Now that we've established that Mike Smith isn't going to be canned, fired, kick to the curb, made a martyr of or taken to a nice farm upstate, we can begin to have a conversation about his very real weakness as a head coach. That weakness is making adjustments.
We've known for some time that Smitty is a traditionalist, a guy who has a rulebook and tends to stick to it. While he's a shrewd evaluator of talent and he clearly gets a lot out of his players, he also can be hidebound in a way that hurts the team. Let's take a look at one example raised by Grantland's Bill Barnwell:
Smith stuck to his guns in the playoff game against Seattle, and it came very close to costing him his victory. When Atlanta scored a touchdown to go up 26-7 with 17 minutes left in the game, Smith was asleep at the wheel and kicked the extra point to gain a 20-point lead. A two-pointer makes much more sense there, as the odds that having a 20-point lead will pay off are pretty unlikely; Seattle would need to get four possessions and produce two touchdowns and two field goals. Three touchdowns is a more likely bet, and that's exactly what happened, giving Seattle a 28-27 lead with 34 seconds left before the Falcons miraculously came back and hit a game-winning field goal.
It's worth reading the whole section on Smitty, since it talks about more examples where the Falcons' coach was too willing to stick to his rules and not willing enough to adapt. But really, you can boil down Smith's struggles to a few compelling examples:
- The aforementioned unwillingness to go for the biggest lead possible and play aggressively with a lead;
- The tendency to loosen up the defense and try to play for a lead, which led the Falcons to blow 17 and 20 point leads in the playoffs;
- Not yanking players or adjusting their snaps when they perform poorly.
The last one is a fairly minor point of contention, given that most football teams are not extraordinarily deep, and the Falcons are no exception. Still, when you have someone like Dominique Franks who is making poor decisions with the football repeatedly, there's really no excuse for keeping him in the game at punt returner.
The other two are more troubling. After five years as a head coach in the NFL, Smith still refuses to put his team in a position to be as aggressive as they need to be for four quarters. It might turn out that Jeff Fish had these guys eating cheesecake all day, everyday, and that's why they tended to look useless in the second half. But I think the real problem is that the offense and defense do not adjust to what the other team does after halftime.
Consider this: We talk about the Falcons being more aggressive and dialing up pass plays, which has been a concern in the past. But they did that against the Seahawks in the second half, despite the fact that the ground game had been hugely successful in the first half. The 'Hawks came out determined to stop the pass, which gave the Falcons ample opportunity to run the ball. They declined to do so with any regularity. On the other side of the ball, the 'Hawks turned it over to Russell Wilson and challenged the Falcons over the middle of the field by finding Zach Miller over and over again. There were no adjustments, and a 20 point lead evaporated before the Falcons came back and won.
Some of that is on Dirk Koetter and Mike Nolan, but we've seen the same tendency crop up again and again during Smith's five years, and I don't think that's coincidence. Smith has rules drawn up for every scenario, one suspects, and he doesn't break those rules often. Too often, he lets circumstance dictate what his team is going to do, rather than dictating the circumstances of the game to the opposing team.
The guy is the best coach in franchise history, and I still believe wholeheartedly he's the right man to lead these players. But there's room for improvement here, and Smitty being willing to toss rules out the window and make necessary adjustments will go almost as far as a new pass rusher.