ATLANTA — When Falcons owner Arthur Blank sifted through the rubble that was his team following the 2007 season — Michael Vick off to jail, Bobby Petrino quitting before the season ended at 4-12 — he wanted to achieve one goal above all else: Make the franchise relevant.
By hiring Thomas Dimitroff as his general manager and Mike Smith as head coach, Blank immediately realized that goal beyond his wildest dreams. Now, Blank should commit to Smith to ensure the franchise remains relevant for years to come — much in the way the Pittsburgh once did with former Steelers head coach Bill Cowher.
Prior to Smith’s arrival, the Falcons enjoyed few high points in their history and were a laughingstock for many of their 42 seasons. Impossibly, the franchise had never registered back-to-back winning seasons until Smith’s coaching tenure.
Under Smith’s guidance, not only did the Falcons notch back-to-back winning seasons in his first two seasons as coach, but they now have done it five times running, qualifying for the playoffs four times in the process. Already, Smith is the winningest coach in franchise history.
With Smith getting the proverbial monkey off his back last month — his first career playoff victory over Seattle — he seemingly had freed himself at last of a spot off any speculative coaching “hot seats.” (For what it’s worth, two-time Super Bowl-winning coach Tom Coughlin did not win a playoff game with the Giants in his first two tries.) Yet already there is talk in Atlanta that if Smith does not win big in 2013 (perhaps a Super Bowl berth or victory) he could be on the firing line in 2014.
If Smith were to lose his job over one bad season, it would represent the height of knee-jerk reactions and what is wrong with the NFL’s hyper-competitive nature. Too often it seems expectations do not always meet with reality in the NFL (see Smith, Lovie).
As much as billionaire owners are impatient, to put it mildly, to try and win a championship, it’s worth noting that patience with coaches who have shown a track record of success tends to pay off — and that winning a title is not as easy as willing it to be done by the owner nor anyone else.
For example, over the last 16 seasons, only 10 different organizations have won Super Bowls. Within that span, only 12 coaches won a title. Seven have been won by owners who are the kind that Blank has cited as examples of whom he would like to model the Falcons after: New England, Pittsburgh and the NY Giants.
Two of those teams, the Steelers and Giants, have some of the longest-tenured ownership families in US professional sports. They know what breeds success; they understand the importance of organizational continuity.
With Pittsburgh, Cowher did not win his Super Bowl until his 14th season, although he did reach the title game 10 years before that. Another highly respected coach, Tony Dungy, won his Super Bowl in his 11th season as a head coach, and with his second organization. Does Blank want Smith to win his first Super Bowl with his second organization? (Dungy, by the way, had never made it to the Super Bowl before winning it.)
Bill Belichick needed seven seasons as a head coach before making and claiming a Lombardi trophy. Like Dungy, Belichick won his first Super Bowl with his second organization; his first tour with Cleveland was marked by one winning season (out of five).
But there are other reasons beyond patience for committing to Smith long-term. Not only has Smith made the Falcons a perennial playoff franchise, he adds an aura of class and respect. He purposely shuns the media spotlight, sometimes to the chagrin of the local press. But after the erratic Jim Mora, Jr. and the unreliable Petrino, the Falcons coach is the kind of person, always prepared and professional, who represents the organization well. Fans, media — even team employees — get this and it should count for something.
When the Dallas Cowboys fired defensive coordinator Rob Ryan last month, he infamously said he would have a new job in five minutes. It took a little longer, but the truth is that if the Falcons parted ways with Smith in the next few seasons he almost assuredly would have another job in five minutes.
Smith’s track record speaks for itself. His players respect him and like playing for him, including one of the game’s all-time greats in tight end Tony Gonzalez. In two of the last three seasons, Smith has earned the NFC’s top seed for the playoffs. His four playoff losses have come to the team that represented the conference in the Super Bowl, including two Lombardi trophy winners. In any of those games — including San Francisco a few weeks ago — could it be said that Smith had the better personnel?
Smith was 10 yards and a somewhat controversial non-call (on the fourth-down pass to Roddy White) from going to the Super Bowl this year. Given the right players, long term, he seems as if he will get the franchise where it ultimately wants to be.
Giving him that chance for the long haul seems would seem to be the smart play — provided that patience rules.