Commentary

Camp Confidential: Smith's simple approach suits Falcons

After a 2007 season beset by complications, the Falcons have been rejuvenated by the simple approach of new coach Mike Smith, writes Pat Yasinskas.

Originally Published: August 8, 2008
By Pat Yasinskas | ESPN.com

Mike SmithDale Zanine/US PresswireFalcons coach Mike Smith is reinforcing fundamentals and trying to nurture a winning attitude.

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- Veteran Atlanta Falcons linebacker Keith Brooking was sitting outside the team's training complex recently, talking about new head coach Mike Smith.

"I think he's a very simple man,'' Brooking said.

To clarify, Brooking meant that as a compliment.

"He's all about football, and the nuts and bolts of football,'' Brooking said.

Nuts, bolts, a hammer and some nails might be exactly what Smith needs as he begins one of the biggest overhauls in recent NFL history. There's not much besides ruin in Atlanta after the downfalls of Michael Vick and Bobby Petrino.

Vick, the franchise quarterback, is in federal to prison for his involvement in dogfighting. Petrino, the coach who was supposed to bring the best out of Vick, quit late last season and jumped to the University of Arkansas.

After finishing with a 4-12 record, the Falcons decided to abandon the complex for the simple.

"My philosophy is that it is simple,'' said Smith, who was hired after working as Jacksonville's defensive coordinator. "Take care of the little things and the big things will take care of themselves. You've got to be fundamentally sound as a player. All the teams that have had success through the years got to the basics and the fundamentals of their individual positions. They mastered the fundamentals of their positions and that's what sets up a team to have success.''

After pretty much wiping the roster clean of big-name talent (Alge Crumpler and Warrick Dunn were cut, and DeAngelo Hall was traded), Smith will have to teach fundamentals to a team that's highlighted by rookie quarterback Matt Ryan and free-agent running back Michael Turner. The Falcons know this could be a lengthy process, and part of the reason Smith was hired was his straight-forward approach.

"We talked about coming into this organization and changing the culture with an idea of bringing in positive, passionate and persevering people,'' new Atlanta general manager Thomas Dimitroff said. "Mike embodies that idea. He helps these players believe in themselves and this team believe in itself again. Everyone's having fun again playing football, and that's Mike. He comes across that way to the players, and they catch on to his positive approach.''

Key questions

1. How soon will Ryan be the starting quarterback?

[+] EnlargeMatt Ryan
Dale Zanine/US PresswireThe Falcons are being careful with QB Matt Ryan, but they haven't ruled out starting him right away.

Smith and Dimitroff agreed when the Falcons drafted Ryan that they wouldn't place a timetable on the quarterback. The plan is to go through several preseason games before making a decision. The Falcons are well aware that many rookie quarterbacks have never recovered from being thrown into the lineup too soon, so they want to protect Ryan. There are veteran options in Chris Redman and Joey Harrington if Atlanta decides to go with the cautious approach and let Ryan sit for a while.

At the same time, the Falcons have a sense that Ryan is mature beyond his years after he displayed the ability to overcome adversity throughout his college years. His physical skills aren't in doubt, but there's a very real chance the Falcons may decide to open the season with Ryan.

2. Can Turner's presence ease the pressure on Ryan or any quarterback?

Well, it's a start. Turner was the prize among free-agent running backs this offseason. After serving as LaDainian Tomlinson's backup in San Diego, Turner's legs are fresh and he's eager to be a feature back. The Falcons also want to get third-year back Jerious Norwood plenty of touches; Turner and Norwood give Atlanta two solid runners.

But it may take more than speed and power in the offensive backfield to make this offense work. The offensive line doesn't have any dominant blockers. There's some talent at receiver with Roddy White and Laurent Robinson, but defenses are going to focus on stopping the run until Ryan, Redman or Harrington become a real threat in the passing game.

3. Where does a team that was virtually gutted turn for leadership?

You can't get rid of guys like Crumpler and Dunn and not feel it. The Falcons don't have a lot of established players and likely will field one of the league's younger rosters. Defensively, the Falcons can lean on Brooking and linebacker Michael Boley, who could be an emerging star.

But there are no obvious leaders on offense and some will have to emerge. Turner's made some noise about wanting to be a leader and Ryan has been saying all the right things. But they'll have to let their play do the talking before they take firm control of the offense.

Market watch

After letting Crumpler go, the Falcons were quick to sign former Tennessee tight end Ben Hartsock. They put the hard sell on Hartsock when he made his visit and increased his contract offer by another $1 million when there was fear he would visit elsewhere. Hartsock may not be the prolific receiver Crumpler was early during his career, but he's solid as a blocker and receiver and will play a big role in coordinator Mike Mularkey's offense.

Newcomer to watch

Even if Ryan doesn't get onto the field immediately, rookie tackle Sam Baker will. The Falcons jumped back into the first round to get Baker as long-term protection for Ryan's backside. Baker has had his ups and downs in minicamp and training camp, and there likely will be some rocky moments along the way. Veteran offensive line coach Paul Boudreaux will be in charge of speeding up Baker's development.

Observation deck

DeAngelo Hall was one of the league's more physically talented cornerbacks, but he didn't endear himself to management. That forced his trade, which leaves the Falcons with a potential problem spot. Chris Houston will start at one cornerback spot, but the other position is unsettled. Brent Grimes, who spent time in NFL Europe, appears to be the leading candidate right now. The Falcons will have to give him lots of help from safeties Lawyer Milloy and Erik Coleman. … The Falcons probably will have to cut a veteran receiver. It's going to come down to Joe Horn or Brian Finneran. … Re-signing defensive tackle Grady Jackson early in camp was a strong move and it righted one of Petrino's wrongs. Jackson will give the Falcons a push in the middle of the defensive line.

Pat Yasinskas covers the NFL for ESPN.com.

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