NFC South: Emmitt Thomas
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.
Lewis is no stranger to the NFC South. He spent the 2007 and ’08 seasons with Carolina before jumping to the Seattle Seahawks last year. The job came open after the Falcons decided not to renew the contract of veteran defensive backs coach Emmitt Thomas.
- The Falcons reportedly will not renew the contract of veteran defensive backs coach Emmitt Thomas.
- Carolina quarterbacks coach Rip Scherer said he declined an offer to become offensive coordinator at the University of Virginia and will stay with the Panthers.
- The Bucs selected return man Clifton Smith for their Man of the Year award, which makes him a candidate for the Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year award.
- Nakia Hogan writes about how having cornerbacks Jabari Greer and Tracy Porter at full health could help the New Orleans defense.
- Brian Allee-Walsh lays out 10 reasons the Saints can win the Super Bowl.
- Rene Nadeua has a nice feature on New Orleans rookie running back Lynell Hamilton, who was getting increased playing time late in the regular season.
- Bradley Handwerger writes about the Saints not having a lot of playoff experience. They have only 11 players remaining from their trip to the NFC Championship Game in the 2006 season.
|Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images|
|Mike Smith's stable of coaches is one of the reasons for Atlanta's revival.|
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.
Posted by ESPN.com's Pat Yasinskas
Our final stop in our series of NFC South position rankings is the coaches. This was one of the tougher calls (at least for the top two spots) and it's important to note, we're not just ranking head coaches. We're factoring the entire coaching staffs.
1. Atlanta. Mike Smith worked a miracle in his first year, taking one of the league's worst teams and turning it into a playoff squad. Yes, he's got to do it again to fully prove himself as an elite coach. But I like Smith's chances of doing that. The best thing Smith did was surround himself with an all-star staff. Brian VanGorder will be a head coach before long. Mike Mularkey will get another shot as a head coach. Position coaches like Emmitt Thomas, Paul Boudreau and Bill Musgrave are among the best in the league at what they do.
2. Carolina. There's no question John Fox has the best résumé in the division and that's why I came very close to going with him at No. 1. Fox is the only division coach to have taken his team to the Super Bowl, but he's never had back-to-back winning seasons. He's got a good chance to change that this year. But there were two reasons I gave the nod to Smith. First, I'm still trying to figure out why Fox, with one of the league's best running games, decided to put it all on Jake Delhomme on a rainy night in the playoff loss to Arizona. Don't tell me it was because the Panthers got behind. They weren't using the running game much before that. Second, and this one is bigger, Fox's staff had some major changes in the offseason. Just about the entire defensive staff left voluntarily and that makes you wonder about things like harmony and chemistry. There was a time early in his tenure when Fox had one of the league's best coaching staffs. Maybe the new coaches will work out well, but we have to wait to see.
3. New Orleans. I think there's a very good chance Sean Payton moves up a spot or two this season. But you can't put him in the top two right now because the Saints have underachieved the last two seasons. A lot of that was due to injuries and bad luck, but that's all part of a coach's body of work. There's no doubt Payton is one of the best offensive minds in the game. But defense was the problem last year. That's why Payton went out and got Gregg Williams as the defensive coordinator. Williams has done great things defensively and Payton and general manager Mickey Loomis have given him a lot of good parts to work with. If he can just make the Saints average on defense, they'll be a playoff team and Payton will be a rising star again.
4. Tampa Bay. Raheem Morris has never been a head coach on any level and, at 32, is the league's youngest head coach. He's an unknown, so I have no choice but to rank him last right now. But I think there's tremendous upside with Morris. He relates extremely well to the players and that was an area where predecessor Jon Gruden was lacking. But the best thing I can say about Morris right now is he put together a very good staff. Much like Smith last year, Morris made sure he got experienced coordinators to help him. Jim Bates knows how to run a defense and has some experience as a head coach. Jeff Jagodzinski helped develop Matt Ryan at Boston College and will be in charge of developing rookie quarterback Josh Freeman.
Posted by ESPN.com's Pat Yasinskas
It's time to talk about the Atlanta Falcons in our post-draft series of team-by-team mailbags.
Casey in Atlanta writes: What's up, Pat. I have like the Jerry pick, and the Gonzalez move was outstanding. Arguably, neither addition is as big as the Petersen pick-up. Still, my main concern (for the past year now) is when is Jamaal Anderson going to be cut/ released/ retired/ traded/ placed on practice squad/ rocketed to Mars, etc.?
Pat Yasinskas: A lot of Atlanta fans are wondering the same thing. But the Falcons aren't going to give up on Anderson after just two years. Mike Smith and his staff still see some potential and will try to coach it out of him in training camp and the preseason. If it doesn't start to surface, you may see Chauncey Davis move into the starting role and rookie Lawrence Sidbury could start off as a nice situational pass-rusher.
Ryan in Marietta writes: Pat, any thoughts on the falcons signing leroy hill now that the seahawks have made him available? they didnt really solve their need for depth at linebacker with the draft so he would be a good pick-up.
Pat Yasinskas: You never rule anything out, but the Falcons are intent on building their core through the draft (veterans like Tony Gonzalez and Mike Peterson are being used to fill holes for a year or two). Hill would qualify as a core player and his price tag may be more than the Falcons want to pay.
John in parts unknown writes: Pat, do you think that Coach Smith may use Lawrence Sidbury (I'll offer a nickname, "L Sid") in his 3-4 packages as a pass rusher off the edge? He's pretty darn fast in the "10", I hear. Thanks,
Pat Yasinskas: Tell you what, I like the Sidbury pick a lot. The guy has lots of upside and I think Smith and his coaching staff can make him into a player. He may be just a pass-rusher initially, but the Falcons wouldn't have taken him if they didn't think he could grow into an every-down end.
Allen in New York writes: Hey Pat, do you think Steve Nicholis is ready to start for the Falcons? The Falcons didn't really add anyone in the draft that could challenge him. Do you think it will be a training camp battle between him and Coy Wire?
Pat Yasinskas: I think Stephen Nicholas will get a long look in the preseason. Coy Wire did a nice job at strong-side linebacker late last season and may keep the starting job. But the Atlanta coaches are high on Nicholas and he could get a shot if he has a good training camp.
John in Atlanta writes: your blog has kept me alive this offseason, great job pat. I am satisfied with the falcons draft but our secondary and defense as a whole is now VERY young. this is obviously a good thing but with the falcons facing a brutal schedule how well do you see our ripe defense doing against the nfc east, tom brady, jay cutler and of course the rest of the nfc south?
Pat Yasinskas: Valid question. The coaching staff may be higher on the secondary than the rest of us. They should know what they have and they're counting on Chris Houston to be their lead corner with Brent Grimes or Von Hutchins on the other side. Houston continues to improve and Grimes and Hutchins aren't bad. I think the big question is at strong safety, where rookie William Moore and Thomas DeCoud will compete. Yes, this secondary might not look great on paper. But Smith got the secondary to hold up pretty well last season. He's brought in some younger legs and will try to help the defensive backs out by providing a pass rush that goes beyond John Abraham. One other thing I should mention: Assistant coach Emmitt Thomas works with the secondary and he's one of the best in the business.
|The NFC South has three head coaches returning from last season, but which team has the best coaching staff?|
Posted by ESPN.com's Pat Yasinskas
Free agency is still a few weeks away, but the Atlanta Falcons and New Orleans Saints are the NFC South's two biggest winners in the first phase of the offseason. The Carolina Panthers might have been the biggest loser and it's too early to fully judge the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
In a very busy few weeks for most of the division's coaching staffs, Atlanta was able to keep its stellar group largely in place for the most part. The Saints didn't sit still and they made some moves that will make them a better team. Carolina curiously had most of its defensive staff walk away and also lost a very underrated offensive assistant.
The Bucs were the only team to make a change at the top, replacing Jon Gruden with Raheem Morris, and that led to an overhaul of most of the staff.
With all those changes so fresh, I'm going to rank the coaching staffs for the four NFC South teams. Keep in mind, the head coach certainly factors into this, but this ranking is for the entire coaching staff.
1. Atlanta Falcons. The best thing Mike Smith did when he took over as coach of the Falcons a year ago was to assemble an all-star team of assistants that included the likes of Mike Mularkey, Emmitt Thomas and Terry Robiskie. There's no doubt that coaching staff played a huge role in Atlanta's dramatic turnaround.
The best thing Smith has done so far this offseason was keep that staff pretty much intact. Some of that's just plain luck. Mularkey and Robiskie were mentioned in connection with head-coaching jobs, but neither became serious players. That's a huge stroke of luck because it gives the Falcons continuity on the coaching staff as they head into the second year of what Smith likes to call "the process."
That process is going to be a lot smoother because the Falcons can hit the ground running. If Mularkey and quarterbacks coach Bill Musgrave were able to get so much out of quarterback Matt Ryan in his rookie year, imagine what they can do when they've got him for a full offseason.
That's kind of the same story for this entire coaching staff. After a surprising 11-5 season, it's easy to forget that Atlanta's roster wasn't fully stocked last season. In particular, offensive line coach Paul Boudreau, Thomas and defensive coordinator Brian Van Gorder squeezed far more out of their groups than they had any right to.
Give general manager Thomas Dimitroff another offseason to fully get the roster where he wants and this coaching staff could really make the Falcons special.
2. New Orleans Saints. The jury still is very much out on head coach Sean Payton. He had a great rookie season in 2006, but the Saints have disappointed the last two seasons. There's a lot of personnel work to be done in the coming months, but Payton has made some strong moves with his coaching staff.
There's change at both coordinator positions and Payton did the smart thing by sticking with what's been working and blowing up what hasn't. After offensive coordinator Doug Marrone left for the head job at Syracuse, Payton promoted Pete Carmichael Jr. to his spot, basically tweaking an offensive staff that's had one of the league's most-productive units in recent years.
Payton took a dramatically different approach on defense, where he fired coordinator Gary Gibbs, whose group underachieved the last two years. In a move that's critical to Payton's future, he went out and (after some heavy bidding against other teams) got the best defensive coordinator available. That's Gregg Williams. There's no doubt Williams can coach and he'll bring an aggressive style to a defense that's been too passive. Now, it's up to general manager Mickey Loomis to get Williams some more players.
3. Carolina Panthers. Once upon a time -- like back in 2003 -- broadcaster and former NFL coach Jimmy Johnson said John Fox had the league's best group of assistants. You can't say that right now. Continuity had been one of the best virtues of this coaching staff -- until now. In a bizarre series of events, almost the entire defensive staff walked away from the Panthers.
A lot of fans got excited when defensive coordinator Mike Trgovac declined a new contract with the Panthers and left to become Green Bay's defensive line coach. But the venom from fans toward Trgovac the last few years was misdirected. Fox was the one ultimately calling the defensive shots and Trgovac was working within his parameters.
The Panthers brought in Ron Meeks to replace Trgovac, who might look a lot better in hindsight. Although Meeks officially resigned as defensive coordinator in Indianapolis, the fact is he was forced out. Oh, and defense wasn't exactly a big part of the reason the Colts had all those 12-win seasons.
On a more subtle note, the Panthers lost quarterbacks coach/passing game coordinator Mike McCoy to the offensive coordinator spot in Denver. This will hurt the Panthers more than many realize. McCoy was very instrumental in running this offense and the former Utah quarterback also was one of the guys the team relied on to try to keep receiver Steve Smith on an even keel.
4. Tampa Bay Buccaneers. In time, Morris might turn out to be a great head coach. But it's too early to tell if the 32-year-old, who served as a coordinator for all of two weeks, will succeed. Give Morris credit for assembling a decent staff at a time when a lot of positions around the league already had been filled.
He made a great hire in bringing in veteran defensive coordinator Jim Bates. In a lot of ways, Bates' experience will give the Bucs someone similar to former coordinator Monte Kiffin.
Morris' most critical hire was Jeff Jagodzinski as offensive coordinator. The former Boston College head coach has been a coordinator in the NFL before and he likes to throw the ball downfield. That's something Gruden's offense rarely did. In theory, Jagodzinski should be a good fit. In reality, he's going to need a very productive offseason from general manager Mark Dominik. The Bucs need to re-sign receiver Antonio Bryant and get a few more receivers. But the biggest challenge is going to be deciding on a quarterback and letting Jagodzinski, who worked with Matt Ryan at Boston College, develop
|Kevin Terrell/Getty Images|
|Mike Smith, left, and Matt Ryan have the Atlanta Falcons on a roll heading into the playoffs.|
Posted by ESPN.com's Pat Yasinskas
ATLANTA -- In the postgame locker room Sunday at the Georgia Dome, a slogan was reborn.
What it lacks in originality is made up for by the possibility that it just might fit the Atlanta Falcons better than any team that ever has used the rallying cry.
"The message is, 'Why not us?'" coach Mike Smith said.
As they enter the playoffs, the Falcons just might be the most dangerous team in the NFC. They're the hottest, entering the playoffs on a three-game winning streak. The top-seeded Giants and No. 2 Carolina are the obvious favorites and the most complete teams in the NFC.
"Why not us?" Atlanta receiver Roddy White said. "We're a good team. We beat a lot of good teams."
The Falcons just might have a point. At the moment, Atlanta has as much going for it as any team. Here are five reasons why the Falcons could win the NFC:
Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Graham, James Walker and Pat Yasinskas
The debate over who should be the NFL's coach of the year begins with three rookies who assumed control of woebegone teams and brought them back to relevancy.
Atlanta Falcons coach Mike Smith, Miami Dolphins coach Tony Sparano and Baltimore Ravens coach John Harbaugh have been sideline miracle workers. The Falcons already have clinched a playoff berth. On Sunday, the Dolphins can claim the AFC East, and the Ravens can clinch the final wild-card berth.
ESPN.com bloggers Pat Yasinskas, Tim Graham and James Walker discuss whom is more deserving of the award, breaking down the debate into the three significant issues: team infrastructure, personnel at their disposal and obliterating expectations.
Which coach had to deal with the most daunting organizational strife?
Tim Graham: The Dolphins blew themselves up at the start of the year. Bill Parcells arrived late in 2007 and didn't see much he liked from a team about to miss the playoffs a seventh straight season. The team was going through the motions of a 1-15 campaign that was even more ridiculously bad than the record indicated. So the Dolphins started from scratch. Parcells fired the general manager, the head coach and got rid of all the captains.
Tony Sparano became the fifth head coach in the past five years, taking over a team that hadn't recorded double-digit wins since the glorious Jay Fiedler era. Dolphins owner Wayne Huizenga, meanwhile, was unloading a good portion of the team, creating a widespread uneasiness at the Davie, Fla., headquarters even in the offices outside of the football operations department.
A good time was not being had by all.
Pat Yasinskas: Sorry fellas, but this one's not even a contest. Yeah, the Ravens and Dolphins had their problems. But let's face it, at the end of last year, the Falcons were the most dysfunctional franchise in the history of football. Their franchise quarterback, Michael Vick, had just gone off to jail.
Their coach, Bobby Petrino, had walked out on them for a more talented roster at the University of Arkansas. The city, which never truly embraced the Falcons, now turned its back on them completely. Even Rich McKay, the team's general manager, president and perhaps only lingering thread of sanity, got pushed out of the football side and into the business side of things. Then owner Arthur Blank did the most daring thing of all and hired Mike Smith, who had never been a head coach before, and Thomas Dimitroff, who had never been a general manager before. It looked as if it was going to be a classic case of the blind leading the blind.
James Walker: Let me add this, Pat and Tim. Much is being made of Miami's 1-15 record last year, but keep in mind which team that victory came against. Yes, it was the Baltimore Ravens. That was a rock-bottom moment, not only for the season but I think for the 12-year history of the franchise.
Baltimore's biggest issue moving forward was where it would go from there. The Ravens' situation was unique in that they had to consider what type of transition to make.
Was Baltimore in need of a complete overhaul or just retooling? Sometimes, that's harder to accomplish in the NFL than what the Dolphins and Falcons did by completely starting over. Those two teams at least knew their direction early on.
The Ravens had to tread a more delicate path in bringing in some new coaches such as Harbaugh and offensive coordinator Cam Cameron, while keeping others such as defensive coordinator Rex Ryan. They brought in some new players to help certain spots and trusted others to bounce back, either from injury or poor performance.
Baltimore also traded down in the draft to land more picks and first-round quarterback Joe Flacco, who was a bigger unknown than Matt Ryan or Jake Long. So there were certainly some issues with the Ravens. It just happened that Baltimore general manager Ozzie Newsome pushed most of the right buttons.
TG: Excellent points, James. You make an intriguing case for the Ravens in this area that I didn't think could be made compared to the Falcons or Dolphins. Mediocrity sometimes is harder to overcome than wretchedness, and the Ravens seemed stuck in neutral.
But let me remind everybody that Cameron was the Dolphins' head coach last year and ran their offense. He also had a huge say in personnel, which included the ill-fated addition of quarterback Trent Green and drafting return specialist Ted Ginn with the ninth overall pick. Cameron has returned to genius status with the Ravens. I think that speaks not to some sort of professional rebirth as much as it does that the infrastructure that was in place. There already was decent talent on the roster and good football people in the front office to lean on. The Dolphins didn't have an Ozzie Newsome.
As for the Falcons, do you mean to tell me, Pat, that overcoming all those travails you outlined are a big deal? Puh-lease. Teams handle that sort of turmoil every year, don't they? OK, maybe not.
PY: All right, I'm going to move on with how the Falcons began to rebuild their infrastructure and this brings up what seems like a very subtle point, but, as much as anything aside from drafting Matt Ryan and signing Michael Turner, it has been a key for the dramatic turnaround. Quite simply, Mike Smith put together an all-star team as a coaching staff.
He got former head coach Mike Mularkey to be the offensive coordinator, quarterback teacher Bill Musgrave to work with Matt Ryan (before the Falcons even knew they had Ryan) and kept defensive backs coach Emmitt Thomas on staff. That was hugely important because Thomas was the guy who coached the team when Petrino left and the players trusted him. Smith completed the roster by getting veteran position coaches such as Paul Boudreau, who has taken very ordinary talent on the offensive line and kept Ryan standing upright and opened all sorts of holes for Turner.
It was kind of the same with Dimitroff, who knew a lot about evaluating players, but had never negotiated a contract. People like to say McKay is completely out of the football end of things and assume there's a rift between him and the guy who filled his general manager duties. But that's just not the case. McKay's one of the smartest people in the NFL and it makes some sense to at least let him keep a hand in the football side. McKay's the one who did Ryan's contract and he has been guiding Dimitroff and his staff on other contracts. From what was a totally dysfunctional organization, the Falcons have patched together one that now works very smoothly with good people in every spot.
JW: The Ravens, more than anything, needed a culture change. I think that should d
efinitely be considered when it comes time to vote.
Harbaugh had to come in and quickly tear down the relaxed, country-club atmosphere that Brian Billick left behind. The training camps were harder. The practices were more up tempo, and when you have a lot of strong-minded veterans that were there before the head coach, that can become dicey.
But the leaders in Baltimore's locker room bought into Harbaugh's message early and everyone else fell in line. Once that happened, it was no longer Billick's team. Winning early also helped, but this situation had the potential to be a major challenge that Harbaugh defused early on.
I don't think either Smith or Sparano faced the same issues, because those rosters were gutted and infused with youthful players who were easier to mold.
Which coach coped with the worst personnel entering the season?
PY: I remember standing at Falcons training camp and thinking, "This is not an NFL team." I looked out and saw Keith Brooking, John Abraham and Lawyer Milloy as the only big names, and they're all closing in on the end of their careers. The cupboard appeared to be absolutely bare.
I know everyone likes to think the Michael Vick thing is what left the Falcons so short-handed. It really wasn't. When Smith and Dimitroff came in, one of the first things they did was to gut the roster. They unloaded big names such as DeAngelo Hall, Alge Crumpler and Warrick Dunn, so a bad roster suddenly looked even worse. Back on that day in training camp, I played a little game and asked myself how many Falcons could start for another team? My answer was brief -- Abraham and fullback Ovie Mughelli. That's it.
JW: The Ravens had good personnel, but much of it was aging. Baltimore entered the season with seven starters with at least 10 years of experience, and many of those key players were coming off injuries the year before.
So although Harbaugh had veterans such as Ray Lewis, Samari Rolle and Trevor Pryce, the big unknown was how would they hold up for a 16-game season. The Ravens have had injuries this year but they've been fortunate for the most part with their older players, and it's one of the reasons they are having a winning season.
Even though Miami beat Baltimore last year, I would still say the Dolphins' personnel was considered the thinnest coming in. Would you agree, Tim?
TG: Oh, the Dolphins looked thinner than Manute Bol in pinstripes. What strikes me most when reflecting on Miami's training camp was the dearth of significant names on either side of scrimmage. A casual NFL fan couldn't name five guys on their roster, and the most well-known players came with serious question marks.
Ronnie Brown was returning from season-ending knee surgery. His backfield mate, Ricky Williams, is 31 years old and a known head case. Joey Porter was viewed as the NFL's most egregious free-agency error of 2007. Even Chad Pennington, once he arrived, was considered a washout just clinging to a career. Before leading target Greg Camarillo suffered a knee injury in Week 12, Miami's game-day receiving corps consisted of only one player who had been drafted, Ted Ginn. And he's considered a bust by most Dolfans.
PY: With such poor personnel, Smith and Dimitroff knew they had to work their tails off to rebuild the roster. It looked as if it might take a couple of years for them to assemble a roster capable of even challenging for the playoffs. Obviously, they've moved far ahead of schedule and that's because they were lucky and good as they went about the process. The first piece of the puzzle was signing Turner. He was viewed as the biggest prize in free agency, so why would he want to go to a team like the Falcons?
After four seasons of playing in the shadows of LaDainian Tomlinson in San Diego, Turner was looking for a place where he could be "the guy." The Falcons told him they'd give him 20 or 30 carries a game. They had him show up at an Arena Football League game and the crowd went nuts. If that didn't make Turner feel welcome enough, the Falcons wouldn't let him leave the building without signing a contract.
As good as Ryan has turned out, it was still a gamble to take any quarterback with the third overall pick and start him right away. But Dimitroff did an enormous amount of homework on Ryan and firmly believed he was exactly whom the Falcons needed to be their new quarterback and face of the franchise. Dimitroff's draft preparation didn't stop there. He traded back into the first round to get left tackle Sam Baker to protect Ryan's blindside, got a defensive quarterback in middle linebacker Curtis Lofton in the second and a third receiver and return man in Harry Douglas in the third. Those four rookies plus defensive back Chevis Jackson each have played huge roles in the turnaround.
JW: Pat and Tim, let me end this with a quick story that relates to both of your teams.
I live in Cleveland and attended the rookie orientation at the Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio for both of these teams. I was working on a story this summer and picked the brains of about a half-dozen rookies that day such as Long, Chad Henne, Ryan and Baker, and I got the sense early that these were respectful, mature players that appreciated the opportunity to play in the NFL. So I'm not surprised Atlanta and Miami have young talent playing beyond their years.
But what was funny was the number of players that were brought in. The orientation was for rookies only, but I remember thinking the Dolphins and Falcons brought their entire 53-man rosters to Canton. There were at least 15 rookies and undrafted free agents coming off the bus from each team, and it could have been closer to 20 players.
Obviously some rookies and rookie free agents never made it past training camp, but it illustrates the point you two were making about gutting the rosters. In that respect, Miami and Atlanta definitely had a farther starting point than the Ravens.
Which coach prompted the lowest expectations?
JW: Without a doubt, all three teams and coaches came in with question marks. Most experts picked the Dolphins, Falcons and Ravens to finish either third or last in their respective divisions at the beginning of the season. But in terms of coaches, Harbaugh was the biggest unknown.
Two years ago Harbaugh was a longtime special teams coach for the Philadelphia Eagles. He was promoted to secondary coach under Philadelphia's Andy Reid for one year before impressing the Ravens enough to lead their team.
There were certainly doubters locally and nationally. The biggest question was can a coach that spent most of his career running special teams handle all the strong personalities as the leader of the Ravens? But Harbaugh had the charisma and intensity to pull it off and was very smart to put together an A-list staff of assistants to back him.
As far as the team, no one knew what to expect from Baltimore. Were the Ravens a five-win team of 2007 or the 13-win team of '06? Maybe they were somewhere in between?
With decent quarterback play, I felt this team could win seven or eight games this year. My prediction was higher than most, but the Ravens have far exceeded even my expectations.
PY: If the expectations in Detroit this year were what they were in Atlanta, Matt Millen would still have a job and Rod Marinelli would be viewed as a decent coach. Seriously, after what happened to the Falcons last year, there were no expectations in Atlanta. Three or four wins and less than three major off-field controversies would have been considered a nice season. People were hoping the Braves went deep enough into the playoffs that there wouldn't be much gap before the Hawks started playing some preseason games because, as far as Falcons fans were concerned, there was going to be no reason to watch the Falcons.
In large part, I think that turned out to be a good thing. The incredibly low expectations allowed the Falcons to decide to start Ryan from Day One because fans wouldn't have the lofty expectations for him that they usually do for a first-round quarterback. Ryan didn't have to start the season under a microscope and that gave him a chance to get comfortable in a hurry. Even at midseason, Atlanta fans still were looking at the Falcons with guarded optimism. It has only been in recent weeks that people have started to even think about the playoffs.
TG: James, I have to disagree with you that Harbaugh was the most unknown of the new coaches. People at least knew him by his last name, his father being a well-known college coach and his brother playing NFL quarterback before embarking on a coaching career of his own. People still think the name of the new Dolphins coach is Tony Soprano.
As for expectations, no sane individual ever would have predicted Miami would finish with double-digit wins or be in position to make the playoffs in Week 17. But that was no more unfathomable than what's transpired in Atlanta.
But here's where Sparano will be taken for granted when it comes time for people to consider coach-of-the-year honors. Parcells, with his mere presence, inflated expectations. Fans weren't bold enough to consider an AFC title, but seven or eight wins was within the realm of possibility. And when people judge Miami's turnaround, the first person they will give credit to is Parcells.
JW: Tony Sparano had the catchy name, he was a Parcells guy, and he came from "America's Team," the Dallas Cowboys. By the time he was hired in Miami, he was on the radar of sports fans. Harbaugh's hiring had people looking through media guides to double-check his pedigree.
We'll just have to agree to disagree, Tim.
But speaking of taking things for granted, let's not overlook the strength of schedule the Ravens had coming into the season. Baltimore had the fifth-toughest schedule in the league that included non-division opponents such as the Tennessee Titans (13-2), Indianapolis Colts (11-4) and the entire NFC East division.
Although some things changed during the course of a season, Atlanta entered the year with the No. 21-rated schedule and Miami's was No. 23.
Baltimore is in control of its playoff chances this week, in part because it went 3-1 against the NFC East, which is a mark the Dolphins and Falcons probably couldn't match if given the chance. Also, if head-to-head meetings have anything to do with coach of the year voting, Harbaugh and the Ravens did go into Miami and beat the Dolphins by two touchdowns in Week 7.
PY: James and Tim, I think we can all agree none of these three guys were household names in comparison to some of the veteran head coaches. But Harbaugh did have the bloodlines of his father and brother and was well-known as one of the league's top special-teams coaches. Sparano wasn't an unknown because the assistants in Dallas are as well known as head coaches most places. Smith was easily the least known of the trio of new coaches.
He'd been a coordinator in Jacksonville, where media attention is minimal, and he spent a bunch of years coaching in some small stops through the college ranks. The only area where Smith stood out was the fact he was tremendously ordinary. Even his name is ordinary.
I remember at the NFL owners' meeting last spring, ESPN's Michael Smith and I had breakfast with Smith. They were joking about having the same names. I remember thinking, "My television colleague is the more famous of these two." With apologies to Michael Smith, it's no longer that way. Mike Smith has become famous because he is the Coach of the Year.
TG: Mike Smith sounds like the name people use when they check into motels that charge by the hour, and I wondered if his coaching career would be measured in the same increments given the circumstances he was headed into.
But when you look at the turnaround of each club, the Dolphins have been the most dramatic. Sparano has overseen one of the biggest one-season improvements in NFL history. No one-victory team has won 10 games the next season, and the Dolphins could finish with 11 and a playoff berth, another unprecedented feat.
The Falcons' and Ravens' turnarounds have been remarkable, but the Dolphins' has been historic.