NFC South: Bill Musgrave

The Atlanta Falcons may stay within the organization when they fill their vacancy at quarterbacks coach. Glenn Thomas is a leading candidate for that role, D. Orlando Ledbetter reports.

It makes plenty of sense. Thomas, 34, has been an offensive quality-control coach for the Falcons since the arrival of coach Mike Smith in 2008. He obviously has to know quarterback Matt Ryan pretty well.

The Falcons lost quarterbacks coach Bob Bratkowski, who became the offensive coordinator in Jacksonville when former Atlanta coordinator Mike Mularkey became the Jaguars' head coach earlier in January.

Bratkowski spent only the 2011 season with the Falcons. He replaced Bill Musgrave, who had been Ryan’s quarterbacks coach in his first three seasons. Musgrave left after last season to become offensive coordinator in Minnesota.

Former Jacksonville coordinator Dirk Koetter has been hired as Atlanta’s offensive coordinator. Koetter obviously will bring some subtle changes to Atlanta’s offense. But promoting Thomas to quarterbacks coach could provide some familiarity and continuity for Ryan.

Smith is a coach who believes in loyalty and promoting Thomas would illustrate that. It’s also not a bad thing to start moving young coaches up the ladder.

The best example I can give you of that is Mike McCoy. I saw him join the Carolina Panthers as a quality-control assistant under George Seifert. McCoy later worked his way up to quarterbacks coach and he had a strong relationship, and a fair amount of success, with Jake Delhomme.

That success put McCoy on the radar for bigger things and he was hired as Denver’s offensive coordinator in 2009. He was reunited there with former Carolina coach John Fox in 2011 and McCoy largely was credited for the success of Denver quarterback Tim Tebow. That led to McCoy getting several interviews for jobs as a head coach this offseason.
Several times this offseason, new Carolina Panthers coach Ron Rivera has implied pretty strongly that he wants to add a veteran quarterback to help mentor Cam Newton and Jimmy Clausen.

I get the idea. Clausen and Newton are both very young and raw. If the lockout shortens training camp, the Panthers could even open the season with someone like Marc Bulger or Jake Delhomme as the starting quarterback. Someone like Delhomme or Bulger could come in and run the offense efficiently until Newton and/or Clausen gets up to speed.

But let’s say the lockout gets resolved quickly and training camp starts on time. In that scenario, I’m not so sure it’s necessary the Panthers go out and sign a veteran to work as a mentor. In fact, I think the idea of having a player mentor another player at the same position is overrated. First off, there are competitive juices flowing through every professional athlete and that doesn’t always lead to dedicated mentoring.

Besides, I think the Panthers already have some pretty good mentors for Newton and Clausen. They are offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski and quarterbacks coach Mike Shula. They’ve been around and are good at what they do. They can do more as mentors than some veteran backup.

Look at how Tampa Bay handled Josh Freeman. They had Byron Leftwich there as a (very short) bridge in Freeman’s rookie year. But Leftwich wasn’t a mentor. Freeman’s development came because he worked hard and because he got some very good coaching from offensive coordinator Greg Olson and Alex Van Pelt joined the Bucs as quarterbacks coach last season. Freeman frequently credits Olson and Van Pelt for his progress. It was kind of the same thing with Matt Ryan in Atlanta. Chris Redman might be an extra set of eyes and ears for Ryan, but offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey and former quarterbacks coach Bill Musgrave were the ones who developed him.

It probably wouldn’t hurt the Panthers if they add a veteran mentor for Newton and Clausen. But will it really help them? They’ve got another quarterback, Tony Pike, who they drafted last year. Some in the organization thinks Pike has potential. If the Panthers bring in a veteran, Pike will be gone, unless the Panthers find some way to carry four quarterbacks. Putting Pike on the practice squad is possible, but not likely. If he’s released, some other team will sign him before Carolina can get him on the practice squad.

The idea of bringing in a mentor sounds nice. But the fact is the Panthers might already have all the mentors they need in Chudzinski and Shula.

Best of NFL: NFC South teams

June, 30, 2011
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» Best of NFC: East | West | North | South » AFC: East | West | North | South

As part of Best of the NFL Week on ESPN.com, here are five bests for the NFC South:

Best training camp venue, Wofford College in Spartanburg, S.C.,: That’s where the Carolina Panthers train, and they’re the only division team right now that goes away for training camp. There’s been a league-wide trend of moving camps back to regular-season facilities. But if you’re going to go away, this might be the best setup in the NFL. Spartanburg isn’t all that picturesque or glamorous. But the Wofford campus is gorgeous, particularly the football facilities. In case you’ve forgotten, team owner Jerry Richardson played football for Wofford -- and later, the Baltimore Colts, before starting to make his fortune with his first Hardee’s restaurant in Spartanburg -- and he paid for those facilities.

[+] EnlargeKenny Chesney and Drew Brees
AP Photo/Tony TribbleKenny Chesney, pictured here with Drew Brees, has been known to show up at Saints practice.
Best coaching staff, Falcons: Coach Mike Smith’s going to be challenged a bit this year because the Falcons lost quarterbacks coach Bill Musgrave to a coordinator job in Minnesota, but they’ve replaced him with Bob Bratkowski. The rest of the staff is a group of all-stars, highlighted by coordinators Mike Mularkey (offense) and Brian VanGorder (defense). Offensive line coach Paul Boudreau isn’t a household name, but he’s one of the best in the business. For the past three years, the Falcons have given Matt Ryan great protection without having a lot of big names up front.

Best celebrity fan, Kenny Chesney: He’s not just a fan of the New Orleans Saints, he played for them. Well, sort of. A few years back the Saints held a press conference to announce they were signing the country singer/wide receiver to a contract. They never really did, but it was coach Sean Payton’s way of having fun with one of his best friends. It’s not unusual to see Chesney around the Saints. Heck, he’s even gone out on the practice field and attempted to catch punts.

Best team facility, One Buccaneer Place: It’s referred to as “One Buccaneer Palace’’ by some, and it is a palace on the inside. Also, despite popular belief, it was not paid for with taxpayer money. The Glazer family paid for the facility. The lobby and team meeting room are awesome and the locker room is the nicest in the NFC South. Heck, even the media room is, by far, the nicest in the division. The Falcons’ facility gets a strong honorable mention. In some ways, it’s just as nice as Tampa Bay’s facility, but the media room doesn’t even come close.

Best meddling owner, Arthur Blank: He’s not the Cowboys' Jerry Jones or the Redskins' Daniel Snyder, but I think it’s accurate to say Blank is hands-on in a healthy way. You’ll see him on the sidelines at the end of games, and he sits in on Smith’s postgame press conferences, which is pretty unusual for an owner. But I see Blank as more of a guy who cares passionately about his team and likes to keep a close eye on everything. He lets his people do their own thing, but he observes everything. Nothing wrong with that. After all, he owns the team.
I still have lots of leftover stuff from the NFL owners meeting in New Orleans in March, so let’s grab onto another chunk of it right now.

The Atlanta Falcons have been very quiet this offseason. The lockout has kept them from making any transactions and their players haven’t been in any trouble (see Aqib Talib in Tampa Bay). Perhaps the biggest move so far in Atlanta has been the hiring of quarterbacks coach Bob Bratkowski.

Bill Musgrave had been in that position through Matt Ryan’s entire tenure in the league. Along with offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey, Musgrave widely was credited with Ryan’s rapid development. But Musgrave left after this past season to become offensive coordinator in Minnesota.

The Falcons quickly went out and hired Bratkowski, who recently had been fired by Cincinnati after serving as offensive coordinator there from 2001 through last season. Bratkowski is the son of former University of Georgia quarterback Zeke Bratkowski, but that has nothing to do with why he got the job.

Much of Bratkowski’s time in Cincinnati was spent working with Carson Palmer, who had some good seasons, but also had his career interrupted by injury. Bratkowski’s offense with the Bengals was fairly similar to what the Falcons run and Ryan, like Palmer, is mostly a pocket passer.

Bratkowski also had stints as an assistant coach in Pittsburgh and Seattle, after starting his coaching career on the college level. He did a stint as Seattle’s offensive coordinator. At the owners meeting, I asked coach Mike Smith about the hiring of Bratkowski and he said he expects the transition to be very smooth.

“Bob has worked with a very successful quarterback in this league and is highly respected,’’ Smith said. “He’s been an offensive coordinator for a number of years and a number of teams. I feel Bob is going to be a very solid addition to our coaching staff. He has a very good background in the passing game. His teams through the years have always been able to throw the football. We’re excited about integrating Bob into our coaching staff and our offensive system.”

There’s a little more to this and Smith didn’t get into that, but I will. There had been some thinking around the Falcons that Mularkey could be moving on to a head-coaching job and Musgrave was viewed as his logical heir apparent as coordinator. Mularkey drew some interest this offseason, but only interviewed for one job. He could be a candidate for another job after next season and it’s wise for the Falcons to have a guy like Bratkowski already in place.

He’s experienced as a quarterbacks coach and can be fine in that job. But he also could step up and be a coordinator again if Mularkey moves on.

NFC South labor impact

March, 11, 2011
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» NFC labor impact: East | West | North | South » AFC: East | West | North | South

A team-by-team look at how a continued labor impasse and extended NFL freeze on transactions would affect the division:

New Orleans Saints: This team is probably in the best shape of any in the division to withstand a long labor impasse. You almost get the feeling quarterback Drew Brees could roll out of bed on a September morning and the entire offense would be in midseason form. This is a veteran team with continuity on the coaching staff and the roster. A lengthy impasse actually could give the Saints a big advantage on the rest of the division.

Still, this team could use some time on the practice field. Coordinator Gregg Williams needs to get his defense back to the all-out approach it used to produce constant turnovers in the 2009 Super Bowl season. The Saints are likely to have a couple of defensive draft picks that they will want to work into the rotation quickly.

Atlanta Falcons: This team is somewhat like the Saints because Matt Ryan is an established quarterback, most of the coaching staff has been together the last three seasons and there is a good core of players in their prime. However, quarterbacks coach Bill Musgrave left to become offensive coordinator in Minnesota, and it would be nice if Ryan could spend some offseason time with replacement Bob Bratkowski.

Defensive tackle Peria Jerry and receiver Harry Douglas were two players who didn’t produce big results last season. The Falcons have said both were slowed by injuries suffered in the 2009 season and they’re hoping for bigger things from them in the future. Jerry and Douglas are two players who could really use offseason workouts to earn increased roles.

Carolina Panthers: An extended labor impasse probably would hurt the Panthers more than any other team in the division. They’ve got a new coach in Ron Rivera and a coaching staff filled with mostly new assistants. There is a completely different offense waiting to be installed by coordinator Rob Chudzinski, who doesn’t even know who his quarterback will be yet.

There’s a new defensive system to be installed, too. That makes every offseason workout incredibly valuable, and the Panthers are supposed to get an extra minicamp because they have a new coach. Even if the labor impasse is short, every missed workout is going to be a setback for the Panthers.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers: They’ve got their quarterback, Josh Freeman, in place and the coaching staff remains largely intact. But the Bucs aren’t quite like the Falcons and Saints when it comes to experience. They were the league’s youngest team last season and could use the time together.

Part of the reason Freeman blossomed and the Bucs were a surprising 10-6 last season was that Freeman spent so much time in the team facility in the offseason. He established himself as a leader and earned the respect of his teammates. In a labor impasse, Freeman and the rest of the players can’t go near One Buccaneer Place. Freeman has pledged to lead workouts with the receivers at other sites. That’s good, but it won’t be the same as working under the watch of the coaching staff.

Falcons add depth to coaching staff

February, 13, 2011
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The Atlanta Falcons have a new quarterbacks coach. More importantly perhaps, they have a new backup offensive coordinator.

They reportedly have hired Bob Bratkowski as their quarterbacks coach. That’s an important role, and Bratkowski will take over helping with the continuing development of Matt Ryan. The job came open when Bill Musgrave, the only quarterbacks coach Ryan has played for in the NFL, left to become offensive coordinator in Minnesota.

Musgrave had been viewed as the heir apparent as offensive coordinator in Atlanta if coordinator Mike Mularkey moved on to a head-coaching job. But Musgrave got his chance to move up to a bigger role with the Vikings and the Falcons didn’t stand in the way -- even though they could have blocked the move because Musgrave remained under contract.

Mularkey interviewed for the coaching job in Cleveland shortly before Musgrave left, but did not get hired. There were some nervous moments in Atlanta in recent weeks when Mularkey interviewed for the top job with the Tennessee Titans. With Musgrave already gone, there were no real in-house candidates to take Mularkey’s place if he left for the Titans. That job ended up going to Mike Munchak, and Mularkey is staying with the Falcons.

But another strong season by the Falcons in 2011 could raise Mularkey’s stock even more, and he could get a top job after this season. That’s why coach Mike Smith made a good hire with Bratkowski. He’s worked with quarterbacks before, and is widely credited with the development of Carson Palmer in Cincinnati.

Bratkowski was Cincinnati’s offensive coordinator from 2001 to 2010. He also did a stint as Seattle’s offensive coordinator. His main job for now will be working with Ryan. But adding Bratkowski gives the Falcons an immediate option at offensive coordinator if Mularkey moves on in the future.

Falcons catching break with Mularkey

February, 7, 2011
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It appears as if the Atlanta Falcons are going to catch a break. Jim Wyatt is reporting that Mike Munchak is expected to be named head coach of the Tennessee Titans, perhaps as early as today.

The reason that’s good news for the Falcons is because Atlanta offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey also was in the mix for the Tennessee job. Although some Atlanta fans have criticized Mularkey for being too conservative, the fact is the guy has put a quality offense on the field the last three seasons.

Losing him at this time of year would have been particularly disastrous to the Falcons, who already lost quarterbacks coach Bill Musgrave to Minnesota, where he became offensive coordinator. Musgrave would have been an obvious heir apparent as Atlanta’s coordinator if Mularkey had left before him. But, if Mularkey had left now, coach Mike Smith would have been left scrambling to find a coordinator at a time when most coaching positions around the league have been filled and there aren’t many quality candidates available.

On a side note, and a bit of a personal note, congratulations to Munchak. I don’t know the man personally, but I grew up just outside his hometown, Scranton, Pa. I watched him play at Penn State and I’ve driven on Mike Munchak Way, which is the road that runs in front of Scranton High School (Munchak actually played at Scranton Central, before the city’s public schools were condensed).

Munchak’s rise only enhances this small city’s reputation as a cradle of coaches. I know I’m leaving off a few names, but long-time NFL assistants Joe Marciano and Vic Fangio are among a group of coaches originally from the Scranton area.
The Atlanta Falcons, already in the market for a quarterbacks coach, could also be looking for an offensive coordinator.

The Tennessee Titans reportedly have been given permission to interview Atlanta offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey for their head-coaching vacancy. Mularkey drew some interest for jobs in Denver and Cleveland in January. But he pulled out of contention for the Denver job by cancelling an interview and saying he wanted to focus on helping the Falcons prepare for the playoffs.

But Mularkey could jump quickly into the lead in Tennessee. The Titans have interviewed two in-house candidates – Mike Munchak and Mike Heimerdinger. Munchak was the offensive line coach on Jeff Fisher’s staff and Heimerdinger was the offensive coordinator, but neither has been an NFL head coach.

Mularkey has that on his resume. He was a head coach in Buffalo and has been a coordinator for several teams. The Falcons already lost quarterbacks coach Bill Musgrave, who left to become offensive coordinator in Minnesota.

Musgrave had been viewed as the heir apparent as coordinator if Mularkey had moved on to a head job earlier. But Musgrave left at a time when it looked like there was no chance of Mularkey leaving.

Now, there’s a real chance of Mularkey leaving, and that could hurt the Falcons. Most teams have already filled their staffs, and that could leave the Falcons scrambling for candidates to fill two jobs.

NFC South coaching carousel

January, 20, 2011
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The coaching carousel is still spinning in the NFC South. Let's take a look at the latest moves.

The Carolina Panthers reportedly have interviewed Mike Shula for a position on their offensive staff. Presumably, it's for quarterbacks coach since Rob Chudzinski already is the offensive coordinator. Shula has been the quarterbacks coach in Jacksonville most recently. He also was a head coach at Alabama and an offensive coordinator in Tampa Bay. He also has coached tight ends in the past. The Panthers also are expected to interview John Matsko for the offensive line job today. Matsko recently was fired by Baltimore.

Atlanta quarterbacks coach Bill Musgrave was hired away to be offensive coordinator in Minnesota. D. Orlando Ledbetter has a list of possible candidates to replace Musgrave, but I'd scratch one name off that list. Jeff Jagodzinski has been fired as coordinator in Tampa Bay and as a head coach in the United Football League. Although he coached Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan in college, I don't think Jagodzinski is a hot NFL property these days.

Rip Scherer, who was Carolina's quarterbacks coach on John Fox's staff, is headed to the college game. He reportedly will go to Colorado as quarterbacks coach.

Atlanta's Bill Musgrave a hot name

January, 19, 2011
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For the second straight offseason, Atlanta quarterbacks coach Bill Musgrave is a hot commodity.

He’s been given permission to interview with Minnesota and Cleveland for offensive coordinator positions. There also have been reports the St. Louis Rams could be interested.

Last offseason, the Texans, Bears and the University of Virginia showed interest in the man who gets a lot of credit for Matt Ryan’s development. At the time, the Falcons also made Musgrave the assistant head coach as an enticement to keep him.

With that title in place, the Falcons could have declined to give the Vikings and Browns permission to interview Musgrave. But I think the permission tells you a lot about the Falcons. Owner Arthur Blank, general manager Thomas Dimitroff and coach Mike Smith are fair guys.

They like Musgrave and there’s no doubt they want to keep him. In fact, had offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey gotten the head job in Cleveland he interviewed for, Musgrave probably would have been promoted to his spot instantly.

But Mularkey didn’t get that job and appears to be staying with the Falcons. Musgrave has a chance to advance his career and the Falcons aren’t going to stand in the way.
There is one downside to winning a lot of games in the NFL : It can rip apart a coaching staff. Success often leads to opportunities elsewhere for assistant coaches and we might be seeing the seeds of this sprouting in Atlanta.

Offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey has been mentioned as a possible candidate for the head job in Denver. At this point, it's mostly speculative that Mularkey's name will be on the Broncos' list of candidates after the season.

[+] EnlargeMike Mularkey
AP Photo/Paul SpinelliFalcons offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey could be a hot head-coaching candidate after the season is over.
Teams aren't allowed to talk to assistants under contract with other teams during the season and Mularkey said he has had no contact with the Broncos. But Mularkey did admit he might have interest in a head job.

That alone is a little bit newsy and should raise some eyebrows around the league. There were some who thought Mularkey had soured on the hassles of being a head coach after going through a rough experience in Buffalo.

While Mularkey would likely be selective in looking for a head job and an ownership and front-office structure he'd be comfortable with, Denver could fit that profile. Mularkey's built his résumé back up with the success of Matt Ryan and the offense the last few years and he also has a gregarious personality.

The mere fact Mularkey said he might be interested in being a head coach again might put him on some of the speculative lists of other teams around the league. Heck, let's go ahead and think out loud that he could be a candidate for the job a few hours up Interstate 85.

That's the Carolina Panthers, where John Fox will be gone shortly. After nine seasons of Fox's conservative offensive approach, the Panthers may look for a coach with an offensive background. It's also likely they'll look for a guy who has shown he can develop a quarterback because they want someone who can get Jimmy Clausen on track or groom a quarterback that comes with next year's No. 1 draft pick.

The Panthers have been envious of Ryan and his success ever since he came to the Falcons, so, at the very least, Mularkey fits the profile.

Again, lists are only speculative at this point because there can't be any interviews of assistants just yet. But let's go ahead and throw Mularkey on Carolina's speculative list because he would make a good deal of sense.

Going back to the Falcons, the easy assumption would be that quarterbacks coach Bill Musgrave simply would slide into the offensive coordinator job if Mularkey moves up. It's very possible, but not a slam dunk. Musgrave's name sometimes gets thrown into talks about head spots or coordinator jobs elsewhere in the NFL or in college. Heck, you could even put Musgrave's name on Denver's speculative list. He has deep ties to the Broncos because he spent much of his playing career as John Elway's backup.

Falcons reward Musgrave with new title

February, 16, 2010
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The Atlanta Falcons have a new assistant head coach. Quarterbacks coach Bill Musgrave has been given that title, the team said Tuesday morning. Musgrave also will continue to coach quarterbacks.

Musgrave joined the Falcons as quarterbacks coach in 2006 and has been instrumental in the development of Matt Ryan. Musgrave also was a hot name for several coordinator positions on the college and NFL level this offseason, but elected to stay with the Falcons.

The new title is a reward for Musgrave’s loyalty. Veteran secondary coach Emmitt Thomas had been the assistant head coach, but the Falcons chose not to renew Thomas’ contract after last season.

Quietly, a coaching icon walks away

January, 18, 2010
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I just sent a story to our news side that made me kind of sad. Richard Williamson, the longtime wide receivers coach for the Carolina Panthers, is retiring, the team announced Monday.

This is what Williamson wanted, and he had been pondering retirement for quite a few years. But it still is sad to see one of the classiest people who ever has been part of the NFL walk away.

Williamson was very good at what he did. He joined the Panthers in 1994, a year before they started play, and he was widely considered one of the best receivers coaches around. He deserves a lot of credit for helping Steve Smith develop from a guy who was supposed to be nothing more than a kick returner into one of the league’s top receivers.

Williamson also guided Muhsin Muhammad, Patrick Jeffers, Raghib Ismail and Mark Carrier to at least one 1,000-yard receiving season each. More than that, Richardson was a rock on the coaching staffs of Dom Capers, George Seifert and John Fox.

He stepped in as offensive coordinator when Bill Musgrave abruptly walked away during the Seifert years and didn’t complain a bit when he went back to coaching receivers.

That’s mainly because coaching receivers was what Williamson did best. He had a stint as a head coach in Tampa Bay, but had no chance to succeed there at the time. Williamson truly found his niche as a receivers coach after that.

I know the general rule is that assistant coaches don’t make the Pro Football Hall of Fame, and I’m not suggesting Williamson should be an exception. But he should forever be remembered as an excellent receivers coach and a very nice man.
 
 Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images
 Mike Smith's stable of coaches is one of the reasons for Atlanta's revival.
Posted by ESPN.com’s Pat Yasinskas

When he found out he was interviewing for the coach job with the Atlanta Falcons in 2008, the first thing Mike Smith did was assemble an imaginary three-deep depth chart. He wasn’t stacking players. He was lining up coaches.

Smith was envisioning who he would hire as his assistants. He drew up a wish list that turned into a dream team. With the possible exception of drafting quarterback Matt Ryan, that might have been the single-best move Smith has made.

I’ll make the argument that Smith’s stable of assistants is one of the main reasons he took a franchise out of the dumpster and took it to the playoffs last season and has the Falcons off to a 4-1 start heading into Sunday’s game against Dallas. I’ll also make the argument that, from top to bottom, Atlanta’s coaching staff is as good as any in the league.

That’s no accident. Smith put as much time into putting this group together as he did studying Ryan before last year’s draft. In both cases, he hit the jackpot.

“I always say there are more unsuccessful coaching staffs than unsuccessful head coaches,’’ Smith said. “You all have to have same philosophy and, as a head coach, you have to empower them to do their job.’’

Smith’s staff does its job very well. Look at what offensive line coach Paul Boudreau has done with a group that includes only one blue-chip player (left tackle Sam Baker), look at what coordinator Brian VanGorder has done with a defense that had very little individual talent last year and only slightly more this season or look at how offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey and quarterbacks coach Bill Musgrave have made Ryan so good so fast.

How much difference can a coaching staff really make?

“First and foremost, you have to have players,’’ Smith said. “Rosters around the NFL aren’t all that much different from one through 32. There are lots of great players everywhere across the league. But I think it’s very important your team is fundamentally and schematically sound. You have to be good Xs and Os guys and you have to be able to work in a team framework and know dynamics of a team change every day.’’

Those were high on the list of qualities Smith was looking for as he assembled a staff that now has a collective 207 years of experience coaching in the NFL. Heck, when you look at how much experience each of Atlanta’s 17 coaches have in the NFL, Smith is tied with Musgrave for ninth place with 11 years.

But Smith was looking for more than experience as he put together this group. Sure, he jumped right on assistant head coach/secondary coach Emmitt Thomas, who had been on the previous Atlanta staff and he was quick to scoop up Boudreau, receivers coach Terry Robiskie and defensive line coach Ray Hamilton, who each have at least 22 years of NFL experience. But Smith was also looking for balance and that’s why he went out and hired guys like running backs coach Gerald Brown and tight ends coach Chris Scelfo, who were coaching in the college ranks, but had never coached in the NFL.

“I wanted to have some guys that could deal with young players because I knew we were going to be a very young team,’’ Smith said.

Other than sharing his basic philosophies, Smith was looking for balance, not any across-the-board requirements. Different strokes for different coaches. Thomas, a Hall of Fame player, Robiskie, Hamilton and Musgrave were hired only in part because they were good coaches.

“I wanted to have some former NFL players on the staff,’’ Smith said. “I think that’s important. Emmitt, Terry, Ray and Bill are guys who have sat in the locker room and they know what the players go through.’’

Ask Smith what was his single-most important answer and he doesn’t give you coach speak and try to dance around the topic to avoid hurting feelings.

“Getting Mike Mularkey was the first thing on my list,’’ Smith said. “My background is defense. To have a guy with Mike’s offensive experience and success is a big advantage.’’

Smith didn’t know Mularkey personally before interviewing him.

“I had to coach against him when he was with Pittsburgh and I was in Baltimore,’’ Smith said. “I was always impressed with his offenses. They were a running team, always physical, but Mike always made it hard because you had to spend lot of time figuring out what he was doing on formations. He was the first guy I talked to. We talked a couple times mainly to find out what kind of guy each other was.’’

It also didn’t hurt that Mularkey had been head coach of the Buffalo Bills. For that matter, Thomas and Robiskie had been head coaches on an interim basis and VanGorder had been a head coach on the college level. Some first-time coaches might not have wanted guys who were potential threats around. But Smith, who doesn’t have a massive ego, didn’t see it that way.

“I don’t have problem bouncing things off them,’’ Smith said. “In fact, I want it to be that way. I believe you have to have interaction with staff. These guys have seen it all and I value their opinions.’’

Even in the younger coaches, Smith wanted guys who eventually could grow into bigger roles.

“The one thing I learned from Brian Billick in Baltimore was the importance of putting a good staff together,’’ Smith said. “I mean Brian had guys like Jack Del Rio, Rex Ryan, Mike Nolan and Marvin Lewis. You want guys who have been coordinators or are going to be coordinators someday. They all have to understand the coordinator’s role.

That brings us to the one potential downer about the staff Smith has. If the Falcons keep having success, it might not stay together. Each win might put Mularkey and VanGorder closer to a head job or Musgrave and Hamilton closer to a spot as a coordinator elsewhere.

“I hope we have a whole bunch of success and these guys want to stay around forever,’’ Smith said.

But Smith is a realist.

“I know that all the guys on our staff are going to have chance to advance at some time,’’ Smith said. “I know it’s a possibility. You have to have a succession plan if that were to happen.’’

There is a succession plan already in place that Smith won’t reveal unless he needs to. But somewhere in Smith’s desk at the Falcons’ Flowery Branch facility, there’s a continually-updated depth chart that goes at least three deep at every coaching position.

Mailbag: Atlanta Falcons edition

September, 12, 2009
9/12/09
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Posted by ESPN.com’s Pat Yasinskas

The Atlanta Falcons are the final stop on our series of team-by-team mailbags.

Matthew in Flowery Branch, Ga., writes: With the current state of the economy, what are the chances that the Atlanta Falcons open up a new stadium in the next few years?

Pat Yasinskas: My first thought when the Falcons started making noise about a new stadium was, “Why do that in this economic climate?’’ But Arthur Blank knows a bit more about business than I do and he’s pushing ahead with this idea. The Falcons certainly could use an upgraded stadium and I’m thinking Blank is trying to strike while the iron is hot. In other words, he’s got a good team that, right now, is very marketable from the coach and the quarterback right on down the line. One other item that I think needs to be pointed out here. The Falcons have team president Rich McKay as their point man on the stadium front. Say what you want about some of McKay’s football moves when he was general manager in Atlanta and Tampa Bay. But McKay is a very sharp man and he’s got a successful history when it comes to getting stadiums. Back in his Tampa Bay days, McKay was the point man when the Bucs, who were a disaster at the time, were trying to get a new stadium. McKay helped the Bucs get one of the best stadiums in the league.


Mike in Jasper, GA writes: Pat, have the falcons made enough moves to shore up the secondary and be more competitive on 3rd down?

Pat Yasinskas: Well, we’re about to find out. But I think the Falcons did the best they could to upgrade at the end of the preseason. The trade for Tye Hill gives them a cornerback, who, at least at one time, was considered a first-round talent. He still has some upside and I think he’ll help. Also think veteran Brian Williams can help as a safety. He’s got some history with Mike Smith. The Atlanta secondary isn’t going to overwhelm anyone, but I think it’s now at least as good as it was last year.


Scott in Scotland writes: Hey Pat, awesome story about the Falcons and Make A Wish Foundation. I'm a Panthers fan but have so much respect for the Falcons because of things like this and the Nicholas story. Just wanted to say thanks for running the story.

Pat Yasinskas: Always impressive when a fan of another team can salute something good by another team. The story of Stephen Nicholas and his family was an inspiring one to write.


Adam in Hanover, N.H. writes: You seem quite confident that Matt Ryan will do very well this year. However, watching the last few games of last year as well as the preseason (especially the one against the Chargers) that he is not all that he is cracked up to be. I understand one game isn't necessarily indicative of anything but in the Chargers game he threw at least two if not three balls that should have been intercepted. Even on a few complete passes, the receiver would have been able to gain more yards if Ryan had hit him in stride. In other words, aren't you worried about his arm strength given how aggressive/motivated to make plays he is?

Pat Yasinskas: I truly believe Matt Ryan is going to be a great quarterback, if he’s not already. What he did as a rookie speaks for itself and I saw huge improvement in him when I went to minicamp in May and even more improvement when I went to training camp in August. I think Ryan has all the physical tools and he also has the intangibles and personality that can really put a quarterback over the top. Just as important, I think he’s in a position where he’s set up for success. He’s got great coaching with Mike Mularkey and Bill Musgrave, an excellent running back in Michael Turner, a solid offensive line in front of him and he’s going to be throwing to Tony Gonzalez, Roddy White and Michael Jenkins. I just don’t see any flaws or negatives with this guy.


Tyson in Atlanta writes: Hey Pat, do you think Harry Douglas will be healthy by the end of the year if we make it to the playoffs?

Pat Yasinskas: Not going to happen. Douglas was placed on the injured-reserve list, which means he can't play at all this season.

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