In a widely expected move, the Atlanta Falcons fired head coach Mike Smith Monday after seven years with the team. The move was made less than 24 hours after reports leaked that the Falcons had retained executive search firm Korn Ferry to aid in their search for potential replacements. Atlanta joined several other teams in making coaching moves on the day dubbed as “Black Monday” in the NFL. We’ll take a look at Mike Smith’s time in Atlanta, as well as look at potential replacements for Mike Smith.
Mike Smith was hired in 2008 to bring stability to a franchise that was reeling from the Michael Vick dog-fighting scandal, followed by a humiliating 13-game stint as head coach by Bobby Petrino. Player and executive morale was down, fans were abandoning the team, and Atlanta was close to becoming THE laughingstock of the NFL. Smith had a reputation as a “players’ coach” when he was a position coach and coordinator, and owner Arthur Blank felt that Smith’s ability to relate well with players would help soothe and unite what had become a fractured locker room. Smith also brought some pedigree as a winner, having coached the defensive line for the Super Bowl winning Baltimore Ravens in 2000, generally considered one of the greatest defenses in NFL history.
Smith was the winningest coach in Falcons’ history, winning 66 games over his tenure. He also holds the highest winning percentage among all regular Falcons’ head coaches. The Falcons went 11-5 and made the Wild Card in his 2008, his first season as a head coach. Each year until 2013, they were in the hunt for a Division title or a Wild Card spot, making the NFC Conference Championship in 2012. Atlanta certainly looked poised to become a regular contender to represent the NFC in the Super Bowl.
The Call That Changed It All
From 2008 to 2011, Mike Smith was one of the most aggressive head coaches in the NFL, ranking third in Football Outsiders’ “Aggressiveness Index” (right behind generally accepted genius Bill Belichick). He would often forgo the punt to try to gain two yards on 4th down and keep the drive going. He would often choose to bypass the field goal deep in the opponent’s territory in lieu of a bigger payoff with a touchdown. These were the types of coaching decisions that made Smith different and endeared him to his players. They didn’t always work, but he was not afraid to take a calculated risk to win a game.
That is, he was one of the most aggressive coaches in football until November 13, 2011. That was the day that Mike Smith decided to play the percentages and made a decision that gave his team the highest statistical chance to win. The only problem was that the decision he made goes against everything that ‘The Book’ says to do. Atlanta had a 4th and 1 on their own 29-yard line against division rival New Orleans Saints, in overtime. Rather than punt, Smith made the decision to go for the first down. Statistically, it was the play that gave Atlanta the greatest chance to win the game. While the decision to go for it was correct (IMO), the play call was terrible. Atlanta chose to run a dive on an obvious running play, and running back Michael Turner was stuffed by Will Smith and Shaun Rogers as soon as he took the handoff. Four plays later, New Orleans kicker John Kasay kicked the game-winning 26-yard field goal.
Smith made the statistically correct decision, but he was roasted by fans, media, and pundits for his decision not to punt. Ever since that game, Smith was far more conservative in his decisions. He quit coaching like Mike Smith, the coach who had a .672 winning percentage and was one of the most successful coaches in the NFL over that time, and instead began coaching like a guy who would be fired if the next play didn’t work. He still managed to go 13-3 and make the NFC title game in 2012, but he did so with the criticism of a play a year before echoing in his head. Injuries to the offensive line in 2013 and 2014 compounded his decisions at times, and he essentially became a coach who followed ‘The Book’.
Potential Replacements For Mike Smith
Rex Ryan — Ryan was just fired by the Jets after going 4-12 and missing the playoffs for a 4th straight season, so why would Blank consider him as a replacement for Mike Smith? Blank wants a ‘tougher’ team, and Ryan certainly fits the mold of a more rugged coach. Also, he interviewed for the job in 2008. Ryan is also considered to be a better option at building defenses, and this team certainly needs a defense to be built. Will Ryan’s brash personality and media adventures play well in Atlanta? There is some thought that the last three years have humbled Ryan a good bit and that some of the issues in New York were caused by GM Jeff Idzik, so he could be given a little more consideration than one would assume. Still, if Atlanta just fired a coach who was 66-46, I don’t understand the idea of replacing him with a guy who is 46-50 and won 10 games one time.
Adam Gace — The Denver Broncos’ offensive coordinator may be the hottest commodity in the game now. Atlanta has already contacted Denver for permission to interview Gace for their opening, as have San Francisco, Chicago and New York. Gace is young and smart and most executives consider him one of the best up and coming coaching candidates in the NFL. Some critics will point to his success as being due to having Peyton Manning as a quarterback and de facto OC, but 32 teams can’t be completely incapable of spotting talent. Can they? Gace is young, and some would say unproven, but Mike Tomlin was in a similar situation before being named head coach of the Steelers.
Josh McDaniels — The New England offensive coordinator is considered a good young candidate by most executives, despite his previous head coaching stint at Denver. He showed he isn’t afraid of prima donna stars by benching wide receiver Brandon Marshall. Some might also say that he showed a willingness to go the extra step to win games with his involvement in the 2010 video taping scandal. McDaniels also has ties to Thomas Dimitroff through New England. He’s young (38), and he already has head coaching experience. Regardless, McDaniels is widely expected to interview for the position.
Todd Bowles — The Arizona Cardinals’ defensive coordinator is gaining momentum among league executives as a very qualified candidate who has paid his dues. Bowles has been the DC at Arizona and Philadelphia, and also served as the interim head coach when the Miami Dolphins fired head coach Tony Sparano during the 2011 season. His Arizona defense is quietly one of the best in the NFL, and has been despite losing some starters. Bowles is slightly older than some on this list (51), and he may fit the role of a ‘boss’ better than some of the options who are roughly the same age as a veteran player.
Dan Quinn — Quinn has headed up the smothering Seattle defense as the Seahawks’ defensive coordinator the last two years. His defense has been the best in the NFL over that time, but one might argue that he has had more talent available to him than someone like Bowles. There are reports that the Falcons and Jets have both already asked for permission to speak with Quinn.
I also wrote about some other options last week. Stanford coach David Shaw seems to be the wild card. Many sources indicate that Arthur Blank is very high on Shaw, but Shaw has reportedly told those close to him that he wants to coach younger players. Still, most NFL executives believe it is simply a matter of time before Shaw is coaching an NFL team.
Any replacements for Mike Smith will start with lofty expectations, as Smith moved the bar higher for a previously moribund franchise. I am one who believes that GM Thomas Dimitroff was at least equally responsible for, if not more so, the state of the team over the last two seasons. I am of the opinion that Smith will be hired as an NFL head coach again fairly quickly…possibly even before the Falcons’ job that Smith vacated is filled. But I understand as well that sometimes, despite success, a change of scenery is needed. I think this quote from today’s AJC is telling:
McKay and Blank will be working together on their fourth coaching search. The previous ones landed Jim Mora, Bobby Petrino and Mike Smith.
“I felt that Arthur did a fantastic job of kind of leading us through that search process,” McKay said of the Smith search. “We took our time and we needed to find a head coach and a general manager who were going to help first and foremost stabilize the franchise because the franchise was not stable.
After two firings and a debacle in which the coach quit at halftime of a Monday Night game 13 games into his first season….perhaps the coaches aren’t the problem, so much as the people hiring them.
Coach Smith will be missed by his players. He was given a standing ovation and there were tears in the crowd when he gave his notice of his firing to the team this morning. The next guy, whoever it is, is going to have his work cut out for him.