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Saturday, March 22, 2014
Mike Smith looks to hit reset button

By Ashley Fox
ESPN.com

Last season was an anomaly.

At least that's how head coach Mike Smith chooses to view what happened to his Atlanta Falcons in 2013. It wasn't the norm, nor was it an adequate reflection of the program he has built in Atlanta since taking over as the Falcons' head coach in 2008.

A 4-12 finish in the cellar of the NFC South? That's not indicative of the results Smith produced in his first five seasons in Atlanta.

Smith should not be on the hot seat entering the 2014 season, but he knows how the National Football League works. He knows that the NFL stands for "Not For Long," and that the moniker applies not only to players, but also to the team builders and head coaches themselves.

Mike Smith
Despite his remarkable start as Atlanta's head coach, another year like 2013's 4-12 campaign and Mike Smith could be shown the door.

Another poor finish and it won't matter that Smith made the Falcons relevant again. It won't matter that he is the first coach in franchise history to have consecutive winning seasons or that he is the first coach to take Atlanta to the playoffs three straight times or that he is the first to preside over a team that hosted the NFC Championship Game.

No, none of that will matter. Smith knows it. Despite being one year removed from being a step away from the Super Bowl, Smith knows that if he doesn't produce in 2014, he will be looking at disappearing into the Tennessee hills for a retirement he's not quite ready to begin. Someday, yes. But not so soon.

Everything that could go wrong for Atlanta did go wrong last season. The Falcons got sideways. They suffered injuries to too many crucial players early in the season, and the backups who were forced into starting roles weren't equipped for the job.

The Falcons' offensive and defensive lines lacked physical aggression and mental toughness. Their running game was atrocious. Their defense couldn't stop anyone on third down, ranking second-to-last in the NFL against the run and giving up more yards than all but five other teams in the league.

The end result was a disastrous 4-12 record and a last-place finish in the NFC South. It left Atlanta owner Arthur Blank publicly questioning the team's tenacity and toughness and promising that the franchise would upgrade either the offensive or defensive line in the first round of the draft.

The message was clear. Tough teams are tough up front on both sides of the ball. That's what Blank wants. And he wants to win.

Smith did plenty of that in his first five seasons as the Falcons' head coach. He posted a 56-24 regular-season record -- the second best in the league from 2008-12 -- won two division titles and had home-field advantage in the playoffs twice. The Falcons were formidable at home in the Georgia Dome, winning 33 games and losing just seven.

And they hit on the most important position in football when they selected Matt Ryan with the third overall pick in the 2008 draft.

As recently as 2012, Atlanta was a balanced team on offense and defense, finishing the season with the seventh overall scoring offense complemented by the sixth overall scoring defense.

At one point last season, however, the Falcons were down eight starters. The right side of their offensive line was unable to adequately protect Ryan, the franchise's most important asset. They lost wide receiver Julio Jones for the season in October. Wide receiver Roddy White started the year with a nagging injury and didn't hit his form until the second half of the season.

The defense still lacked an effective pass-rusher -- a common complaint among Falcons fans the past few years -- and had its linebacker corps decimated by injuries. The secondary was average.

So with Smith and general manager Thomas Dimitroff collaborating, the Falcons have hit the reset button. Dimitroff bolstered his scouting department by hiring former Chiefs general manager Scott Pioli to be his assistant and added former St. Louis general manager Billy Devaney as a regional scout.

Smith reworked his staff, adding Mike Tice as his offensive line coach, among other moves. Together, Dimitroff and Smith released safety Thomas DeCoud, cornerback Asante Samuel, outside linebacker Stephen Nicholas and guard Garrett Reynolds. They re-signed defensive tackle Peria Jerry and center Joe Hawley and extended defensive tackle Jonathan Babineaux.

In free agency, the Falcons added defensive end Tyson Jackson, nose tackle Paul Soliai, right guard Jon Asamoah, defensive back Javier Arenas and return specialist Devin Hester.

Atlanta still needs a pass-rusher, a tackle, a safety to replace DeCoud and a tight end to replace Tony Gonzalez. The team holds the sixth overall pick in the draft and likely will target one of the tackles or possibly Buffalo outside linebacker Khalil Mack, who would be a nice fit in the Falcons' new 3-4 base defense.

Will the moves work? Will having a presumably healthy Jones help? Will Ryan bounce back with better protection up front? Will the defense be able to disrupt opposing quarterbacks and be better on third downs and against the run?

Smith is a good coach and an even better man. He also isn't naïve. He knows his future in Atlanta is tied to proving that 2013 was an anomaly and not the norm.