NFC South: Jack Del Rio

NFC South afternoon update

September, 13, 2012
Time for an afternoon drive through the NFC South headlines.


Running back LeGarrette Blount practiced Thursday and said he’s fine to play as much as the Bucs need him on Sunday. I guess the question becomes, how much will the Bucs use Blount as the backup behind rookie Doug Martin.

Right tackle Jeremy Trueblood missed practice with an ankle injury. If he’s not ready to play Sunday, it’s likely Demar Dotson would get the start.


The attorney for linebacker Jonathan Vilma said he was stunned by the statement the NFL released earlier Thursday and said that the appeals panel specifically said the suspensions were “vacated." You had to expect the war of words to heat up again as Vilma and NFL commissioner Roger Goodell prepare to meet next week.

Receiver Devery Henderson (concussion), cornerback Johnny Patrick (thigh) and defensive end Turk McBride (ankle) each missed their second straight day of practice. It’s looking like the Saints will have to use Joe Morgan and Greg Camarillo behind starters Marques Colston and Lance Moore. Although Patrick is out, Jabari Greer is expected to be healthy for the first time this season.


There suddenly have been a lot of comparisons between Washington quarterback Robert Griffin III and Carolina’s Cam Newton. That’s because the Saints played Griffin last week and face Newton on Sunday. Both were Heisman Trophy winners and both can run. But Carolina coach Ron Rivera said the two quarterbacks aren’t all that similar and said Newton is more of a vertical passer.

There’s been a lot of talk about how the Panthers had only 10 rushing yards in the season opener. But Bryan Strickland makes an excellent point as he writes the Panthers didn’t run the ball well in the first two games of last season. But they went on to rush for more than 100 yards in the final 14 games of last season, a franchise record.


Coach Mike Smith said Thursday at Christopher Owens will take over at nickel back after the Falcons lost Brent Grimes to a season-ending injury. Dunta Robinson, who played inside in nickel situations in the opener, will move outside and start at right cornerback with Asante Samuel starting on the left side. Owens will get the first shot at nickel back, but the Falcons also have Dominique Franks, Robert McClain and Terrence Johnson to turn to if he falters.

There’s a subplot of note to Monday night’s game between Atlanta and Denver. Jack Del Rio is now Denver’s defensive coordinator. He was the head coach in Jacksonville when Atlanta head coach Mike Smith and offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter worked there.

Atlanta preseason schedule

April, 4, 2012
The Atlanta Falcons will be featured once on national television in the preseason.

They’ll host the Cincinnati Bengals in an Aug. 16 game that will be carried on FOX. The exact dates and times for the other three preseason games are not set yet.

But the Falcons will open their preseason schedule at home with the Baltimore Ravens sometime between Aug. 9 and 13. They will play at Miami between Aug. 23 and 26.

They’ll wrap up the preseason with a game at Jacksonville on either Aug. 29 or 30. In recent years, the Falcons and Jaguars have played in the preseason and also held joint practices leading into the game. Atlanta coach Mike Smith was a former assistant to former Jacksonville coach Jack Del Rio. Former Atlanta offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey is now the head coach in Jacksonville, so the healthy relationship between the two teams continues.

I’m not sure Smith and Mularkey would want to hold a joint practice so late in the preseason, because those type of workouts generally come earlier in the preseason. We’ll see.

David Garrard in the NFC South?

February, 28, 2012
I heard a very interesting and lengthy interview with David Garrard while driving a bit earlier Tuesday on Sirius NFL Radio.

Garrard made it very clear he wants to play again next season after sitting out 2011. Garrard said he had back surgery to repair an injury that was holding him back when the Jaguars released him just before the start of last season. He said he’s almost 100 percent and his agent is making teams aware of his availability.

[+] EnlargeDavid Garrard
J. Meric/Getty ImagesQuarterback David Garrard could take on a backup/mentor role on several NFC South teams.
As you might expect, Garrard said his first preference would be to go to a team where he would at least have a chance to compete for a starting job. I don’t see that scenario as even a remote possibility in the NFC South. But Garrard also said he’d be open to being a backup/mentor.

In those roles, I could see him in the NFC South. Let’s throw out the Saints because they’ve got Drew Brees as their starter (assuming they finally get around to getting a new contract done) and they seem content with Chase Daniel as the backup. If the Saints do anything at quarterback this offseason, it might be using a late-round pick on a project-type quarterback to groom behind Brees.

But I can at least see scenarios where Garrard would make sense for the other three NFC South teams. Let’s start with Tampa Bay. The Bucs have Josh Freeman as their starter and view him as their franchise quarterback.

Backup Josh Johnson can become a free agent and I think he probably will test the market. Johnson’s athletic and the previous coaching staff sometimes used him in the wildcat formation (although not with a great deal of success). But Johnson’s not the kind of guy you want to see playing for an extended period if Freeman is injured. Garrard can be that guy because he’s got plenty of experience as a starter.

There’s also a school of thought that the Bucs might want to surround Freeman with an experienced backup that can help act as a mentor. Garrard or David Carr are guys I think could be possibilities if the Bucs go in that direction. New offensive coordinator Mike Sullivan worked as quarterbacks coach with Carr and the New York Giants the last two seasons. Sullivan also worked for the Jacksonville Jaguars in 2002 and ’03. Those were Garrard’s first two seasons in the NFL and Sullivan was a defensive assistant the first year, before switching to offense in 2003. But at least he has some familiarity with Garrard.

Speaking of familiarity with Garrard, that could be more of a factor with the other two NFC South teams.

Carolina quarterbacks coach Mike Shula was quarterbacks coach in Jacksonville from 2007 through 2010. Garrard’s best statistical seasons came in that span and all indications are he and Shula got along well. The Panthers are set with Cam Newton as their starter, but backup Derek Anderson is a free agent and Jimmy Clausen’s future with the team remains unclear. Garrard might be an upgrade over Anderson as a mentor and as a player.

Garrard also has ties to the Atlanta coaching staff. New offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter was Jacksonville’s offensive coordinator from 2007 through the end of last season. I’m not real sure if Garrard and Koetter parted on friendly terms, but I think the decision to dump Garrard was made mainly by former Jacksonville coach Jack Del Rio. If nothing else, Garrard should be pretty familiar with the concepts Koetter will try to add to Atlanta’s offense.

Atlanta veteran backup Chris Redman is scheduled to be a free agent and I don’t think the Falcons are ready to elevate John Parker Wilson to the No. 2 role. I think there will be some interest in bringing back Redman because his price tag won’t be high and he’s a good set of eyes and ears for Matt Ryan. But Redman’s not the kind of guy you want to play if Ryan goes down for an extended period of time.

If the Falcons are going to make a play for Garrard, a lot will depend on what Koetter thinks of the quarterback. Heck, even coach Mike Smith could have a weighty opinion on this one. Smith is familiar with Garrard because he was defensive coordinator in Jacksonville before taking over in Atlanta.

Relax, Atlanta, Koetter is credible

January, 15, 2012
I know there are a lot of Atlanta fans freaking out that the Falcons hired Dirk Koetter as their new offensive coordinator.

I understand that it’s easy to look at the Jacksonville Jaguars offense Koetter orchestrated in 2011 and not get too excited. But I think you might want to look at the bigger picture before calling this move a huge mistake.

[+] EnlargeDirk Koetter
David Butler II/US PresswireDirk Koetter is a widely-respected assistant around the NFL.
Yeah, the Jaguars were a bad team, but that’s not Koetter’s fault. As AFC South colleague Paul Kuharsky notes, Koetter was a good coach in a bad situation. In 2011, the Jaguars had a head coach (Jack Del Rio) who was melting down and doing desperate things. That left Koetter having to try to make miracles with rookie quarterback Blaine Gabbert and a bunch of wide receivers who don’t belong in the NFL.

Don’t judge Koetter on one season because I don’t think that’s what Atlanta coach Mike Smith was thinking when he made the decision. Do you really think Smith is going to hire someone who he thinks is inept to fix his offense?

I don’t. Smith’s future depends largely on this hire and the hiring of a defensive coordinator that he’ll be doing soon. When offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey and defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder left, Smith lost his insulation. It was pretty clear in the aftermath of the playoff loss to the New York Giants that owner Arthur Blank wasn’t satisfied with the season. The coordinators are gone and that means Smith is on the hot seat if the team doesn’t meet expectations next season.

Smith worked with Koetter in Jacksonville and I’m sure Smith could have hired any number of other candidates. He chose Koetter and this wasn’t a quick choice. It was pretty well known around the league for about a month that Mularkey was going to become the head coach in Jacksonville. Smith had lots of time to think about this one and he got the guy he wanted.

“Dirk is a veteran offensive coach who will bring years of NFL experience as an offensive coordinator as well as a fresh set of ideas to our offense,’’ Smith said in a statement released by the team to officially announce Koetter’s hiring. “He is bright, he understands the intricacies of the vertical passing game, but he also wants to be able to run the football which is very important in the NFL. I look forward to working with Dirk and have tremendous confidence that he will be a great addition to our team and our coaching staff."

I haven’t covered Koetter yet, but I’ve heard very good things about him from people who have covered him, including Kuharsky. I’ve also heard very good things about him from others who have coached with him. Koetter’s respected around the league and that’s almost always a good sign. I hadn't heard the same things about some of the other names that were linked to this position.

Before this ugly season in Jacksonville, Koetter was viewed as a potential head coach. He did some good things in his first four seasons in Jacksonville. In that time span, Jacksonville’s offense ranked 13th in the NFL in total yards (338.6 per game), sixth in rushing (134.2), fifth in third-down conversions (43.0 percent) and fifth in average yards per rush (4.5). In his first season with the Jaguars (2007), Koetter directed a record-breaking season as the offense set franchise records for points (411 total and a 25.7 average), touchdowns (50) and touchdown passes (28).

Prior to that, Koetter led Arizona State to four bowl games in his six seasons as head coach and finished with a 40-34 record. He also served as offensive coordinator and helped the Sun Devils average nearly 30 points per game over six seasons, and the team was ranked in the top 20 in the nation in passing offense in five of his six seasons.

Give this guy a chance with Matt Ryan, Roddy White, Julio Jones, Tony Gonzalez and Michael Turner and I think Atlanta fans might be pleased with the results.
Monday’s news that defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder has left the Falcons for a position at Auburn is probably just the beginning of many changes for Atlanta.

VanGorder had been the coordinator since the arrival of coach Mike Smith in 2008. His defense this season was good, but certainly not great. That was kind of the theme for the entire team, and this is a change that will be healthy for the Falcons in the long run. This team obviously needs some change.

As soon as VanGorder left, speculation started that former Jacksonville coach Jack Del Rio could be a possible replacement. That’s very logical. Smith was Del Rio’s defensive coordinator in Jacksonville before taking the Atlanta job. The two have a close relationship, and Del Rio would be a good fit.

Del Rio has only one year of experience as a coordinator. That came with Carolina in the 2002 season, and it was a prosperous year for the Panthers’ defense. Del Rio, a former NFL linebacker, quickly established a reputation for being aggressive.

That’s something the Falcons could use. Their defense was capable of slowing offenses in 2011, but didn’t produce a lot of big plays. Smith obviously has a lot of say in Atlanta’s defense, and he needs to adjust a little bit. Adding an aggressive coordinator would be a step in the right direction.

But the Falcons face some other major decisions on defense. Cornerback Brent Grimes, middle linebacker Curtis Lofton, defensive end John Abraham and safety Thomas DeCoud are all potential free agents.

All were starters and key players this season, and I suspect the Falcons at least want to keep Lofton and Grimes. Abraham is aging and could decide to retire. If he wants to continue playing, the Falcons might want him back. Even though he’s slowing down, Abraham still is a strong pass-rusher, and the Falcons need pressure up front.

Atlanta’s defense needs to improve in the secondary and needs to come up with more big plays all around. I doubt Smith will make drastic changes to his scheme. But this defense needs to tweak its personnel in several areas, and needs to come up with a lot more big plays in 2012.
ATLANTA – The Jacksonville Jaguars reportedly have asked the Atlanta Falcons for permission to interview offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey for their head coaching position.

It wasn’t immediately clear if the Falcons have granted that permission, but that’s not likely to be a stumbling block. Coach Mike Smith and general manager Thomas Dimitroff generally don’t stand in the way of assistants who get a chance to move up. Plus, Smith has a good relationship with the Jaguars. He worked as Jacksonville’s defensive coordinator before taking the Atlanta job in 2008. Mularkey also has a son who works in Jacksonville's personnel department.

Mularkey’s name has been tied to the Jacksonville job since Jack Del Rio was fired. He has previous head coaching experience as a head coach with Buffalo. The Jaguars likely will want a coach who can help rookie quarterback Blaine Gabbert develop and Mularkey has largely been credited for the success of Atlanta’s Matt Ryan in his first four seasons.

It’s not known when Mularkey will talk to the Jaguars, but the Falcons have a playoff game to get ready for Sunday against the New York Giants.

Mularkey also potentially could be a candidate for the Tampa Bay job, if the Bucs part ways with Raheem Morris. Mularkey started his coaching career with the Bucs in the mid-1990s and his reputation as a quarterback builder could be attractive for a team that’s looking to get Josh Freeman back on track.

NFC South coordinators rising fast

November, 17, 2011
AFC South colleague and friend Paul Kuharsky has a very interesting column that impacts our world.

It’s about potential head coaches for the Jaguars, if they decide to part with Jack Del Rio, and the list includes three NFC South names. Kuharsky and I talked about those names at some length as he worked on this project.

I threw Atlanta offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey, New Orleans offensive coordinator Pete Carmichael, Carolina offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski and Tampa Bay offensive coordinator Greg Olson at him when we first began the conversation. Funny thing is, Paul said the first three names came up on just about every list of potential candidates as he talked to some high-ranking officials around the league.

Paul didn’t hear Olson’s name from those people, so Paul left him off the list. But the other three are on the list and I could see any or all of them being a legitimate candidate. Let’s take a look at each of them.

Mularkey might not be the most popular guy with Falcons fans at the moment. But he’s got a pretty good track record in Atlanta. Quarterback Matt Ryan came right in and thrived as a rookie starter and the Falcons have had a winning record the past three seasons. That might be the kind of resume the Jaguars look for because it’s likely they’ll want a guy who can help quarterback Blaine Gabbert develop. Mularkey has experience as a head coach in Buffalo. Plus, Kuharsky points out that Mularkey already has a strong tie to the Jaguars because his son works in the team’s personnel department.

Chudzinski is only in his first season as a coordinator. But, like Mularkey, he’s shown that he can work well with a young quarterback. Cam Newton came out of the gate putting up 400-yard passing games. Plus, Chudzinski is universally respected around the league.

Then, there is Carmichael. He’s in his third season as Sean Payton’s offensive coordinator. Payton had always called the plays until he suffered leg injuries in a sideline crash earlier this season and temporarily handed the duties over to Carmichael. But the fact Carmichael hasn’t been the traditional play caller shouldn’t work against him. That’s because he’s well-schooled in one of the league’s best offenses and that pedigree will be looked upon favorably. But Carmichael might be a bit of a long shot on this one. The Jaguars are in a unique situation. They struggle to sell tickets and they may want a gregarious coach to help energize their fans. Carmichael comes across as quiet and shy when dealing with the media and that could work against him. But, hey, they used to say Tony Dungy was too quiet and shy and he wound up being the guy who brought life to a Tampa Bay franchise that had been dismal for most of the time before his arrival.

Pat Yasinskas' QB Watch

September, 21, 2011
Tony Romo and Josh Freeman Getty ImagesTony Romo, left, and Josh Freeman both led fourth-quarter comebacks in Week 2.
If there’s a lesson to be learned from Week 2 of this NFL season, it might be the more you smack a quarterback around and the deeper a hole you put him in, the more danger you’re in.

Take the cases of Tony Romo, Matt Ryan and Josh Freeman. All three were battered, Romo to the point at which he had to leave the game with a fractured rib. Freeman was bleeding from his mouth and Ryan was flailing on the turf of the Georgia Dome at one point.

Yet, all three were part of what was a great week for quarterback comebacks. In all, there were five fourth-quarter comebacks in Week 2. Buffalo’s Ryan Fitzpatrick and Washington’s Rex Grossman also led their teams to victory after being down in the fourth quarter.

This is nothing new for Ryan. In defeating former Atlanta quarterback Michael Vick and the Philadelphia Eagles, Ryan notched his 10th fourth-quarter comeback since the start of the 2009 season. No other quarterback has had more fourth-quarter comebacks in that time. Peyton Manning and David Garrard are tied for second with nine.

Ryan, who took a lot of hits in the game, was rocking back and forth briefly after taking a hit early in the fourth quarter with the Eagles leading, 31-21. Soon after Ryan got up, he seemed to get into rhythm. He promptly led two touchdown drives to give the Falcons a 35-31 victory.

“I thought our quarterback really showed his toughness,” coach Mike Smith said. “He took a number of shots and he kept going. When you’ve got guys like that, you’ve got a chance to be successful.’’

It was kind of a similar scene in Minnesota, where Tampa Bay fell behind 17-0 in the first half. Freeman was getting knocked around pretty good, but he never lost his composure and led the Bucs back into the game and on to victory.

"He looked me right in the face, 'We got this; we're OK,'" coach Raheem Morris said. "I'm looking at my quarterback's mouth bleeding. It's kind of a situation you don't want to look at too often. He got things rolling for us and able to come back in the fourth quarter. It's becoming a signature move for him."

In the same time span as Ryan’s 10 comebacks, Freeman is tied with Drew Brees and Jay Cutler with eight fourth-quarter comebacks. There’s a bit of a catch here. Freeman didn’t get to play until halfway through his rookie season. Freeman has had 27 career starts and his eight comebacks are the most ever for a quarterback in such a span.

As impressive as Ryan and Freeman were, Romo’s comeback might have been the best of the week. Romo left the field after taking a shot from Carlos Rogers and was replaced by Jon Kitna.

A Kitna interception helped the 49ers take the lead, and that’s when Romo came back into the game. He promptly threw a touchdown pass to Miles Austin, then drove the Cowboys for a field goal to send the game to overtime.

Romo ended the game by hitting Jesse Holley for a 77-yard gain to set up the winning field goal.



Around the NFC South

September, 21, 2011
A look at the top headlines from around the NFC South.

Atlanta defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder said James Sanders and Thomas DeCoud will continue to compete for the starting job at free safety. DeCoud started the opener, but the veteran Sanders started in his place in Week 2.

Although running quarterback Cam Newton has been putting up huge passing numbers, the Panthers say they have to get better in the running game. With DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart in the backfield, the talent is there. But the Panthers have been hindered by some injuries on the offensive line.

Tampa Bay’s defense is allowing an average of 6.2 yards per snap. That’s a pace that’s worse than the 1986 defense, which allowed a franchise-record 6.0 yards per play.

Jim Henderson and Bradley Handwerger discuss the Saints’ kicking situation. John Kasay has made all his field-goal attempts and that could make for a difficult decision when Garrett Hartley is healthy enough to return.

The Panthers will face rookie quarterback Blaine Gabbert on Sunday. Jacksonville coach Jack Del Rio has elected to go with Gabbert over Luke McCown, who started the first two games.
The latest reports are that owners and players are hoping to have a labor agreement ratified July 21 and indications are the league year and the start of free agency would come sometime around July 28.

Free agency will be unlike anything we’ve ever seen before because teams will have only a matter of days to pull off what they usually do over five or six months. But free agency won’t be the only thing that looks different once the lockout ends.

All indications are training camps will start on time or pretty close to it. But we don’t know exactly what those start dates are just yet. Teams are hesitant to release anything official until the labor deal is done.

But I think you could see the missed offseason cause some adjustments to what teams do in training camp. One NFC South team is at least looking at the possibility of bringing in its rookies for about three days of practices before veterans report. That’s so the rookies can get some time with the coaches and, theoretically, at least get a clue what they’re doing before they have to practice with veterans.

If one team is considering that kind of approach, I think it’s safe to assume there’s a chance some others might follow a similar plan. We also haven’t heard anything definitive on if any NFC South teams plan to conduct joint workouts with other teams.

But I wouldn’t be surprised if the Atlanta Falcons and Jacksonville Jaguars get together for a little work. They did that last year in Flowery Branch, Ga. and then played a preseason game at the Georgia Dome. Atlanta coach Mike Smith and Jacksonville coach Jack Del Rio are old friends and it’s probably Smith’s turn to return the favor. The Falcons and Jaguars are scheduled to play a nationally televised game in Jacksonville on Aug. 19. It makes total sense for the teams to get some work together in the days leading into that game.
Breakdown: The Atlanta Falcons are suddenly getting a high national profile. They’ve got four prime-time games on national television, three at home where the Falcons have been dominant since coach Mike Smith and quarterback Matt Ryan have been around, and each of them comes with a great storyline.

The home opener in Week 2 comes against the Philadelphia Eagles. The Falcons will see their former quarterback, Michael Vick. The Oct. 9 game with Green Bay is a rematch of Atlanta’s disappointing playoff loss last season. The Dec. 15 matchup with the Jacksonville Jaguars will be a game in which Smith has to go against his previous employer, as well as mentor and friend, Jack Del Rio.

But the best game of all might be the day after Christmas when the Falcons play their prime-time road game on "Monday Night Football." They travel to New Orleans to play the Saints and these two clubs have become fierce NFC South rivals. The teams play in Atlanta in November, but the Dec. 26 contest likely will have playoff implications. It also will come with bragging rights. When the Saints won last season in the Georgia Dome, some New Orleans players posed for post-game pictures on the Falcons’ logo. The Saints said they wanted the pictures as a memento of a significant victory. A lot of the Falcons viewed it differently and weren’t very happy with that scene.

Complaint department: It looks like the folks who made the schedule want to test the Falcons early. They have to open the season with five straight games against teams that either made the playoffs or won at least 10 games last season.

Ryan’s test: Take a look at the two-game stretch following Atlanta’s Week 8 bye. The Falcons travel to Indianapolis and then host the Saints. Many people like to debate whether Ryan really is an elite quarterback. If he can lead his team to consecutive victories against Peyton Manning and Drew Brees, that might put him firmly in the elite category.

Falcons Regular-Season Schedule (All times Eastern)
Week 1: Sunday, Sep. 11, at Chicago, 1:00 PM
Week 2: Sunday, Sep. 18, Philadelphia, 8:20 PM
Week 3: Sunday, Sep. 25, at Tampa Bay, 4:15 PM
Week 4: Sunday, Oct. 2, at Seattle, 4:05 PM
Week 5: Sunday, Oct. 9, Green Bay, 8:20 PM
Week 6: Sunday, Oct. 16, Carolina, 1:00 PM
Week 7: Sunday, Oct. 23, at Detroit, 1:00 PM
Week 8: BYE
Week 9: Sunday, Nov. 6, at Indianapolis, 1:00 PM
Week 10: Sunday, Nov. 13, New Orleans, 1:00 PM
Week 11: Sunday, Nov. 20, Tennessee, 1:00 PM
Week 12: Sunday, Nov. 27, Minnesota, 1:00 PM
Week 13: Sunday, Dec. 4, at Houston, 1:00 PM
Week 14: Sunday, Dec. 11, at Carolina, 1:00 PM
Week 15: Thursday, Dec. 15, Jacksonville, 8:20 PM
Week 16: Monday, Dec. 26, at New Orleans, 8:30 PM
Week 17: Sunday, Jan. 1, Tampa Bay, 1:00 PM

In our daily package from ESPN Stats & Information, there was an item about the longest-tenured head coaches in the NFL.

At first glance, I was kind of surprised to see Carolina’s John Fox at No. 4 on the list. Seems like only a few days ago, I was covering his first season. But the reality is that was 2002 and that was a long time ago in NFL terms. Fox is now in his eighth season with the Panthers.

Only Tennessee’s Jeff Fisher (16 years), Philadelphia’s Andy Reid (11) and New England’s Bill Belichick (10) have been with their franchises longer. Jacksonville’s Jack Del Rio, who was Carolina’s defensive coordinator in Fox’s first season, is tied with Cincinnati’s Marvin Lewis for fifth on the list with seven seasons.

Fact is Fox has had a very nice run with Carolina and he brought the franchise back from George Seifert’s ashes when he took over. That said, he still is very much on the hot seat right now. The Panthers have struggled this season and Fox’s biggest flaw is that he never has been able to put together back-to-back winning seasons.

One other thought on Fox and his longevity. In some ways, I think it’s worked against him. Part of that’s because Fox has been very stubborn and hasn’t adapted through the years. I also think there’s a shelf life with a coach if he doesn’t change through the years and I think Fox is past that. There comes a point where players can get tired of the same old thing and stop buying in -- especially when it doesn’t seem to be working.
 Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images
 Mike Smith's stable of coaches is one of the reasons for Atlanta's revival.
Posted by’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.

Posted by’s Pat Yasinskas

ATLANTA -- The Falcons should send a thank-you note to Jacksonville coach Jack Del Rio.

He’s the guy who literally ran off linebacker Mike Peterson and cornerback Brian Williams. Former Jacksonville assistant Mike Smith was only too happy to sign those guys in Atlanta.

It’s paying off in a big way. Williams just blocked a Carolina punt and Peterson recovered it. The Falcons just took that field position and turned it into a Matt Ryan touchdown pass to Tony Gonzalez.
Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images
Despite the team's youthful makeover on defense, the Falcons brought in 33-year-old linebacker Mike Peterson to usher along the process of reshaping the unit.

Posted by's Pat Yasinskas

Listen to Mike Peterson talk for about 30 seconds and you'll hear why he's fitting in so nicely -- and quickly -- with the Atlanta Falcons.

"It's a process," Peterson said.

Ah, the old "process" line. If you've followed Mike Smith since he took over as coach of the Falcons last year, you've heard the word at least several hundred times. Around Atlanta, there are smiles and shrugs from fans, media and even some players whenever Smith drops "process" into a sentence.

It sounds nice and you can't really question that Smith is onto something with what he's done with the Falcons, but what does this vague term he seems to live by really mean?

Ask Peterson, because he speaks the language better than anyone else. He actually understands and totally believes in what Smith is saying. He bought into the process long before the rest of the Falcons first heard of it. He bought into it early in the process.

From the day Peterson first met Smith, he's lived the process. They came together back in 2003 in Jacksonville, where Peterson had just joined the Jaguars as a linebacker from the Indianapolis Colts and Smith was the new defensive coordinator for new coach Jack Del Rio.

"He's been talking about 'the process' ever since I met him," Peterson said. "It's simple, really. It just means he's never satisfied. He's always trying to build something more."

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