First came the decision to trade five selections in order to move up in the 2011 NFL Draft for receiver Julio Jones.
Then players and media members used words like “explosiveness” to describe their offense.
Then came the fizzle.
Mike Smith is 43-21 as head coach of the Atlanta Falcons. With the exception of Dan Reeves, who led the Falcons to their first and only Super Bowl appearance, Smith is the best coach the team has had in its 46-year history. His players love to play for him and he’s brought stability to a franchise that has long lacked consistency at the head coach position.
But if he doesn’t tweak his overall philosophy when it comes to the Falcons offense, he will become the modern day version of Marty Schottenheimer – if he hasn’t already.
Like Smith, Schottenheimer used to stockpile victories during the regular season. But because he was unwilling to change his style when it came to coaching in the postseason, he never won anything of substance. He was 5-13 in the postseason with no Super Bowl appearances and nary a conference title to call his own.
Smith is 0-3 in the playoffs with two utterly embarrassing performances by his team the last two years. The Packers drubbed the Falcons 48-21 at the Georgia Dome two seasons ago and the Giants shut Atlanta down 24-2 on their way to a Super Bowl victory last year.
At the root of the Falcons’ postseason failures is a lack of creativity on Smith’s part. Some have suggested Matt Ryan doesn’t have what it takes to win in big games but the fault doesn’t lie in the quarterback, it lies in the overall mentality of the head coach.
The Falcons wanted to beat the Giants on the ground last year because New York was brutal against the run during the regular season. It wasn’t a bad idea but when the Giants bottled up Michael Turner, the Falcons didn’t have a Plan B in place. That falls on Smith, who remains hamstrung by his philosophy that in order to win the NFL, you must grind down the clock, keep the game close, and win in the end. That ideology may work in the regular season against inferior opponents but when a team like the Packers doesn’t mind throwing the ball 40 times in order to beat you, being able to run the ball becomes irrelevant.
Part of the Falcons problem was former offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey, who is now the head coach of the Jacksonville Jaguars. Ryan has developed into a slow starter over the years but Mularkey was hesitant to put his quarterback in the no-huddle, which often got Ryan into a good rhythm. Mularkey would waste a full quarter of ineffective play from his offense before he got into his no-huddle attack. Whether that was because of Smith’s conservatism or Mularkey’s unwillingness to allow Ryan to call the shots is not known outside of Atlanta. But either way, it was shocking that the Falcons didn’t use the no-huddle more last season.
In steps new offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter, who was limited in Jacksonville because of the lack of weapons at his disposal (save for Maurice Jones-Drew, that is). Koetter is a gifted playcaller and has already said that he will install the no-huddle for Ryan, who could benefit from having someone other than Mularkey put game plans together. The hope is that a creative play-caller like Koetter is the missing piece.
But everything comes back to Smith, who ultimately decides what kind of philosophy his team will have on Sundays. The Falcons ranked eighth in the league in passing yards per game last season so this isn’t about stats – it’s about a mentality. Will Smith allow Koetter to design his game plans around Ryan instead of Turner? Will he allow the Falcons to actually use the assortment of weapons (Jones, Roddy White, Tony Gonzalez, Harry Douglas, etc.) that they have in their arsenal? Will Smith finally allow the Falcons to shake hands with the present day NFL and become a team that beats opponents through the air?
If he doesn’t, Smith’s list of critics will grow by leaps and bounds. His job is safe for now but he must change his ways in order for this talented Falcons team to reach its full potential. Ryan was maxed out in Mularkey’s run-first offense but he still has untapped potential as the architect of a fast-paced attack. It’s just a matter of whether or not Smith will take the chains off.
If he doesn’t, the new “Martyball” will become entrenched in Atlanta.