Atlanta's Smith a clone of Carolina's Fox

Posted by ESPN.com's Pat Yasinskas

The first time I ever laid eyes on Atlanta coach Mike Smith, it took about three minutes to figure out I'd met him before.

Well, I truly hadn't met Smith before the May night the Falcons had a little get-acquainted reception with the media during an NFL meeting in Atlanta. But I'd met the exact same guy about six years earlier in Charlotte.

When it comes right down to it, the Smith of today is John Fox, circa 2002, and only slightly different now.

When they shake hands before or after what suddenly is an NFC South showdown between the Falcons and Carolina Panthers in the Georgia Dome on Sunday, somebody should snap a picture and see if two different guys really do show up.

Physically, they're the same -- silver hair with the build of former college players who haven't been working out for a while. But it goes way beyond the physical. Fox and Smith think, talk, act and, most important of all, coach alike.

Fox often tells his players "be the same guy" and that's pretty much what he's done since he arrived in Charlotte to clean up George Seifert's 1-15 mess. That's set a pretty nice precedent for success in the NFC South.

There's little doubt Falcons owner Arthur Blank didn't at least consider what Fox had done with the Panthers when he was looking around for someone to clean up Bobby Petrino's mess. Much like Panthers owner Jerry Richardson, Blank wasn't afraid to learn from his mistakes and go with a resume that didn't have much glitz -- but a resume that was exactly what his franchise needed.

It should also be noted that Carolina's Marty Hurney and Atlanta's Thomas Dimitroff, a pair of first-time general managers with meticulous plans to build deliberately through the draft, were driving forces behind the hiring of Fox and Smith.

If you look at the resumes of Fox and Smith, they're pretty much the same. They come from defensive backgrounds and their last stops were as highly-successful coordinators (Smith with the Jaguars and Fox with the Giants). Before that, they both bounced around and did a lot of time as college assistants where their people skills -- more on that later -- were incredibly valuable in recruiting.

They each came to their first head-coaching job ever with a simple and similar philosophy. At their introductory news conferences, Fox and Smith each talked about how their biggest goal was to be able to run the ball on offense and stop the run on defense.

That philosophy has worked well through most of Fox's tenure, made him the most successful coach in franchise history and helped run the Bill Cowher fan club out of town this year. That formula, along with hitting the jackpot on rookie quarterback Matt Ryan, has made Smith the toast of Atlanta 10 games into his career.

But it wasn't all Xs and Os for Fox at the beginning and it hasn't been for Smith either. The first thing Fox had to do was win over a team that Seifert never had.

Former Panthers center Jeff Mitchell observed the change in culture within a few months of Fox's arrival. He said Fox frequently asked him how his children were and called them by name. Mitchell then laughed and said Seifert didn't even know he had children.

Fox had to be a bit of a Wal-Mart greeter/cheerleader at the start and Smith did, too. But that came naturally to Smith. He's gregarious and genuine, the kind of guy who sent a writer a thank-you note for coming out to training camp for a few days and the kind of guy who will joke with his players on the practice field, but also be stern with them in his office when a firm hand is needed.

Back in that first season, Fox managed to rejuvenate the fan base by somehow squeezing out wins with Rodney Peete as the starting quarterback in his first three games. The Panthers lost their next seven, but came on strong at the end of the year to finish 7-9.

With a roster that was supposed to be the worst in the NFL, Smith might have caught a break by drawing Detroit and Kansas City early in the schedule. The world kept waiting for the Falcons to hit reality and start losing in bunches. That hasn't happened and maybe there's a new reality.

Maybe, like Fox's first-year Panthers, Smith's Falcons really have become a good team. Maybe they've found a formula that, like Fox's in Carolina, will give them a chance to be playoff contenders for a very long time.

A victory by Atlanta on Sunday would give Smith as many victories as Fox had in his first season. It would be a nice achievement for Smith and, for the moment, another similarity to Fox.

But why stop there? Maybe Smith can go on and win more first-year games than Fox. But this is about more than rookie years for head coaches.

One other thing Fox and Smith each talked about at their introductory news conferences and something Dimitroff has said this year and Hurney still says to this day: They all believe the goal is to build through the draft, sign an occasional big free agent and at least be able to contend for the playoffs each year.

It sounded pretty ambitious when Fox and Hurney first talked about it and it sounded the same with Smith and Dimitroff did.

Oh, one other thing to keep in mind. Fox had the Panthers in the Super Bowl is second year.

Something for Smith to shoot for -- if he doesn't pull it off this year.