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By John Manasso


October 8, 2010

Hall of Fame defensive end Howie Long, now an analyst on the FOX NFL Sunday pregame show, played 13 years in the NFL, all with the Oakland Raiders. During his playing career, he had two members of the Atlanta Falcons’ current coaching staff as coaches: wide receivers coach Terry Robiskie and defensive line coach Ray Hamilton.

(Incidentally, Long played high school football in Milford, Mass., about 20 miles from where the Patriots play in Foxborough and watched Hamilton play for New England in that era.) Long now lives in Charlottesville, Va., home of the University of Virginia. Long’s son Chris, in his third year with the St. Louis Rams, played at Virginia and was a teammate of Falcons running back Jason Snelling. Falcons assistant head coach/quarterbacks coach Bill Musgrave, who was the backup to Joe Montana and Steve Young in San Francisco as a player, also coached at Virginia while Long lived there and Long is an admirer of Musgrave. With such an intimate knowledge of the members of the Falcons, Long gave his views to FoxSportsSouth.com’s John Manasso via telephone.

John Manasso: I saw you on the FOX postgame show and I just wanted to get your thoughts on how well-coached you think the Falcons are.

Howie Long: It’s interesting. I think the success Matt Ryan has had and maybe a Joe Flacco has had prior to that looking at Ben Roethlisberger for a young quarterback to have success. Now that’s typically because they’re taken that high in the draft and they go to bad teams. They struggle while the team is forming and growing, etc., and certainly I think a year earlier [in 2007] the Falcons looked like one of the more dysfunctional groups. There was the Vick situation, the Petrino situation. What the **** else could go wrong here? The perception was maybe it was a job you don’t want. I just think it’s ironic that it starts with bringing in a Thomas Dimitroff and I’m a big, big believer in New England and big believer in Scott Pioli and Bill Belichick and that philosophy. If you go back in that tree, it traces back to [bill] Parcells and all of that. I think it starts with him and I’m not sure if your head coach [Mike Smith] was the first choice, but as it turns out that really all that matters is that it was the right choice. For them to assemble the staff they have there, I can’t tell you how hard that is to do, to put together a staff like that.

It starts with that. Then you make the [Michael] Turner acquisition, which at the time, seemed like a smart move, but folks didn’t really grasp maybe how significant it would be and then draft a guy like Matt Ryan who is mature beyond his years. He sat in a pro offense at Boston College. He had some really good tutelage under the coach who is now at NC State [Tom O’Brien], who I like a lot and think is a really good coach. [Ryan] was brought up the right way, has a good family, likes to meet, likes to prepare -- all of the things being the foundation for what they really built up. Then you get some pieces around him, particularly on offense, and stability on the offensive line and the commitment to pounding the football. They’re a mentally tough team. When John Abraham is healthy, he’s a disruptive player. The [Kroy] Bierman pickup and development has been great for them. People always ask, "is the problem the pass rush or the coverage?" Obviously I’m kind of partial to this, but I think the pass rush.

They’re so well-prepared. Where does it show up? At the end of games. On third down. On fourth down. It shows up in all the little things… I think that play last week [by Roddy White to strip the ball after an interception, allowing the Falcons to get the ball back and drive for the winning field goal] along with Matt Ryan -- he throws the pick on the second-to-last drive -- it’s a bad pick, obviously, a bad pick, but now you get the ball back. Here’s a kid who shakes that off and leads the team once again for another end-of-game-winning kick and your kicker [Matt Bryant] is -- I don’t think they’d trade him for anybody. The kicking game has been such a problem for so many groups. It’s cost people so many games and that’s a part of the game. Jimmy Johnson always talks about it --special teams being found yardage. You add up the punts, punt returns, how precise is that extra point? That one point has to be that kick at the end of the game. The timeouts. You go to the overtime game [against New Orleans] and have the first one blocked. What did that do psychologically for your kicker to make it again? Bang. And he made the kick last week.

You kind of have an idea right now of who the Falcons are. You take away really an incredible play by Troy Polamalu up in Pittsburgh and really a breakdown in an eight-man front, if you gash an eight-man front and you get to the second level -- you’re gone -- chances are you have one guy to beat. And they are two plays in that game from beating Pittsburgh on the road and being undefeated and we’ve come to find Pittsburgh is a very good football team.

Kind of now in the AFC you know Pittsburgh, Baltimore and the Jets are good teams and the Jets are just getting stronger. They get Santonio Holmes, they get [Calvin] Pace back. I’m not sure if they get Darrelle Revis back but they have a huge game Monday night [against the Vikings] and it just became a little bigger with the addition of Randy Moss in Minnesota. But in the NFC who’s the team? Obviously, everything Thomas Dimitroff, the head coach, the coaching staff has been gearing for was that game in New Orleans [on Sept. 26]. What’s different about that game in New Orleans? Matt Ryan throws two picks last year. This year New Orleans has the gaffe. New Orleans at the end of the day comes up short in a huge division game. So you’re looking up for an NFC frontrunner and someone in that division [the NFC South], are they the most dominant team? No, but I think they’re tough physically, tough mentally, they play four quarters and beyond, they play to whistle and beyond Long said. I think they’re a known commodity. They’re a tough out. There’s something to be said for a team like that -- particularly in an unpredictable year with a young quarterback that will only get better.

Everyone knows about [Michael] Turner and you talk to defenders about how physical he is, how difficult he is to bring down, but [Jason] Snelling has been tremendous for them this year. He’s gone from being a role guy, a short-yardage guy, and to his credit, I watched him at Virginia and loved him here. He’s a quality guy, loves football. The thing they have in common down there is the majority guys they draft or bring in are, if you look at the drafts and the rosters: What percent of guys were team captains? What percentage of guys were seniors in college? There’s a theme there with the kinds of guys they want in there. At the end of the game, at the end of season in the difficult times, the guys with the character, the guys that really love it, are going to be there and are going to stand up.”

I can appreciate a well-built organization and a well-coached football team and they are that. I’ve been saying that for, [shoot], I was always intrigued by the Patriots and the way they were built. I was really interested to see how that would work in Atlanta and you’re starting to see how it’s worked in Kansas City. Pretty impressive.

John Manasso: Do any of the assistants stand out to you?

Howie Long: Obviously I’m a big Mike Smith fan. I love his passion and his attention to detail. [Offensive coordinator] Mike Mularkey has had experience at every level, Long said. I loved Bill Musgrave when he was here at Virginia. I liked him then, I like him now. His background and the people he’s been impacted by show up. And [offensive line coach Paul] Boudreau does a great job there. I’d hate him as a defensive lineman. I can separate church and state. I love Ray Hamilton. Had him for a coach… I watched him growing up as a kid. I think he really works on technique quite a bit. He demands quite a lot and gives quite a lot.

[Wide receivers coach] Terry Robiskie, is I think, a really interesting guy. I was with him way back in1982 when he was brought in. He was the first guy of his kind. We had a lot of players who were in trouble and he was brought in specifically for the first time anyone in the league had done it to be the guy in charge of all that. He was interim head coach in Washington. I think guys in the locker room have a great deal of respect for him. I think he’s a good coach. Someone who, I think, is a nice kind of go-between between the head coach and that locker room. He doesn’t take any crap. They challenged him right off the bat [in Los Angeles]. Terry will tell you exactly what he’s thinking whether you agree with him or don’t. I’m partial to him.

John Manasso: You said before that you think it’s hard to assemble a good staff. Why do you think that is?

Howie Long: Think about the timing. That job comes available and what coaches are in the final year of their contracts? What other jobs are available? Is Atlanta the job I want to take with a guy like Mike Smith? Mike Smith? You know what I’m saying? Coaches have to pick up families, take kids out of school, move to another city and put down roots and hope you have success and can stay there for a while. It’s not always easy to do that. I think really good coaches are hard to find. I really do. People that can teach the game to young developing, players and that can challenge veteran players to maintain and continue to grow.

I like to call it ‘The Saran Wrap Factor.’ When that guy walks up in front of the room, they see right through that. They either buy it or they don’t. I really believe that.”

John Manasso: And the Falcons are buying Smith?

Howie Long: Oh, God yeah. That’s not a stock that you’re shorting. And it starts with the head coach and the staff and the general manager. Obviously, you have to have an owner who’s supportive. The owner is certainly that down there.

John Manasso: With the Randy Moss trade now to Minnesota, we were talking about the balance of power in the NFC, does that make them, New Orleans, Green Bay and the Falcons the favorites?

Howie Long: That’s the thing when you’re looking at it. To me, Dallas has as much talent on paper as anybody in the league. Isaid it before the year and I say it now. I think for whatever reason, they haven’t been able to utilize that talent. Injuries on the O-line hurts protection. You have young guys at skill position. Dez Bryant was suspended last year [at Oklahoma State] and didn’t play much. He missed the majority of camp injured. He’s still picking up the offense. I think Dallas, to me, from a talent standpoint is the class of the conference. Now, Minnesota is a team that, one, plays great defense still. They played well enough in New Orleans to win. They gave the game away on offense vs. Miami. They held teams to 10 points and 14 points and a lot of those you can put on the offense or special teams. They’re good. Brett [Favre], the timing’s not there. [Visanthe] Shiancoe has a hamstring. They have protection issues. They have a hard time stretching the field. Adrian Peterson has reminded everyone the first three weeks just how good he is. If they can figure it out and Randy [Moss]’s inspired, they’re certainly a team people will have to deal with. New Orleans has a lot of people have dinged. When you lose Reggie [bush] and the funny thing about Reggie is that in conventional way, he’s not the player everyone thought he was going to be coming out of college. But he’s a match up nightmare. He’s takes a five-yard check down into 25-yard gain. But can they throw it 48 times a game? They wanted to run more and have more balance. It’s very difficult to duplicate. In the NFC, it’s more unpredictable than it’s ever been. Green Bay’s base offense is three wides in a shotgun and they can’t protect? Who’s out there’s that’s complete? Who has some semblance of balance? And that’s why I pointed to Atlanta. That was my whole point, really. Who’s mentally tough enough and prepared well enough to finish the game?

John Manasso: They’ve shown it twice now. They’ve won two games at the end, including one in overtime.

Howie Long: Very impressive. They got punched in the mouth last week and turned it around. Make a play. Somebody make a play.

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It's obvious that Long really practices his craft as an analyst. I appreciates his points about the mental toughness of the team and the overall quality of the coaching staff. The level of talent among NFL teams is close, the difference often comes down to coaching and player attitude. It is easy to agree with Long that our Falcons never quit. Play hard to the end...

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His one phrase stood out in half time show at SF game. Atlanta is a mentally tough team. This article reflects the same sentiment. Good read.

I picked out the same thought. The phrase that stuck with me is, "They are a tough out." That is what I was trying to verbalize last week. It doesn't really matter how good our opponent is. If they don't bring it, they won't win.

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Wow it took him years as an analyst to p/up that we play for 60 minutes and are mentally tough.I'm sorry guys but I'm less forgiving I picked that up with MS and the Falcons after the 08 season.I can't give Howie Long props for this I guess this means we have been under the radar and its taken him this long to pay attention to us.

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