Mike Smith turned around a miserable franchise. He won multiple coach of the year awards. He consistently brought his team into the playoffs. He tried to fight multiple opposing players. Things were great.
Then before you knew it, it all fell apart.The consistently competitive team became consistently uncompetitive.
Mike Smith was suddenly Bill Murray in Groundhog's Day, repeating game after game of committing the same mistakes, week in, week out, for years. Rarely has a team fallen from grace as quickly as the nearly NFC Championship 2012 Atlanta Falcons and the Everything Fell Apart 2013 Atlanta Falcons.
Mike Smith's Jaguars
What problems were new, and what problems existed prior to Smith even interviewing with the Falcons? Mere weeks before Smith was announced the Atlanta Falcons head coach, he was responsible for a historically terrible defense. If you recall, Tom Brady was breaking NFL records with ease, thanks to the recent additions of Randy Moss and Wes Welker.
The Jacksonville Jaguars played New England in the playoffs. If you imagined Smitty getting aggressive, blitzing heavily, and letting his players play... you probably are not from around here.
The Jaguars rode their defense to the playoffs, then allowed Tom Brady an NFL game record passing accuracy of 92.9%. Brady completed 26 of 28 passes, and I can only assume the wide receivers decided to take naps at the end of the game after they were up by 200 or so points.
With a supremely talented defense, Smith decided to sit back and play conservative. In retrospect, it was classic Smitty. The game plan was never going to win the game. But as we have seen time and time again, leaning heavily on the run game and hoping the defense can slow down a competent offense rarely works against the best teams in the league.
After having his defense blown apart in the playoffs, the Falcons hired Smith.
Mike Smith brought a swagger to this team. That sounds weird to say because: (1) no one says swagger anymore; and (2) we have all seen this team play in 2013 and 2014.
Smith got amped up early in his coaching career. Remember when he not-so-politely told Tampa Bay Buccaneers wide receiver Antonio Bryant to stay on his own sideline in 2008? Even better, Mike Smith not-so-politely told Washington Redskin DeAngelo Hall that he did not appreciate his cheap shot on Matt Ryan.
I do not want to suggest coaching is getting angry and trying to fight opposing players, but Smith set the tone for his team. This team never out-coached anyone, they did not always have the most talent, but they consistently played angry (and occasionally dirty) early in Smith's tenure. That fire was lacking starting in 2013, most apparent after Kenny Vaccaro's cheap shot on Matt Ryan in week 1. The result was Ryan clutching his ribs, and the rest of the team wondering how many games were left until the end of the season.
The tone had been set for the year: the team was defeated, and from the top down no one cared.
Disconnect between Smith and everyone else
As time progressed, there appeared to be a greater disconnect between Smith and everyone else. Lets hop back into the way back machine to 2011. The front office traded away a slew of draft picks so they could bring in Julio Jones, a truly otherworldly talent. With one of their few remaining picks, they selected Jacquizz Rodgers, a pass catching specialist. The team got rid of run blocking Harvey Dahl. Two years previously they brought in pass catching Tony Gonzalez. One year previously they drafted two offensive linemen who had better potential at pass blocking in Joe Hawley and Mike Johnson.
The front office appeared to be trying to push towards a more pass-heavy offense as franchise quarterback Matt Ryan developed.
The coaching staff must have not gotten the memo. Under Mike Mularkey, the Falcons increased their average pass attempts by 1.6 per game from 2009 to 2011. With the progression of Ryan, the Falcons did not even add two pass attempts per game from Ryan's sophomore season to his fifth season.
Mularkey had no issue with increasing the number of rush attempts, running the bones of Michael Turner into the ground. In the year the Falcons drafted Jones, they actually rushed more often (by two) than they had in 2009, a season where Matt Ryan missed two games.
Julio had his highest yards per catch in his rookie year, and his lowest number of catches (minus his 2013 IR season), thanks to Mularkey using Jones as predominately a situational deep threat.
Our very own beat reporter Jeanna Thomas, present at most every practice and media event, had some interesting input. She rarely observed Smith interact with players, coaches, or other personnel. Perhaps the same problems continued to occur because Smith had checked out, and failed to give input or direction to his coordinators, players, or anyone.
It would make sense if Smith had checked out, considering we never saw that fire he used to have. Instead of motivating his team, he scratched down notes while mumbling to himself on the sideline.
The front office and roster was prepared to move forward, but our coaching staff refused to change or adapt.
After one of the most terrible playoff games in
franchise NFL history, the team finally got rid of Mularkey and defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder. The offense was predictable and refused to move to a more explosive, vertical scheme. VanGorder managed to consistently plug up the run, but was unable to slow down a passing offense, or make a stop on third down.
The team had identified their problem: most of the coaches. While Dirk Koetter opened up the passing game, and we saw Ryan take his next step forward, Mike Nolan seemed to only have one year of ideas left.
Early in the 2014 season, there seemed to be growing animosity between Smith and Nolan. Nolan's new scheme was so confusing and performed so poorly, many were calling for Smith to coach the defense in September and early October.
Even with new coordinators, we saw a lot of the same problems: play time goes to the veterans, even if they cannot play; the team cannot rush the passer, and seems to be actively trying to not get to the quarterback; and halftime adjustments are nonexistent, leading to numerous third and fourth quarter meltdowns.
In response to the having the league's worst defense, the coaches made no changes, no adjustments, and Smith wrongly failed to fire Nolan.
The team lost their edge that covered up other problems
For years, some called the Falcons the least-talented "X-win" team in the league. Many
annoying analysts suggested the Falcons made their way to the playoffs thanks to plenty of luck. Sure, there is typically a lot of luck that helps get a team to the playoffs. But the team did seem to outperform the sum of their players... early in Smith's coaching career.
The coaching problems in 2014 were numerous, as Smith had multiple crippling decisions that lost games. Winnable games against the Detroit Lions and Cleveland Browns were bumbled. Badly. The 2014 offense had to somehow outplay Atlanta's defense, and the coaching staff.
Previously, other deficiencies were covered up by the offense, the defense, and even the special teams. There were bad coaching decisions, time management problems, and poor game plans, but it rarely cost the Falcons an important game. The team was so good in other aspects, they covered up for some huge problems in the coaching. Smith's Falcons had managed to beat out enough bad to average teams to lockup a playoff berth, resulting in little criticism for the head coach.
Smith's 2011 health issue
In the middle of the 2011 season, Smith had some sort of unclear health issue. What was called either a heart attack or just chest pains required Smith to spend time in the hospital. Perhaps unrelated, but if Smith had, or was in danger of having a heart attack, this may explain why he changed the way he coached and ran the team. Smith rarely displayed the fire he had his first few seasons. Maybe he even checked out on the team.
While it is hard to put an exact time on the downfall of Smith's coaching career in Atlanta, the major problems seem to be rooted around this time.
Perhaps my laziest point will suggest that Smith did "good enough" for the team. He reached well above expectations, and his coaching career in Atlanta can only be considered a success. As mentioned previously, prior to being hired he was an unknown name on a team that was not considered great. He immediately turned around a long-struggling team, giving the Falcons their first back-to-back winning seasons in franchise history, and becomes the indisputable best coach the team has ever had.
Is this good enough for Mike Smith? In the same way a 1st overall pick in the draft is expected to help a team reach the Super Bowl, is Smith a mid-round pick that is happy to win plenty of games and reach the playoffs? While Chip Kelly entered the NFL planning to revolutionize the game, and Pete Carroll gave an entirely new attitude to an NFL team, Smith seemed content with playing an aging and unimaginative type of football.
The NFL is constantly evolving, and teams are changing and working on new ideas to help win games. Smith seemed content to run the same scheme, regardless of the year, the personnel, or the match up.
The culmination of everything
There may be dozens of reasons for Smith's decline. In the end, he was a shell of his former self. With no clear message, drive, or coordination, the team fell apart. It is clear that Smith ended his career lacking a lot of what he had when he first took the job.
Why do you think Smith's coaching career fell apart so quickly?