Blank resists urge for high-profile coach and gets it right
ATLANTA -- For once, Arthur Blank didn't fret about winning the press conference, a flaw that for too long has been a misplaced priority for the well-intentioned but results-deficient Atlanta Falcons owner.
This time, the owner who seems to have the high-profile gene woven into the fabric of his DNA concerned himself much more with identifying a head coach who might actually win games. Which, as Blank has failed to recognize in the past, is ultimately the surest way to win over fans in this fickle city.
In deciding on Mike Smith as the next coach, a hire that has the fingerprints of new general manager Thomas Dimitroff all over it, the Falcons got a man with a common name.
But they also got a guy, in the Jacksonville Jaguars' defensive coordinator, who is an uncommonly good coach.
Having covered more than a dozen Jacksonville games over the past three seasons, we've gotten to know Mike Smith pretty well, as both a coach and a man.
The scouting report: Unlike his brother-in-law, former Baltimore Ravens coach Brian BIllick, Smith won't dazzle the media here with witty bon mots. Quotable, he ain't. Then again, after the brief but contentious tenure of predecessor Bobby Petrino, the Falcons could have hired the combustible Bobby Knight and it would have been a public relations upgrade.
Smith isn't the prettiest face, the liveliest personality, the snappiest dresser or the hottest name. Frankly, he looks a tad older than his 48 years, and there is a kind of undeniable reticence to him. Based on his non-existent Q-rating here, and even around the league, the Falcons' ticket office need not scurry to add extra telephone lines or order-takers in the coming days.
In fact, the general reaction here, after ESPN's Michael Smith reported early Wednesday that the Falcons were leaning strongly toward the Jaguars' coordinator as their next coach was a pretty underwhelming "who?" more so than a resounding "wow."
That doesn't matter. In a city where the Falcons have become irrelevant, which is Blank's worst nightmare realized, this is a franchise that needs to win games in order to win back some fans.
Mike Smith knows about winning football games. In five seasons as the Jacksonville coordinator, the Jaguars won 46 games, counting postseason victories. The Falcons have won 55 games this millennium.
Although the group that Jack Del Rio assembled in Jacksonville featured five former NFL or college head coaches, Smith was arguably the staffer most responsible for the franchise's success over the past half-decade.
Under the stewardship of Smith, the Jacksonville defense statistically ranked among the league's top six three times and was never lower than No. 12. This season, the defense helped Jacksonville advance to the divisional round of the AFC bracket. And that was despite injuries to middle linebacker Mike Peterson, defensive tackle Marcus Stroud and strong safety Gerald Sensabaugh. No Jaguar was selected to the Pro Bowl.
Not bad. The Falcons, who are beyond bad, can only hope for such results. Reversing the abysmal fortunes in Atlanta will take time. Just because Smith is so low-key, however, doesn't mean he will arrive here with diminished expectations.
Smith is a solid football man, a guy who can X and O and get the respect of players. There have been some suggestions that Smith was merely a puppet in Jacksonville, and that it was actually Del Rio, himself an old coordinator, who ran the defense. But in speaking the last few years with some key veterans we know and trust -- Stroud, Peterson, cornerback Rashean Mathis and others -- we never came away with that impression.
Rather, those players went out of their way to laud Smith's work ethic, to champion his cause, to stress that he was integral to their success, and to opine that he should someday merit head coach consideration. That day came when Dimitroff huddled with Smith last Friday, the first session between the two, but the second interview overall between Smith and Atlanta officials.
Obviously, there was some shared philosophy, a like-mindedness, between Dimitroff and Smith.
Dimitroff landed his job, in part, because he is believed to have been the general manager candidate in Atlanta who least questioned the role of club president Rich McKay, who had the general manager portion of his dual title excised by Blank from the team letterhead at season's end. Dimitroff has said that he actually regards McKay's experience as an asset. Likewise, sources said Wednesday morning, Smith was the choice for the head coach position because he was the candidate viewed as most compatible with Dimitroff, and the man who best dove-tailed with the new synergy that Blank apparently is attempting to create.
There's nothing wrong with a coach and his personnel man, which is basically Dimitroff's role, sharing the same ideas on how to build a team and nurture it. Hey, it's worked pretty well in New England and Jacksonville, the last two workplaces for Dimitroff and Smith, respectively.
In hiring the third different head coach during his time as owner, Blank actually got out of the way a little bit, a difficult thing for the spotlight-seeking owner to do. Once he brought Dimitroff aboard, he afforded him considerable input. And why not, since Dimitroff and Smith will confront the daunting task here together. Blank did have his moments of weakness -- not so much in chasing Bill Cowher and Bill Parcells, but more in his flirtation with Southern Cal coach Pete Carroll -- but in the end he deferred to the recommendation of his new general manager.
And given Blank's history and his penchant for sometimes over-reaching for the headline-making candidate, that's not an altogether bad thing.
Perhaps the only failure of Dimitroff in the process was allowing word of his choice to leak out. Michael Smith of ESPN knew who the new coach was going to be long before Mike Smith the new head coach did. But, hey, that was a win for the home team in Bristol, and we'll take it.
Dimitroff apparently feared that if he waited until after Super Bowl XLII to interview New York Giants defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo, whom he knew well, the Falcons might lose out on some key staffers. It should not be a problem now for Smith to put together a solid staff, and look for former Buffalo head coach Mike Mularkey to emerge as a candidate for the offensive coordinator position. The hiring of Smith might also benefit veteran quarterback Byron Leftwich because the two men know each other well.
Smith will become the 23rd new head coach in the league since 2005, a period in which only five men with previous head coach experience in the NFL have been hired. For the Falcons and Blank, it represents the third straight time, after Jim Mora and Petrino, that they have hired a first-timer.
And maybe this third time, they actually got it right.Senior writer Len Pasquarelli covers the NFL for ESPN.com.
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