levine Toilolo showed some improvement toward the end of the season, yet his numerous drops early on stunted his growth. Not to mention there wasn't much production from the second tight end, Bear Pascoe.

The Falcons are destined to target a pass-catching tight end either through free agency or the draft. One intriguing name is veteran Owen Daniels, who caught 48 passes for the Ravens this past season. Daniels played under Shanahan with the Houston Texans and caught a career-high 70 passes in Shanahan's offense during the 2008 season.

Toilolo, who caught 31 passes for 238 yards and two touchdowns this past season, is signed through 2016. Pascoe is set to become a free agent.

The Falcons are unlikely to announce any coaching moves until Quinn, the Seattle Seahawks' defensive coordinator, is introduced as head coach following the Super Bowl.
Atlanta Falcons Pro Bowl return specialist Devin Hester has the utmost respect for Keith Armstrong, so the last thing Hester wanted to see was his special-teams coordinator end up with another team.

Hester
That won't be the case, as Armstrong is set to return to the Falcons' staff under expected new head coach Dan Quinn, currently the defensive coordinator for the Seattle Seahawks. The Falcons blocked Armstrong from reuniting with former college teammate Todd Bowles with the New York Jets. If the move frustrated Armstrong, he's likely over it now.

Hester was asked about the significance of having Armstrong back.

"It's very important," Hester told ESPN.com's Josh Weinfuss while in Arizona preparing for the Pro Bowl. "I think we finished like No. 2 overall in special teams. At one point, we were No. 1. And that speaks for itself. Coach Keith, he's the type of coach that knows how to get guys rallied up and to not get complacent.

"Guys on special teams, when they have one good game, they tend to relax. But he's the type of coach who is going to keep you going. At the end of the day, he's a players' coach. When things are not going right, he'll come to a veteran player and say, 'Give me your opinion on what we should do.' That speaks volumes. I'm just happy they brought him back. I was hoping they would bring him back."

Armstrong previously worked with Quinn with the Miami Dolphins, so the transition should be a little easier if Quinn gets the Falcons' head-coaching job. At the same time, all indication were Armstrong seriously wanted to join Bowles in New York.

What if Armstrong would have gotten away?

"I think we would have lost the fun, the desire and the emphasis of keeping guys on their toes," Hester said. "There is no relaxing in that special-teams room. If you don't take notes, you're going to get chewed out. He's going to quiz you. He's going to ask you a question out of the blue. And if you mess up, he doesn't care who you are. Me being a veteran guy and all the records that I have and making the Pro Bowl, if I mess up, he's going to get on me just as bad as he's going to get on the rookie. He's just straightforward to everybody."

Armstrong's return should be good news not only for Hester but also for veteran special-teamer Eric Weems, who led the Falcons with 11 special-teams tackles this past season. Weems is set to become a free agent but should be one of the priority players the team tries to re-sign along with kicker Matt Bryant and safety Dwight Lowery.

"I know Coach Keith is going to bring him back," Hester said of Weems. "That's his dirty-worker right there. Weems makes special teams so much easier for Coach Keith. If they don't bring (Weems) back, that's going to be very shocking."
The Atlanta Falcons don't even have their head coach yet, officially. However, the pieces of the coaching staff are starting to fall in place with each passing day.

Once Seattle Seahawks defensive coordinator Dan Quinn is named the Falcons' next coach after the Super Bowl, as expected, he'll have at least three holdovers from the previous coaching staff. Wide receivers coach Terry Robiskie, who was the assistant head coach under Mike Smith, is expected to return next season. Robiskie, 60, has been with the Falcons since 2008 and has coached in the league since 1982, so his experience is invaluable, particularly for a first-time head coach as Quinn is about to become.

Not to mention Robiskie has a close bond with receivers Julio Jones, Roddy White and Harry Douglas; a father-like presence his players respect.

As reported by Fox Sports Tuesday, the Falcons also plan to bring back special teams coordinator Keith Armstrong as well as defensive line coach Bryan Cox. Both Armstrong and Cox have coached with Quinn in the past.

The Falcons parted ways with both coordinators when offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter asked out of his contract to sign with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and defensive coordinator Mike Nolan packed his things and drove cross country to his home in Denver. Nolan is talking to the Arizona Cardinals about a position.

Offensive line coach Mike Tice also bolted for the Oakland Raiders after the Falcons attempted to block him from leaving the staff. It will be interesting to see how the team proceeds with assistant offensive line coach Wade Harman, who probably would be a capable replacement for Tice and a guy who has familiarity with the current group of offensive linemen.

The Falcons have a least one new assistant coach set to join Quinn. ESPN Insider Adam Schefter reported Kyle Shanahan will be the team's new offensive coordinator.

It is unclear exactly which coach Quinn has in mind for his defensive coordinator. He could pluck someone from the Seahawks' staff, if Pete Carroll allows it. Linebackers coach Ken Norton Jr.'s only experience as a defensive coordinator was at Hamilton High School in Los Angeles. Defensive pass game coordinator Rocky Seto was USC's defensive coordinator/secondary coach in 2009.
Veteran defensive end Darryl Tapp became familiar with the compassionate side of Teryl Austin when Tapp was drafted by the Seattle Seahawks in 2006 and Austin was the team’s defensive backs coach.

The two lived in the same neighborhood in suburban Issaquah, Washington, so Tapp grew accustomed to seeing Austin outside of the facility.

"Him and his wife always kept tabs on me," said Tapp, a former second-round pick from Virginia Tech. "Going from Virginia, where I grew up, to Seattle, it was really my first time away from home, so he just always checked to see how I was doing. Things like that make you feel good as a player. Not only was he a coach, but he also was a mentor."

Tapp also experienced the fiery side of Austin as recently as this past season. The two were reunited when Tapp signed with the Lions last March, just a few months after Austin was hired by the Lions as a first-time defensive coordinator.

"I think it was last game against Chicago this year, he ripped into us at halftime because we weren’t playing up to our ability," Tapp recalled. "Don’t mistake his kindness for weakness. That guy, he definitely has it all. And it was a true honor to play for him this year."

Tapp is not surprised Austin has become a popular name for head-coach vacancies across the league. Austin was due to arrive in Atlanta from Arizona Wednesday for a second interview with the Falcons following a first interview with the Chicago Bears on Tuesday. He has a chance to win over Falcons owner Arthur Blank, and the talk around the league is Austin delivers quite an impressive presentation.

[+] EnlargeMarshawn Lynch
AP Photo/Ted S. WarrenDan Quinn uses boxing as part of his training methods. Here, Quinn jokingly squares off with the Seahawks' Marshawn Lynch.
But Tapp is also familiar with another highly regarded head coach candidate. Tapp played under Seahawks defensive coordinator Dan Quinn when Quinn was the team’s defensive line coach in 2009. Quinn emerged as the favorite for the Falcons job after he delivered the most impressive first interview of all the candidates.

"Coach Quinn is a fighter," Tapp said. "That’s the first thing I’ll always remember about `DQ.’ He came to Seattle my last year and he was, at that point, the best defensive line coach I ever had.

"Coach Quinn always used to show us film on boxers; Mike Tyson, Sonny Liston and all those guys. In the offseason, we did work on our hands from MMA fighting [drills] to help us with our pass rush. And he always taught us how to be better players, to use our individual talents. A lot of coaches in this league do stuff in a cookie-cutter kind of format. Coach Quinn, like Coach Austin, he looks at what your attributes are and what makes you individually successful."

Tapp pointed to current Seahawks defensive end Michael Bennett as an example of Quinn shaping and molding a raw talent into an impact talent.

"Michael Bennett was an undrafted free agent my last year in Seattle, when Coach Quinn got on, and I still remember him working with Michael every day to get this guy’s pass-rush ability up to where he could be a great player," Tapp said. "Bennett was able to make the team, but they had to [waive] him and Tampa Bay snatched him up, where he went and made plays. But fortunately he was able to get back to Seattle and work again with Coach Quinn, and now he’s taken off.

"Just see Coach Quinn work with guys to make them better is probably the thing I appreciate the most about him. I actually still have cut-ups of films that Coach Quinn made for me that year in Seattle. I’ve got them on my iPad and I watched them during the season."

In other words, Tapp believes Quinn has the ability to immediately fix a listless Falcons pass rush and an anemic Falcons defense. His Seahawks finished this season ranked first in yards allowed per game (267.1), first in passing yards allowed per game (185.6) and first in points allowed per game (15.9).

Austin’s defense finished first in rushing yards allowed per game (69.3), second in total yards allowed per game (300.9) and tied for second in points allowed per game (17.6).

"I think the best thing that both of them do is they work and use the talent they have on the team and make the scheme where it’s going to put guys in position to make plays," Tapp said. "Those guys can adapt to any situation.

"The definitely both deserve to be head coaches. It’s kind of surreal, though, to see them both as position coaches. I’ve seen the maturation process. Now they’re legitimate head-coaching candidates."
Bart Scott considers Rex Ryan a friend, although Scott experienced some "tough love" while playing under Ryan with both the Baltimore Ravens and New York Jets.

One thing the former Pro Bowl linebacker appreciated about Ryan was how candid his ex-coach was about pretty much everything.

[+] EnlargeRex Ryan
Jeff Zelevansky/Getty ImagesBart Scott, a former NFL player under Rex Ryan, says the coach would do wonders for the Falcons' defense should he take over as head coach.
"He's brutally honest, but he also lets you know that he has your back," said Scott, now an analyst for CBS. "I mean he was able to come to me and say, 'Hey man, we need you to take a pay cut and you're my guy, so I need to come to you first before I go to L.T. (LaDainian Tomlinson) or Calvin Pace. And if you can't take the cut for me, I'm going to have to make some decisions.' He has the ability to be your friend but also understand that this is a business."

Scott believes Ryan would make a smart business decision by joining the Atlanta Falcons, if team owner Arthur Blank extends an offer. Ryan is believed to be Blank's favorite among a list of head-coaching candidates that also includes Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, Seahawks defensive coordinator Dan Quinn, Broncos offensive coordinator Adam Gase, former Bills coach Doug Marrone, Falcons special teams coach Keith Armstrong, Lions defensive coordinator Teryl Austin and Cardinals defensive coordinator Todd Bowles. Quinn is thought to be near the top of the list with Ryan. Austin and Bowles are scheduled to meet with the Falcons owner over the next two days after Blank had to postpone interviews following the death of his mother.

Although Ryan is getting looks from the 49ers and Bills, Scott firmly believes those jobs don't measure up to the Falcons.

"I think the Falcons are the best situation for Rex to go into," Scott said. "Come on, you're talking about fixing the defense. I'm sure people see how Matt Ryan has played. He hasn't had the defense to get him the ball back.

"Rex Ryan is a head coach/defensive coordinator. Let Rex run the show and start dialing up plays to knock Drew Brees out. Look at his history playing against Cam Newton. Rex knows how to keep Cam in the box. And Tampa Bay? Please. That would be like Homecoming."

Scott even has an idea of how Ryan might reshape the roster from a defensive standpoint. The Falcons are in dire need of a facelift after finishing last in the league in yards allowed per game (398.3 ypg) and tied for second-to-last in sacks (22), among other defensive deficiencies.

While in New York, the Jets' defense went from the 16th-ranked group in 2008 to first after Ryan took over in 2009.

"I think a quick fix for that Atlanta defense is [Jets linebacker] David Harris is up for free agency, and Rex has the ability to bring a guy like that over," Scott said. "He has the ability to bring a guy like [Jets linebacker] Calvin Pace over [via trade] who knows the system and lives in Atlanta. He can bring Harris there to run it if [Sean] Weatherspoon can't stay healthy. If Weatherspoon is healthy, you move him to the spot I used to play and David Harris plays his spot.

"[Safety] Dwight Lowery is already there and he was born and raised in the system, so I think you'll get more out of that player. But then Rex probably has the ability as well to bring a guy like [Cardinals cornerback] Antonio Cromartie to come over opposite Desmond Trufant and slide right in and get instant experience within the defense overnight."

Scott even sees a place for Tyson Jackson and Paul Soliai in Ryan's multiple scheme with 3-4 and 4-3 concepts. Remember, the Falcons invested $25 million guaranteed to sign Jackson and Soliai as free agents last season.

"Paul Soliai becomes Haloti Ngata or Kris Jenkins and Tyson Jackson becomes Mike DeVito," Scott said. "I can't say Tyson becomes Mo Wilkerson because he doesn't have the pass-rush ability. So you move Tyson over. Rex also has the ability to bring over a guy like [Jets nose tackle] Kenrick Ellis that can come over and slice Tyson Jackson to that stud end, that Mike DeVito-type end, to the formation. Then Rex just has to find a slippery guy like a Wilkerson who he can move inside. The parts that he needs are available and out there."

Of course, the Falcons are expected to target pass-rushers via free agency and the draft. Ryan, who started in the league as a defensive line coach, understands the importance of stockpiling pass-rushers.

Scott would say Ryan also understands the significance of a solid offense despite what critics might think.

"People always say he doesn't pay attention to offense but he just allows his guys to do their jobs," Scott said. "You think John Fox is going over there and saying, 'Hey Peyton [Manning], run this'? He's a defensive guy. But I guarantee he's going into the defensive room saying, 'Hey, you've got to play this technique.

"You think about a team like the Atlanta Falcons and the last time Rex's defensive system was paired with an offense with capabilities was the 2006 season when we had Steve McNair for the first time. That defense put 60 sacks up, struck fear in anybody in the NFL. Rex has never had a quarterback [as a head coach]. He's never had an offense. He's never had a veteran quarterback."

Rex Ryan would inherit a pretty accomplished one in Matt Ryan, who has passed for more than 4,000 yards each of the last four seasons and has completed 66 percent of his passes or better the past three years. In six seasons with the Jets, Ryan never had a quarterback complete better than 56.7 percent of passes in a season.

"Without a great quarterback, Rex was able to go to two AFC championships," Scott said. "So you give him a quarterback and just imagine how perennial a winner the Atlanta Falcons could be. Just imagine if you give the Falcons a couple of drafts and couple free agents what Rex could do with leads as far as terrorizing that division."

Falcons fans C-A-N-T W-A-I-T to see if it comes to fruition.

The 2015 Pro Football Hall of Fame class will be announced on Jan. 31. Kicker Morten Andersen is one of 18 finalists.

This is the third year of eligibility for the “Great Dane,” who was so prolific over his 25-year career that he ranks as the all-time leading scorer in NFL history, New Orleans Saints history and Atlanta Falcons history.

[+] EnlargeMorten Andersen
Focus on Sport/Getty ImagesMorten Andersen spent the first 13 seasons of his 25-year career in New Orleans.
The Denmark native spent his first 13 years in New Orleans from 1982-1994. He had two stints in Atlanta (1995-2000 and 2006-07) and also spent time with the New York Giants, Kansas City Chiefs and Minnesota Vikings.

Along the way, Andersen compiled NFL records of 2,544 points, 382 games played and a streak of scoring at least one point in 360 consecutive games -- which is the most in NFL history by nearly 100 games.

Andersen was a member of the NFL’s all-decade team for both the 1980s and 1990s, a seven-time Pro Bowler and a five-time All-Pro. He made one Super Bowl appearance after his 38-yard overtime field goal lifted the Falcons over the Vikings in the 1999 NFC championship game.

“It’s obviously very humbling, and it just reminds me once again of all the great men that have busts in Canton and all the men, myself included, even being considered for induction,” said Andersen, who was glad to see punter Ray Guy finally break through for enshrinement last year but knows it’s tough for specialists.

Jan Stenerud is the only full-time kicker in the Hall of Fame.

“That’s for those 46 or 47 guys to figure out on Saturday before the Super Bowl. My work’s done,” said Andersen, who called himself “realistic” and said he knows a lot of others have been waiting a long time. “Regardless of whatever happens, it’s certainly been a great career for me, and I’m proud of that and grateful for all the people coaches that helped me along the way. It’s been a great journey.”

Andersen made the final 15 for the first time last year, but he didn’t make the cut down to the final 10.
The Atlanta Falcons might have their most anticipated interview of any head-coaching candidate on Tuesday when former New York Jets coach Rex Ryan comes to town.

Ryan
Ryan is believed to be the favorite of Falcons owner Arthur Blank, who will make the final decision. Ryan's showmanship is sure to win over Blank, if it hasn't already. His brother, Saints defensive coordinator Rob Ryan, says he has more football knowledge than any coach in the league.

The Falcons previously interviewed former Bills coach Doug Marrone, along with Broncos offensive coordinator Adam Gase, Seahawks defensive coordinator Dan Quinn, Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels and current Falcons special teams coordinator Keith Armstrong. The Falcons have interviews lined up with Lions defensive coordinator Teryl Austin and Cardinals defensive coordinator Todd Bowles on Wednesday and Thursday, respectively.

Here are some quick hits on Ryan:
  • Ryan is the son of former defensive guru Buddy Ryan, who earned fame for being the defensive coordinator and mastermind behind the "46" defense that helped the Chicago Bears win the 1985 Super Bowl.
  • Ryan, 52, is the twin brother of Saints defensive coordinator Rob Ryan. They were born Dec. 13, 1962 in Admore, Oklahoma. Both were ball boys for the Bears when their father was coaching there.
  • Ryan attended Stevenson High School in Lincolnshire, Illinois, the same school that produced WNBA star Tamika Catchings.
  • Ryan played defensive end at Southwestern Oklahoma State. He wore No. 75.
  • Ryan's first coaching gig was at Eastern Kentucky as a graduate assistant coach (1987-88). His first NFL coaching position was with the Arizona Cardinals as defensive line/linebackers coach (1994-95) under his dad. The Cardinals had the league's third-ranked defense in yards allowed per game.
  • When the Ravens won the Super Bowl during the 2000 season, Ryan was the defensive line coach and former Falcons coach Mike Smith was the assistant defensive line coach under Brian Billick.
  • When Ryan became the Jets head coach in 2009, he said he wanted to start his head-coaching career where his dad started his coaching career. Buddy Ryan entered the NFL as the Jets defensive line coach in 1968.
  • Ryan went 46-50 during his stint with the Jets before being fired after the 2014 season. He went 4-2 in the playoffs and made it to two AFC Championship Games. Ryan's defense ranked 1st, 3rd, 5th, 8th, 11th and 6th in total yards allowed from 2009-14.
  • Ryan previously went public with his battle against dyslexia.
  • Ryan underwent lap-band surgery to drop more than 100 pounds off his weight.
video Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan was a guest analyst on ESPN's "NFL Countdown" on Sunday and addressed the team's coaching search for the first time since Mike Smith was fired.

Ryan was asked what type of coach the Falcons need moving forward.

"I think that's why we have the people in our front office and the search committee that the organization has hired to evaluate what we have in our building and find who is the right fit to take that and move that forward," Ryan said. "From my perspective as a player, I think it comes down to trusting those people in those positions to find who they believe will be best. And I think we've got rock-solid people in those positions."

The Falcons interviewed Broncos offensive coordinator Adam Gase and Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels on Friday. A source confirmed to ESPN.com that the team already interviewed Seahawks defensive coordinator Dan Quinn Saturday morning. ESPN NFL Insider Adam Schefter reported the Falcons will interview former Bills coach Doug Marrone Monday and former Jets coach Rex Ryan Tuesday.

Cardinals defensive coordinator Todd Bowles is now free to interview with the Falcons this week after being knocked out of the playoffs. The same would hold true for Lions defensive coordinator Teryl Austin if his teams falls to the Cowboys Sunday. The Falcons already requested permission to interview both Bowles and Austin.

Matt Ryan reflected on losing Smith as his head coach.

"It's disappointing whenever people that you're close with have to move on, and Mike did an unbelievable job during his tenure as the Falcons head coach," Ryan said. "And for me personally, (he) taught me so much. He'll be missed. There's no question about it. But we understand in this business it's about producing and winning. And I trust that we've got really good people in our organization that are going to take us forward."

Owner Arthur Blank will make the final decision on the coach. Last week, Blank made clear other changes could happen. General manager Thomas Dimitroff is by no means safe, and Blank reiterated such during his press conference to address the firing of Smith.

The best-case scenario for Dimitroff would be for Blank to hire McDaniels. Dimitroff and McDaniels have a relationship dating back to their days together with the Patriots. A coach such as Rex Ryan or Marrone and the power they'd likely seek would be the worst-case scenario for Dimitroff.

Blank said there will be no power struggle.

After addressing the coaching situation, Matt Ryan talked about what went wrong the last two seasons as the Falcons missed the playoffs and went 10-22.

"We didn't do a good enough job of winning the close games," Ryan said. "During my first five years, we found ways to win. And really the last two years, we've been in situations in the third and fourth quarters where were just didn't make enough plays to get it done. As we move forward in this league, you know games are going to be close. And you've got to find ways to get it done. And hopefully, we'll be better at that moving forward."
The Atlanta Falcons obviously have identified some of their top targets to replace fired coach Mike Smith, and former New York Jets coach Rex Ryan is on that list.

[+] EnlargeRex Ryan
Jeff Zelevansky/Getty ImagesThe Atlanta Falcons would like to talk to Rex Ryan about becoming their next head coach.
ESPN's Adam Schefter confirmed Ryan will interview with the Falcons next week, as first reported by the New York Daily News. Ryan was relieved of his duties on Monday after six seasons with the team. He went 46-50 and 4-2 in the playoffs, making it to two AFC Championship games.

There has been talk among executives that Ryan is a favorite of Falcons owner Arthur Blank. Ryan interviewed for the Falcons head job before in 2008. Ryan definitely brings personality and toughness. He is by far the most recognizable name among an early group of candidates that include Denver Broncos offensive coordinator Adam Gase, Seattle Seahawks defensive coordinator Dan Quinn, Arizona Cardinals defensive coordinator Todd Bowles, New England Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, and Detroit Lions defensive coordinator Teryl Austin. The Falcons have requested interviews with all five but can't interview Bowles and Austin this week as they have playoff games.

Ryan speaks his mind and comes from a defensive-minded family, being the son of legendary head coach/defensive coordinator Buddy Ryan and the brother of Saints defensive coordinator Rob Ryan.

Don't be surprised of Ryan emerges as the favorite, although he'll have other options. He reportedly also has an interview lined up with the San Francisco 49ers after they parted ways with Jim Harbaugh, now the coach at Michigan.
Atlanta Falcons safety Dwight Lowery was in New York when the New York Jets fired then-head coach Eric Mangini. He was in Jacksonville when the Jacksonville Jaguars fired both Jack Del Rio and Mike Mularkey.

Lowery
But there was something remarkably different for Lowery when Mike Smith addressed the team Monday after being released from his contract with the franchise.

The players gave Smith a rousing ovation before he exited.

"It was real," Lowery said. "I don't think there was a man in there that didn't feel what was going on or understand the situation. I was thinking about it when I was traveling home. As a player, I felt bad. I felt like, 'What more could I have done? What more could we have done as a team?' Coach Smith has that kind of effect on you, that you enjoy playing for him. It's just unfortunate this is how the game goes."

Umenyiora
Veteran defensive end Osi Umenyiora also felt remorseful about Smith's fate.

"Nobody was really happy, to be honest with you, because it was just strange," Umenyiora said. "It was messed up to see. He's such a good guy. I have a tremendous amount of respect for him. We all know what he's done. Everybody knows what he accomplished while he was there -- all the wins, all the back-to-back winning seasons.

"The one thing for me that really stood out was that even though he wasn't in control of the defense, I remember watching on the sideline when I wasn't playing, I would see him calling for me to go into the game. He would actually be like, 'Why isn't Osi in the game? Put him in the game.' With all the things that he had to be worried about, for him to actually be worried about getting me in the game, I thought that was really, really cool of him. He's just a good guy. And I'm really, really disappointed with the way things ended up."

Ponder
Peters
While Umenyiora and Lowery have played for other NFL head coaches, defensive lineman Corey Peters' five pro seasons have all been under Smith.

"All the players have a lot of respect for Smitty," Peters said. "I felt like I hated to see him go. And I wished we could have played better and helped him being able to stay. Everybody loved Smitty. He had a very good reputation with all of the players. I can't find one player that will say something bad about him."

Lowery, Umenyiora, and Peters all have expiring contracts. While Umenyiora remains undecided about retirement, both Lowery and Peters would have to adjust to a new coach if they re-sign with the Falcons.

That should be no problem for Lowery. He's been through it before.

"Sometimes you have coaches that come in and they want their own guys, whether it be position coaches or defensive philosophy, or certain players that they target," Lowery said. "There are so many different factors. With the talent on the roster, they're in a situation where they want to win now. And they have a quarterback they can do it with in Matt Ryan."
The Atlanta Falcons began their head-coaching search Monday by requesting permission to talk to five coordinators: Detroit Lions defensive coordinator Teryl Austin, Arizona Cardinals defensive coordinator Todd Bowles, New England Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, Seattle Seahawks defensive coordinator Dan Quinn, and Denver Broncos offensive coordinator Adam Gase. McDaniels, Quinn, and Gase can be interviewed immediately due to playoff byes.

Here is a quick snapshot on each:

TERYL AUSTIN

Age: 49

Pro background: Lions defensive coordinator (2014), Ravens secondary coach (2011-13), Cardinals defensive backs coach (2007-09), Seahawks defensive backs coach (2003-06).

Head-coaching experience: none

Playing experience: safety, University of Pittsburgh (1984-87); Montreal Machine, World Football League (1991).

2014 performance: League's top rushing defense (69.3 ypg.), second-ranked total defense (300.9 ypg.), third-ranked scoring defense (17.6 ppg.)



TODD BOWLES

Age: 51

Pro background: Cardinals defensive coordinator (2013-present), Eagles defensive coordinator (2012), Eagles defensive backs coach (2012), Dolphins assistant coach/secondary (2008-11), Cowboys secondary coach (2005-07), Browns secondary coach/nickel backs coach (2001-04), Jets defensive backs coach (2000), Packers player personnel staff (1995-96).

Head-coaching experience: Dolphins interim head coach, 2011 (2-1 record in three games)

Playing experience: Safety, Washington Redskins (1986-93, 15 career INTs); defensive back, Temple University (1982-85).

2014 performance: League's fifth-ranked scoring defense, allowing just 18.7 points per game



JOSH McDANIELS

Age: 38

Pro background: Patriots offensive coordinator, offensive assistant (2012-present), Rams offensive coordinator (2011), Patriots offensive coordinator (2006-08), Patriots quarterbacks coach (2004-08), Patriots defensive assistant (2002-03), Patriots personnel assistant (2001).

Head-coaching experience: Denver Broncos, 2009-10 (11-17 record, fired in December 2010)

Playing experience: quarterback/wide receiver, John Carroll University, Ohio (1995-96)

2014 performance: League's fourth-ranked scoring offense (29.3 ppg) and ninth-ranked passing offense (257.6 ypg.)



DAN QUINN

Age: 44

Pro background: Seahawks defensive coordinator (2013-present), Seahawks assistant head coach/defensive line (2009-10), Jets defensive line coach (2007-08), Dolphins defensive line coach (2005-06), 49ers defensive line coach (2003-04), 49ers defensive quality control coach (2001-02).

Head-coaching experience: none

Playing experience: defensive lineman, Salisbury (Md.) State, 1990-93.

2014 performance: League's top-rated defense in total yards (267.1 ypg.), yards per play (4.63 ypp.), passing yards per game (185.6 ypg), and scoring (15.9 ppg.)



ADAM GASE

Age: 36

Pro background: Broncos offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach (2014), Broncos quarterbacks coach (2011-12), Broncos wide receivers coach (2009-10), 49ers offensive assistant (2008), Lions quarterbacks coach (2007), Lions offensive quality control (2006), Lions offensive assistant (2005), Lions scouting assistant (2003-05).

Head-coaching experience: none

Playing experience: none

2014 performance: League's second-ranked scoring offense (30.1 ppg.) and fourth-ranked total offense (402.9 ypg.)
With the completion of the regular season Sunday, the 2015 opponents for the Atlanta Falcons were finalized.

Here is the rundown. Dates and times for each game will be announced in the spring when the league schedule is released:

HOME
Carolina Panthers
New Orleans Saints
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Philadelphia Eagles
Washington Redskins
Houston Texans
Indianapolis Colts
Minnesota Vikings

AWAY
Carolina Panthers
New Orleans Saints
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Dallas Cowboys
New York Giants
Jacksonville Jaguars
Tennessee Titans
San Francisco 49ers

2015 Atlanta Falcons draft order

December, 29, 2014
12/29/14
9:40
PM ET
The Atlanta Falcons, who finished the 2014 season with a 6-10 record, own the No. 8 overall pick in the 2015 NFL draft.

Last year, they had the No. 6 pick and selected offensive tackle Jake Matthews, who eventually established himself after recovering from a high-ankle sprain. Now the Falcons, no matter which head coach is named, have to focus their attention on the defensive side and target a pass-rusher such as Nebraska's Randy Gregory or Missouri's Shane Ray.

The Falcons had the league's worst defense, statistically, and much of it had to do with the lack of a pass rush. They had just 22 sacks, which was tied for second to last in the league. There's no one currently on the roster that you could call a legitimate pass-rusher, so the Falcons need to stock up.

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