Falcons make Jags assistant Smith new head coach

Updated: January 24, 2008, 2:19 AM ET
By Len Pasquarelli | ESPN.com

ATLANTA -- The Atlanta Falcons hired Jacksonville Jaguars defensive coordinator Mike Smith as the team's new head coach on Wednesday evening.

[+] EnlargeMike Smith
Photo by Getty ImagesPlayers say Mike Smith was key to Jacksonville's defensive success.
"Mike possesses all of the key qualities we were looking for in a head coach," said general manager Thomas Dimitroff, in his first month on the job.

Dimitroff said the 48-year-old Smith, a 26-year coaching veteran, "has strong experience with winning teams, a track record of success, a solid, smart approach to the game, and high character and integrity."

The two sides worked late Wednesday to finalize a contract, and the goal was to introduce Smith as the successor to Bobby Petrino at a Thursday news conference. The team did not release contract details, but the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported on Wednesday night that the deal is for four years worth between $8 million and $10 million.

The decision to hire Smith, who was one of seven candidates interviewed by Falcons officials, was first reported on Wednesday morning by Michael Smith of ESPN. Sources close to Smith and to the hiring process subsequently told ESPN.com's Len Pasquarelli that the Jaguars' coordinator had been formally offered the position.

The vacancy was created when Petrino resigned with three games remaining in his first season on the job.

Smith has never been a head coach at any level of the game. But he is a nine-year league veteran and has served the past five seasons as the Jacksonville defensive coordinator. Under his stewardship, the Jacksonville defense was statistically ranked among the top six in the league on three occasions.

Before joining coach Jack Del Rio's staff in Jacksonville, Smith was the Baltimore Ravens' defensive line coach for three seasons, 1999-2001. As such he was a part of the Baltimore staff that won Super Bowl XXXV. That staff also included Del Rio, who was the linebackers coach.

Falcons quarterback Byron Leftwich, who was with Smith in Jacksonville for four years, says Atlanta made the right choice.

"I've played against his defense more than anybody in the world," Leftwich said. "I did it every day in practice for four years. I think he's a great guy for the job.

"A lot of people might not know his name, but I've seen the work he puts in every game, how guys were so prepared on Sundays that they knew exactly what teams were going to do."

Smith becomes the third Atlanta head coach since 2004 and the third new hire by owner Arthur Blank, who purchased the franchise in 2002. Blank has revamped the entire football operation, stripping team president Rich McKay of his general manager title and hiring former New England college scouting director Dimitroff in that capacity.

Since his hiring last Saturday, Dimitroff met with three of the six candidates previously interviewed by Blank and the other members of his search committee. He also added one new candidate, Minnesota Vikings defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier, to the mix. It is believed that Smith, Frazier and Baltimore Ravens defensive coordinator Rex Ryan comprised the team's list of three finalists after Dallas offensive coordinator Jason Garrett last week turned down the Falcons' job offer to remain with the Cowboys.

There was also some feeling the Falcons might wait until after Super Bowl XLII on Feb. 3 to interview New York Giants defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo, but they decided against that.

But Smith, 48, won over the Falcons with his combination of intelligence, communication and organizational skills, and strong knowledge of personnel. Most important, the team believes Smith to be the most professionally compatible with Dimitroff.

Despite their interest in Spagnuolo the Falcons decided it wasn't in their best interest to wait another week to interview the assistant until after Super Bowl XLII, when the league allows, a source said.

Two factors led to that decision not to wait to interview and likely offer the job to Spagnuolo, with whom Dimitroff struck up a friendship when the two worked together in the then-World League of American Football and whom some believed was the leading candidate.

First, the Falcons feared being left at the proverbial altar -- again. Petrino resigned as head coach after 13 games last season. Bill Parcells spurned Blank's offer to run the entire football operation and chose Miami instead. Last week both Garrett and Indianapolis assistant head coach Jim Caldwell pulled out of the running. The Falcons' brass worried they would wait another week, only for Spagnuolo to perhaps remain in New York. Spagnuolo and the Giants already denied one Falcons' request to interview him earlier this postseason, therefore prohibiting a possible second meeting this week.

Second, the longer the Falcons waited to hire a head coach the less likely he would be able to assemble what the team believes is the best possible coaching staff.

The Falcons' search also included meetings with Tony Sparano, since hired as the Miami Dolphins head coach, and Tennessee Titans defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz prior to Dimitroff's arrival.

Senior writer Len Pasquarelli covers the NFL for ESPN.com. The Associated Press contributed to this report.