The Falcons' new defensive coordinator, Richard Smith, spoke to the media this week about the transition to Atlanta and what he expects to accomplish in his new role under Dan Quinn.
Smith and Quinn go way back. According to Smith, he first became aware of Quinn when he was the linebackers coach for the 49ers in the early 2000s. Then-defensive coordinator Jim Mora mentioned to Smith that a guy by the name of Dan Quinn from Hofstra had been calling and calling to express his interest in a defensive quality control position with the organization. "I said, 'Well, if he's been pestering the heck out of you, bring him in,'" Smith said. When Quinn came in for his interview, Smith and others were very impressed with his football knowledge as well as his personality.
Smith said that Quinn's work ethic was evident. "Steve Mariucci at that time was the head coach, and I'd come by [Quinn's] office; he would still be in there working," Smith said. "I said, 'Hey, Steve called.' He said, 'What'd he say?' I said, 'It's time for you to go home.' And that was our little kind of joke every night was like that."
Smith and Quinn reunited in Miami under Nick Saban (and alongside Keith Armstrong), so Quinn and Smith have a great deal of history and familiarity with each other.
When Smith was asked about his defensive philosophy, he was quick to point out that he and Quinn are of one accord when it comes to the defensive approach. "It's not my philosophy," Smith said. "It's our philosophy." Smith said that the main thing they're looking for is guys who come out and have fun on the field. "We want to play fast, be fundamentally sound, and be able to attack," Smith said. Smith emphasized a simplified scheme. "[We'll] make it where...we don't have a thousand different defenses that we're playing, where the players can react and play fast and hard for them to create turnovers in terms of our aggressive style of play."
Smith was asked a question that's surely on Falcons fans' minds - do sacks matter? "Well, yes, sacks matter," Smith said. Smith stressed the importance, though, of the defense to put themselves in a position to bring pressure by playing as well on first down as they do on third down. "You've got to make those third downs where you're not playing a lot of third and shorts, but third and long," Smith said. "I think from that standpoint you're going to be a better successful team on third down."
Smith also said that it's not just about sacks. Disrupting the quarterback in general is important. "He has to generate pressure on the quarterback, get him off his spot," Smith said. "All those issues are really, really important...you'd love to have a 45, 50 sack football team every year. You might not have that, but can you get that quarterback off his spot? Can you make him feel uncomfortable? Those are the things that we'll try to create."
On evaluating the current roster and determining what the primary personnel needs will be for this defense, Smith said the team is currently in the process of evaluating current personnel. "[We're] trying to see if they can play a number of positions for us which are pivotal in trying to upgrade the speed of our football team," Smith said.
Smith was encouraged by one fundamental aspect of Atlanta's current defensive roster. "The thing that I've been impressed with, and I'm not going to get into people, but I did feel that they did play hard [in 2014]," Smith said. "You didn't see a team that was not playing hard. So I there are some opportunities here to get this thing rolling in the right direction."
On the transition to Atlanta and the attendant challenges, Smith indicated that he embraces change. "Change is good for people," Smith said. As the elder statesman of the new coaching staff, Smith has a lot of faith in the coaches the Falcons have assembled around Quinn. "[He's] hired a bunch of really good people, good technique teachers. I think what happens when you have that youth, I think it's going to bring excitement," Smith said.
Quinn will be a big part of that excitement, according to Smith. "He's hired himself a good staff, and I think it starts...with your head football coach," Smith said, "and then the rest of you, the energy and the excitement that you bring to your job on a daily basis."
On the "read and react" defensive approach, Smith said the expectation is that the defense will be more opportunistic. "In our system, with reading and reacting and vision and breaking on the ball, we feel that we have a better opportunity to create more turnovers that way," Smith said. "Make big plays. And that's why we're looking for speed, great instincts, and ability to play fast and physical."
The new staff does face a challenge in evaluating players on film alone at this point of the offseason, but Smith said that the coaches who were retained will be an asset at this point in the evaluation process, and that the coaching staff is currently reaching out to players to begin the process of building those relationships and establishing trust. "Until we get them here, yeah, you want to formulate your own opinion," Smith said. "Dan's mindset, which I believe is really good, let's find out what the player can do, not what he can't do."
Smith and the rest of the staff will be focused on looking forward. "Whatever's in the past was in the past. We don't even want to talk that language," Smith said. "We don't want to talk Seattle. We don't want to talk West Coast Offense. Let's talk about the Atlanta Falcons."
On the pass rush, Smith said that it's nice to have an elite rusher. "I came from the Denver Broncos. We had DeMarcus Ware and Von Miller, two of the best in the league," Smith said. "That's a pretty good tandem. When you do have that it makes the coverage a lot easier, then they both go hand in hand, yes."
Smith and the rest of the staff will tailor their approach to the players they have as well as addressing deficiencies through free agency and the draft. "We'll do it from the players that we have on this football team, which there [is] a tremendous amount of ability here, too," Smith said, "and also through free agency, and also - which we're going to get ready in, I think, a week from now - we're going to the Combine."
Smith said the coaching staff is not yet in the draft mindset, and also said that the staff had reviewed some free agency possibilities that morning, suggesting that Quinn will have a say in which players the team chooses to target.
During his introductory press conference, Quinn had said that no decision had been made on whether he or Smith would call the defensive plays on game days. Smith said that it's not a problem for him if Quinn opts to be the defensive play caller. "I'm not an ego person," Smiths said. "Dan and I go way back. Like I said, we've got a very good relationship, not only as friends, but coaching partners, and if that's the way it goes, you'd be crazy not to have him because he's had the experience. It's the system that he's been in. He sure knows it a lot better than we do as a coaching staff, and so I have no problem with that whatsoever if that comes to that."
What do you think about Smith and what he brings to the Falcons?