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Falcons’ energy comes straight from the coach


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Falcons’ energy comes straight from the coach

By Jason Cole, Yahoo! Sports

Atlanta head coach Mike Smith(notes) looks more comfortable sitting at one of three chairs around a small table than behind the desk in his spacious office at the team’s facility in Flowery Branch, Ga. Smith also fidgets regularly as he sits, as if he can barely contain the enthusiasm he has for his job.

That’s what Smith is all about, molding that energy into a jovial package that is friendly and inviting. Unlike some coaches, Smith ends every interview with the same two questions.

“Did you get what you want? Do you need anything else?”

Smith, who led the Falcons to a surprising playoff berth last season and has the team off to a 3-1 start this season, tops that off by handing out books on leadership and personal growth. The latest is “The Energy Bus” by Jon Gordon. The subtitle is: “10 Rules to Fuel Your Life, Work, and Team with Positive Energy.” Not that Smith needs to find ways to develop more energy. Rather, he gave it to his players for their offseason reading.

Smith spoke with Yahoo! Sports about his team and coaching philosophy.

Jason Cole: Sometimes games are close and it comes down to one play, such as Buffalo’s opener against New England when Leodis McKelvin(notes) fumbled. Over the course of a season, how many plays does it really come down to?

Mike Smith: That’s one of the stats we keep track of and really talked about in Week 1. There are really five or six plays in the course of a game that really define the game. You can go back and say, ‘This happened here on this play, this happened on this other play’ and whatever happened on those five or six plays, if it’s a close game, that usually determines what happened in the game overall.

If you win the majority of those five or six, you’re in good shape If you don’t … what happens if the ball hits your safety right in the hands and he doesn’t catch it? It was my first game as a defensive coordinator and we go up and play (Carolina). With about 1:10 to go, (Panthers quarterback) Jake Delhomme(notes) throws one right into our safety’s hands. But our safety lets it him in the facemask. The game is over if he catches it, but he doesn’t and they run this stack route on the next play and get the touchdown, win 21-17, game over. But there could be a play early in the game, first quarter, second quarter, that can happen.

Cole: So over the course of a season, you’re talking about 80 to 100 plays that determine the season.

Smith: Yeah, those can really determine whether you get the outcome or not. Are you 6-10 or are you 11-5 and headed to the playoffs. I would say that’s a fair statement. … In the first three weeks of the season, it was eight games the first week decided by a touchdown or less, nine the second week. The third week was really close too.

Cole: You’re a very active, energetic guy and your team seems to play that way. Does a team really take on the personality of its coach that much?

Smith: I think that teams will take on the personality of their head coach, the leaders of the team. You can’t discount that. Is it sustainable for a long period of time? I think each team takes on its own personality, at least the ones I’ve been around, over the long haul. But eventually it’s about the group of men in the locker room.

Cole: What about the personality of the quarterback? In Matt Ryan(notes), you seem to have a young guy who is very composed, very business-like and driven.

Smith: This is the first time that I’ve really been on a team in the NFL that has really had a strong quarterback. In Baltimore, we did not have that. It was always a change from one guy to the next. When I got to Jacksonville, at first it was Mark (Brunell). Then it was Byron (Leftwich), then it was David (Garrard). I’ve never experienced that one guy being around, getting established as the guy. I’ve heard that teams will take on the personality of the quarterback, but I’ve never seen it. That’s the thing about a locker room and the nature of a team, it’s ever-changing. It’s so fluid.

Cole: What’s it like as a defensive guy to finally have a franchise quarterback, or at least a guy who has a chance to be a franchise quarterback? This is an era where you need to have that great passer to be at the top consistently.

Smith: I know this and (Falcons general manager) Thomas (Dimitroff) and I had this discussion philosophically about when we were going through the process when we had the No. 3 pick in the draft. I know as a defensive coach that when you have to play against a quarterback that you know is going to make plays regardless of what happens – in Jacksonville, we had to go against Peyton Manning(notes) twice a year – it’s tough on a defense and its tough on your team. You just know that he’s going to go out and make his plays.

If you’re going against a quarterback who could make some plays – and all these guys in this league can have at least a day like that every once in a while – it’s still different. They might be able to have a game where they cut you up, but you have an idea about how to attack them. Whereas if you go against a (Ben) Roethlisberger or a (Philip) Rivers, they’re going to cut you up more often than not and that’s tough on a defense and it’s tough on a team.

We felt, when we were doing our due diligence, that Matt had the skill set that merited us to make that decision. A quarterback that you get set with, you have to do that. I know that when you look at the percentages of hit and miss, whether it’s defensive end or quarterback or running back, it’s about the same percentage. But if you hit on that quarterback, it changes everything.

There are just as many defensive ends who go at the top as quarterbacks, but having that quarterback changes a lot. And I think, the other thing that happens, when you’re in that top five or top 10 and there’s a quarterback available that you think is going to be a franchise guy, you take him. Because if you’re doing things right, you’re not going to be there again after picking in the top 10 once. When you’re there, you better go get one because otherwise you’re going to be at No. 25 or 20 or whatever.

Cole: This team has had to deal with the aftermath of the Michael Vick(notes) situation and of Bobby Petrino leaving the team suddenly. What things have you done to help players deal with all the non-football issues that go with playing in this league?

Smith: You have a mechanism in place with your player programs guy and I think we have one of the best in the league here with Kevin Winston. We put our guys through Falcon University once they are signed. It’s a 10-hour course that’s not something the league does, it’s something we believe in here. It takes the whole rainbow of situations from finances to anger management, dealing with family members, not just old buddies. We try to help those guys in what is the proper way to handle those situations.

We also have the Rookie Club, which I make mandatory for those guys. We have non-football sessions on Monday where they will have guest presenters come in and talk about male-female issues. Maybe a guy will come in and talk about teaching them to understand the theory behind compound interest in investing, what a 401k is and what it means to you. About understanding the importance that your earning power is short-lived, so there’s an opportunity to max out what they can get so they can set themselves on a proper path down the road. We also have a psychologist come in sometimes.

The rookies will get in and set goals, not only individually, but collectively. They talk about what they want to do as a rookie class and it’s really interesting to see that group from last year. They said, ‘Hey, we want to have this much playing time as a unit, as a group. We want to contribute here.’ Then, at the last meeting, they write about what they learned from this program.

It wasn’t as gratifying, but it was close to as gratifying to see how those guys responded to that program as it was to have success as a team. Different guys learned about different situations. Maybe it was dealing with a girlfriend or dealing with an old girlfriend or dealing with a father that was out of the picture and maybe came back in. Whatever the situation, there are so many dynamics that they need direction and a place to go to find out how to deal with a problem. They need assistance and a person to bounce that off, someone who’s not necessarily a coach. It’s bouncing it off somebody who is in a different area and that’s something that really helps them grow and ultimately help the team.

Cole: Obviously, you put a lot of thought into how you present ideas, how you communicate with the players. Are there any other things you do in that vein?

Smith: As a head coach, you empower different people to do things. I use (Winston) because he has a different relationship with those players. It’s like my special teams coach, Keith Armstrong, he’s the first one they see every day, so that’s a different relationship and that’s why that coach has a different perspective. It’s not just about, ‘Hey, this is special teams and it’s important.’ That guy can really set a tone for how your team is going to work every day, as he’s the first guy they see when they come in on Wednesday for the special teams meeting.

It’s not the whole team, but it’s a lot of your team. I know that he has a great feel for how to run the meeting. I’ll stick my head in there, but it’s his meeting. If it needs to be fire and brimstone, it’s fire and brimstone. He sets the tone. We’ve talked on Tuesday as a staff about what our message is and how to present it, how to approach it over the week. But the tone has to be set right away.

Cole: You had the bye week early this season (Week 4). Most coaches don’t like that. Why?

Smith: Yeah, having a bye this early, we went out and did some work for a couple of days, but it’s really hard to do any statistical work on three games. There are just no real trends that show up that really tell you anything. Across the board they get skewed. There is no trend. Do you put any stock in time of possession?

Cole: A little, but not a lot. It really has more to do with style of play. For instance, does your offense’s style of play match up with your defense’s style of play? That’s what New Orleans has done this season so that it can play a really fast tempo. If the offense is off the field in three or four minutes, the defense doesn’t get stuck on the field for six or eight minutes all the time.

Smith: Most games are 11 or 12 possessions. The low ones are eight or nine possessions. Like when we went up to New England this year, it was a nine-possession game. Let me give you an example of how there are no trends. They go up and play Buffalo and they’re a little bit of everything in that game with their formations. Then they play the Jets and they have 71 snaps of three wideouts and one tight end, one snap of two tight ends. Then they play us and 50 of the 85 snaps are two or three tight ends. They have only 31 snaps of three wide receivers. Then I watch them against Baltimore and they’re back to three wideouts.

I look at Indianapolis as an example. They’re 26th, 27th or 28th in time of possession right now and they’re No. 1 in offense. Usually they are like that, because they go bam, bam, bam down the field. So you try to play keep away from them and because they have invested so much in the passing game, they really can’t stop the run on a consistent basis. But they can score so quickly that if you don’t get the touchdowns, the time of possession doesn’t matter.

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+1, thanks for posting.

Love this entire staff, I love how he really genuinely cares about the players and how they live their lives.

Men like him should be college coaches, not men like Petrino.

...I say that based on his personality, not ability. He's definitely an NFL coach. Among the best.

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