ATLANTA – If you looked at and listened to Falcons coach Mike Smith in the media room deep within the Georgia Dome last Sunday and this Sunday, you probably wouldn’t have noticed much difference.
Other than a couple – really, only a couple – of quick smiles after this Sunday’s 23-17 victory against the Tennessee Titans, Smith was the same guy he was last week. That was when the Falcons suffered perhaps the most emotionally draining loss of Smith’s career.
That was when he made a decision that backfired in overtime and the Falcons lost to the New Orleans Saints. Win or lose, Smith is always the same guy.
That’s why the Falcons bounced back with a crucial win against the Titans.
“I think that’s the mark of a fantastic football coach, when he can keep his emotions in check at moments when a lot of us might not be able to do that,’’ Atlanta general manager Thomas Dimitroff said. “Mike’s an even-keel guy. He’s competitive and he gets fired up, but he keeps it in check.’’
The Falcons, playing as well as they have all season for the first three quarters, jumped out to a 23-3 lead. Yeah, there were a few bumps near the end, when rookie quarterback Jake Locker replaced an injured Matt Hasselbeck and rallied the Titans to a pair of touchdowns. But that didn’t really matter.
What did matter was how the Falcons started. A lot of other teams might have folded after a loss like the one the Falcons suffered to the Saints. A lot of other teams might have let their season spiral out of control.
But the Falcons now are 6-4 and only a game behind the Saints in the NFC South standings. That’s because the Falcons aren’t like a lot of other teams and Smith isn’t like a lot of other coaches.
“It starts at the top,’’ said Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan, who threw for 316 yards, a touchdown and was not intercepted. “Smitty does a great job of teaching off the tape from the week before and really ingraining in all of us that it’s time to move on.’’
Smith has a 24-hour rule. Basically, that means you’ve got 24 hours to celebrate a win or think about a loss. After that, it’s on to the next game.
Lots of teams and lots of coaches have some sort of similar rule. It might sound cliché and Smith is certainly capable of spewing clichés. But the difference is the Falcons really do buy into the 24-hour rule.
Consider this: Since Smith’s arrival in 2008, the Falcons are 16-3 in games after a loss. Since 2009, they’re 8-0.
“We really do flush it after 24 hours,’’ said defensive tackle Jonathan Babineaux, who batted down two third-quarter passes, had two quarterback hurries and two tackles for a loss. “We have a great leader in Mike Smith. Whatever he tells us to do, we do. We’ve seen the results of his 24-hour rule and I think that’s why we buy into it totally.’’
You can’t argue with the results. But Smith, who was more than willing to step up and take the blame last week, wasn’t standing around and take the credit this week. Instead, he pointed at his players.
“It says a lot about the guys,’’ Smith said. “Regardless of the outcome, we know it’s a long season. Regardless of the outcome, we have to move on to the next football game. Our guys have done an outstanding job since we’ve been here. That’s one of the things from the very first day that we got together, we talked about what the formula for being a successful football team is and one of the things is to put defeats behind you and move to the next ball game. Our guys really have bought into that. We don’t let things linger.’’
There’s no doubt the players deserve plenty of credit for bouncing back against the Titans.
“We have a mature locker room and we have a group of guys that understand what it takes to be a professional,’’ Ryan said. “You’re going to have some tough losses and you need to move on from that. I think, collectively, all 53 guys and our practice-squad guys take that to heart and that’s probably the reason why.’’
The maturity of Atlanta’s players may set the Falcons apart from a lot of teams. The Falcons have some very strong leadership from veterans like Babineaux, tight end Tony Gonzalez and center Todd McClure. Some younger guys, like Ryan and middle linebacker Curtis Lofton also have emerged as very strong leaders.
“When our backs are against the wall, everybody gets locked in and we are on the same page,’’ Lofton said.
But the maturity of the coach might be what matters most. Just as an example, let’s compare Smith and the Falcons to another NFC South team. Let’s compare the Falcons to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Tampa Bay coach Raheem Morris took a lot of criticism after last week’s loss to Houston. He spent a lot of the past week firing back at critics, criticizing some of his own players and talking about how difficult Tampa Bay’s schedule has been. No matter how much Morris said he had moved on from the Houston loss, he hadn’t. The Bucs went up to Green Bay on Sunday and lost to the Packers. Tampa Bay now is on a four-game losing streak. At 4-6, the Bucs’ hopes of a playoff berth are fading away.
After the loss to New Orleans, Smith took way more criticism than Morris; Smith didn’t respond a single time. He never singles out players for criticism and you’ll never hear him using anything that sounds remotely like an excuse.
That’s why the Falcons still are very much in the NFC South race. The Falcons are far from flawless and they’ve yet to be very consistent this season. But you look at their roster and you look at their coach and it’s not all that hard to imagine everything suddenly clicking, maybe at just the right time. The rest of their schedule really isn't that difficult and they've got a rematch in New Orleans the day after Christmas.
The Falcons have faced some adversity, but they still have their heads well above water. That’s why anything remains possible for this team. Smith is the reason for that.
“Mike Smith is a guy of positivity and passion,’’ Dimitroff said. “He’s a guy that is so competitive. Mix all those things together and that’s what he presents to the players, day in day out and game in, game out. The players feel that he has their back and I think it’s vice versa that they have his back.’’
Smith is a model of consistency. With that kind of example every day, maybe the Falcons will become a consistently good team before this season is over.