The NFL is an unforgiving place to make a living. You can be good or even great for many years, but one bad season can erase it all if you're not fortunate enough to have built up a ton of goodwill.
Enter Mike Smith. He's the owner of a 60-36 regular season record, a 1-4 playoff record and the owner of a Coach of the Year award from the Associated Press. While the work's he done with this time has been quality on balance, including five winning seasons and an NFC Conference Championship Game, his in-game decision-making, aggressiveness and demeanor have been repeatedly questioned by fans and pundits. That's all par for the course for NFL coaches, naturally.
What makes Smith's 2014 situation unique is that he's coming off a disastrous 4-12 season that shook the very foundations of the franchise he works for. The team has talked about—and executed upon—real change, particularly in the lines, and Arthur Blank is looking to build a team that will win and, by winning, put people in the seats at the next stadium opening up in 2017. While five good-to-great seasons shouldn't be erased by one poor one, the underlying weaknesses revealed put the coaching staff and front office on edge, and it's fair to wonder just how secure jobs are for everyone in those departments in 2015 and beyond.
This isn't news to Smith. A comment we barely looked at back in April is pretty telling in this regard, and it comes to us from Jeff Schultz's conversation with Smitty those few months ago.
"Do I have to kick ass more? I think I have to dispel some myths: Mike Smith is not a nice guy," he said.
On one hand, this is a silly thing to have to say, but it speaks to the widespread perception that Smith and the team he coaches are soft. That there's not enough fire and anger, and that's part of what holds them back from greatness. You know by now that I put much less stock in that that than in-game errors and the team's talent, but Smith is feeling pressure. He may also be feeling revitalized, back to the coach with the bland name who had so much to proven when the Falcons hired him back in 2008, back to a team that suddenly can't fall back on pointing to the winning season just behind it in the rearview.
The best case scenario for fans and Smith alike would be a return to the playoffs, and hopefully a deep run to follow. I'm not sure how realistic that is this season, but tangible progress and a return to more hard-nosed, effective football may be enough. Arthur Blank and Thomas Dimitroff clearly like Smith and want him to succeed, as do I, and we can start seeing the fire and progress right now as training camp continues. I hope that Smith and this team blow the doors off our most optimistic expectations.
Recognizing that Smitty's future can be a divisive topic, please leave your brass knuckles at the door and debate respectfully. How will Smith fare in 2014?