Despite a tough win Sunday that knocked the division rival New Orleans Saints out of the playoff hunt and kept their own playoff chances alive, the Atlanta Falcons are expected to fire Mike Smith as head coach, according to reports. Whether the Falcons will also fire General Manager Thomas Dimitroff is unknown. If the Falcons do fire Mike Smith, owner Arthur Blank will likely seek to make a splashy new hire as the team prepares to move into a new stadium in 2017.
Smith was hired in 2008 after the Bobby Petrino debacle, in which Petrino went 3-10, angered many players and front office staff, assured owner Arthur Blank that he was interested in any other jobs, quit after a Monday Night Football game by leaving a note attached to the locker room door, and then held a press conference hours later where he was announced as the new Arkansas Razorbacks head coach. Smith was seen as a veteran NFL position coach and coordinator who was widely respected by his players and colleagues, and as someone who could step in command the respect of the locker room with his quiet but firm demeanor.
Atlanta immediately responded, going 11-5 in Smith’s first year, making the playoffs behind key contributors Matt Ryan, Curtis Lofton, Michael Turner, and Roddy White. The following season, Atlanta went 9-7 under Smith, marking the first time in the franchise’s history that the team had back-to-back winning seasons. Over the next three seasons, the Falcons went 36-12 and won the NFC South twice. In his first five seasons, Smith went 56-24, won the division twice, made four playoff appearances, and made one conference title appearance. But despite the playoff appearances, the Falcons had only won one playoff game, primarily due to defensive lapses.
Then 2013 happened. Rather than being one of the favorites to advance to the Super Bowl as was predicted by many entering the season, Atlanta became one of the worst teams in the league. A dearth of defensive talent and key injuries to Roddy White, Julio Jones, Steven Jackson, and Sam Baker led to a dismal 4-12 record. A once potent offense with multiple weapons was reduced to limping along with lesser talent and was unable to simply outgun the opposition. A defense devoid of any pass rush or talented playmakers was unable to keep the broken offense in most games.
2014 was supposed to be a new start. Atlanta drafted highly regarded offensive lineman Jake Matthews with their first pick to shore up the offensive line. With the exception of Matthews and 4th round pick Devonta Freeman, Atlanta drafted all defensive players in an attempt to infuse new and young talent into their defense. However, injuries have once again played a major role in Atlanta’s poor performance. In addition to losing exciting linebacker Sean Weatherspoon for the season, the Falcons also lost Sam Baker, Joe Hawley, Lamar Holmes, Mike Johnson, and Peter Konz for the season (at various points). For those keeping track at home, that is 60% of the starting offensive line, and 75% of the expected offensive line roster this season. Atlanta’s offense has amazingly been very good this year, given the injuries, but the defensive liabilities are again showing. Atlanta enters the final game of the 2014 season with a 6-9 record, but still has a chance to win the NFC South with a victory over the Carolina Panthers on Sunday.
Fire Thomas Dimitroff
It is expected that Arthur Blank will fire one or both of Mike Smith and Thomas Dimitroff. Given the lack of talent, especially defensively, developed via the draft, the thought among many Atlanta fans is that Thomas Dimitroff should be fired. After all, the General Manager is the person most responsible for coordinating with scouts to identify and select players in the draft. Sure, the head coach is closely involved in the process, but the job function falls primarily with the GM. And Atlanta has had some rather underwhelming picks in the draft. With the exception of Matt Ryan and Julio Jones (more on this pick in a moment), few of Atlanta’s draft picks have been productive.
Julio Jones has turned into one of the best wide receivers in the game; he very well may be the best receiver in football not named Calvin Johnson. But the trade to move up in the first round to get him cost Atlanta a lot of very valuable draft picks. Perhaps some of the injuries and defensive shortcomings of the last two years could have been mitigated or better covered if there were more talented players acquired via those draft picks, instead of replacements via undrafted free agency. I’m not sure what I would have done. It was a bold move by Dimitroff, and one that paid off in the short term, but it may be showing years later to have been a mistake. It is easy to question the decision with the benefit of hindsight.
Fire Mike Smith
Another contingent of Atlanta fans believes that Blank should fire Mike Smith. Smith is the head coach and is ultimately responsible for the on-field motivation and execution. He also contributes his advice with the GM in determining which players to target in the draft.
I was firmly in the ‘Do not fire Mike Smith’ crowd until the Great Detroit Debacle and the Cleveland Collapse of 2014. Mike Smith throughout his head coaching career had always been a coach willing to take chances and go against conventional thinking. He would go for it on 4th down when convention said to punt. He would go for it on his own side of the field. He was not afraid to take a chance, if he thought it would help his team win, regardless of what the traditional thinking was. Sometimes it worked, and sometimes it didn’t. But he wasn’t scared.
But in the Detroit and Cleveland games, Mike Smith coached scared. He coached like he knew his job was on the line. He did things because, well, it just seemed that that’s what a coach is supposed to do. His clock management in those games was downright atrocious and a direct cause of both losses. This is a team that could be 8-7 now, rather than 6-9, if he had simply not managed like Simple Jack for 4 minutes.
Many cite the defense as another reason to fire Mike Smith. It’s horrid, and has been for years. Smith was a defensive line coach and a linebackers coach for one of the best defenses in NFL history. He later served as an NFL defensive coordinator. He also held the same positions for various colleges. Mike Smith has a defensive pedigree. There is simply no reason that this defense should be as bad as it has been for as long as it has been.
Smith is by all accounts very well liked and respected by his players. He seems to be a genuinely nice and caring coach who is interested in his players and their well-being. Some point to his calm and even demeanor as evidence of a lack of passion, while others suggest it as evidence of not panicking and becoming overly emotional (this could be a paragraph about Mark Richt, now that I think about it).
Firing both Smith and Dimitroff seems to be the most logical option. A new GM is going to want to hire his own coach. Keeping the same GM who seems to have issues identifying talent will not do any favors for the new coach. In order to maintain the best symbiosis, it would make sense that both the GM and coach are fired.
This isn’t happening. At least one of Mike Smith or Thomas Dimitroff will be updating a résumé next Monday.
It is widely believed that owner Arthur Blank would like to bring in an established winner, a big splashy name, or both. Given those parameters, here are some suggestions.
The Not Going To Happens
Jon Gruden – Chucky has just signed a new contract with ESPN within the week to remain in the booth. He makes a coach’s money without a coach’s hours or pressure. In addition, he enjoys working with collegiate quarterbacks looking to develop draft skills. A position as a head coach could put him at odds with the NCAA with some players. Also, Gruden and Falcons President Rich McKay aren’t exactly buddies, while McKay and Blank are.
Bill Cowher – The Chin has been out of the coaching game for a few years. While he has been away from coaching, Cowher has still been involved in football as an analyst. However, like Gruden, Cowher recently signed an extension to stay in the broadcast booth.
Tony Dungy – Dungy is another coach who has been away from the game for a while. On the surface, Dungy seems to be a good fit: he’s respected by players, media, and executives; he satisfies the requirements for interviewing minority candidates; he’s successful; and he has experience building defenses. Unfortunately, it seems that Dungy is content with his ministry work.
Brian Billick – Billick is another coach with a ring and a little name recognition. He also seems to want to get back into coaching. I’m just not sure he wants to do so at his brother-in-law’s expense.
The It Could Happens
Jim Harbaugh – Harbaugh is known to be at odds with the front office in San Francisco, and it is a widely known secret that he is highly unlikely to be coaching the 49ers in 2015. However, San Francisco recognizes that many teams may want Harbaugh, so they aren’t going to fire him and be forced to pay him while he coaches elsewhere. Instead, they are said to be seeking a ton of compensation via a trade for Harbaugh, similar to the trade that sent Jon Gruden to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers from the Oakland Raiders. In addition, the University of Michigan has apparently mortgaged “The Big House”, as there are reports they offered Harbaugh 6-years/$48M to coach the Wolverines. Even Harbaugh, who had indicated he wants to stay in the NFL, has now begun considering the option.
Mike Shanahan – Shanahan is currently out of coaching, but he has name recognition and two rings, things that Blank seems to want. However, Shanahan has won one playoff game since Bill Clinton was in office, and he still believes, as recently as Saturday, that Jay Cutler and Robert Griffin III are franchise quarterbacks to build around. Still, Shanahan has been successful in the NFL before. His age could be a limitation, as well.
The Likely Suspects
Josh McDaniels – McDaniels is the offensive coordinator at NE. He had a brief stint as the head coach in Denver, tasked wth cleaning up Mike Shanahan’s mess. McDaniels went 8-8 in his first season and started 3-9 in his second season, before being fired. McDaniels is generally considered one of the young up and coming future head coaches. McDaniels has been rumored to be a target of the 49ers to replace Harbaugh.
Adam Gace – Gace has been with the Broncos since 2009, serving as the WR coach, the QB coach, and since January 2013, the Offensive Coordinator. Admittedly, I don’t know much about him, beyond the fact that Blank is interested enough in him to have McKay doing due diligence on him.
Under The Radar
Kevin Sumlin – Sumlin seems to be in demand among NFL teams, but he has apparently told suitors before that he intended to honor his entire contract with Texas A&M. He also indicated that he wanted to build a program that could consistently contend in the SEC. However, with a record that has gotten worse with each Johnny Manziel birthday, Sumlin may decide to take advantage of his very modest $5M buyout to start fresh. Whether he intends to coach in the NFL any time soon is still to be determined, but he will get calls.
David Shaw – The Stanford head coach has been mentioned as a potential replacement for Smith, and he has experience as a position coach in the NFL. He also was the Offensive Coordinator under Jim Harbaugh at Stanford. Given the relative academic handcuffs that Stanford operates under when compared to other less…uh…less academically inclined schools, his success at Stanford is a testament to how good a coach he is. However, Shaw seems to want to stay at Stanford and work with college athletes, per recent reports.
Bob Stoops – When Dan Reeves was fired in 2004, and before Atlanta
settled for hired Jim Mora Jr., Arthur Blank made a hard run at Bob Stoops to be the next Atlanta head coach. The Falcons were led to believe that Stoops was interested in coaching in the NFL one day, but just not at that time. Could 10 years in Oklahoma and two years since a conference title be enough to lure Stoops? He has name recognition, and he has a football ring, of sorts.
I believe Mike Smith has earned enough currency in Atlanta to be treated with a little dignity. I think if Atlanta makes the playoffs—even with a losing record—Smith should be given another year. Perhaps his miscues this year were because he thought, now that his job was clearly on the line, he had to do what was expected, rather than what had worked in the past. I think Thomas Dimitroff is more accountable, but I understand those who feel Smith should shoulder the blame. I just wonder what bringing in a new coach will do, given the talent the GM sends him. Perhaps Smith shares that blame by keeping and/or cutting the wrong players in camp
I expect Blank to fire Mike Smith next Monday. As to whom his replacement will be, I have no real idea. The big names with proven success that Blank seems to want are not available. I imagine he will have to change his thinking and go to a younger coach. Expect to see Josh McDaniels or Adam Gace as at least finalists.