FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. – For 12 years Mike Smith toiled in a place that would seem to embody the NFL coaching wilderness: Cookeville, Tenn., and Tennessee Tech, first as an assistant and, eventually, defensive coordinator.
But, in a way, that period ended up underscoring the saying by Seneca, the ancient Roman philosopher and politician (a saying that Smith, whose parents were teachers, might appreciate): Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity.
As he plied his trade, a relationship that began almost two decades earlier took time to bear fruit. In 1999, Brian Billick was named head coach of the Baltimore Ravens and Billick, who first became friends (and later brothers-in-law) with Smith when they served on the same staff at San Diego State starting in 1982, tapped Smith as a defensive assistant on the Ravens’ staff.
The move kick-started Smith’s NFL coaching career and would ultimately prove beneficial for the Falcons, a franchise that had never posted back-to-back winning seasons until Smith’s arrival. With a win at Philadelphia next week, Smith, 53, would become the first coach in franchise history to win 50 games and take over sole possession of the Falcons’ all-time record from Dan Reeves.
“I always tell people he was a good coach before he was my brother-in-law,” Billick said. “Mike and I, naturally because of our relationship, even when we weren’t together, you get together at family reunions or you talk on the phone, it doesn’t take long to talking football and comparing notes and the things you do when you’re in the coaching fraternity. “There was no question when I got the Baltimore job, I knew I’d bring Mike in.”
One of Smith’s favorite sayings is “you get what you earn in this league” and so while Billick might have given Smith his start, Smith has made the most of it. Entering the season, his 43 wins ranked fourth in NFL history among coaches in their first four seasons and at the bye the Falcons are an NFL-best 6-0. The only blemish on Smith’s record is that gnawing 0-3 mark in the postseason, one that only time can alter.
When it comes to talking about his own success, Smith prefers to deflect attention, answering a question about the looming franchise record recently by redirecting it to the task at hand.
“It doesn’t mean anything in terms of what we’re trying to get done,” he said.
Back in ’99, long before he would get his first head job at any level in Atlanta, he was just getting his feet wet in Baltimore and was cast in a somewhat awkward role. In Billick’s words, Smith’s job was to help then-Ravens defensive coordinator Marvin Lewis, now in his 10th season as Cincinnati’s head coach, use the “teaching mechanism” — techniques that Billick had developed over the years and with which Smith was fluent – that the new head coach wanted implemented. Billick implicitly understood the threat posed by a low-level assistant who had a close personal relationship with the head coach.
“So I knew (Smith) really was going to be a great resource for the defensive coordinator, Marvin Lewis, but you had to know that Marvin’s thinking, ‘Wait a minute, this is the guy’s brother-in-law? Is he going to spy on me or what?'” Billick said.
Let the record show that years later Lewis remains something of a confidante of Smith’s. Billick said that Lewis “recognized immediately the attention to detail, the work ethic — everything about Mike Smith that anyone who has spent any time with him sees — and he saw that he would be a real asset.”
Smith proved his worth on a defensive staff that ended up producing four head coaches (the others being Rex Ryan and Jack Del Rio) and he left Baltimore for Jacksonville in 2003 with Del Rio to become defensive coordinator.
Five years later, amid the ashes of Michael Vick and Bobby Petrino, the relatively unknown self-described mid-level executive Thomas Dimitroff was named as Falcons’ general manager. When the list of candidates for the coaching job leaked out, another relatively unknown in Smith emerged among the finalists. Dimitroff knew he’d have a sales job to do to the larger public. With Smith as defensive coordinator, Jacksonville had not so much as played in an AFC Championship Game, although Smith’s units had placed top-10 in the league in a number of categories during his tenure. In 2006, his group finished second in the league in total defense.
A number things about Smith had caught Dimitroff’s eye from afar. During his time as a scout with New England, Dimitroff had attended private workouts for college players that Smith had run and Dimitroff noticed both Smith’s communication skills and that attention to detail of which Billick spoke.
Dimitroff also knew close friends who had worked with Smith and they spoke of how he treated those around him respectfully. This was not a small matter to Dimitroff who had been around football his entire life and said he witnessed first-hand “really bad effects of massive egos.” Dimitroff wanted a collaborative relationship with his head coach and knew he’d have to speak with the man five to 10 times a day. He didn’t want those conversations to feel like nails on a chalkboard. He also appreciated that Smith could have a lighter side.
When Smith came in for his interview, Dimitroff said the two immediately hit it off. “Yeah, it was one of those interviews that went on for hours and hours and (team owner Arthur Blank) kept coming in a number of times and suggesting to us, ‘Are you ever going to finish?'” Dimitroff said. “We basically said, ‘No, we need some time, Mr. Blank, with all due respect,’ and he kind of laughed and excused himself from the room.
“At that point… I was thinking how congruent we were with our thought process and I felt that very quickly with Mike Smith that he and I saw team-building through similar lenses.”
The man with the plan
Assuming the job as a head coach differs immensely from that of a coordinator or a positional coach. The job is much more CEO than seeing out orders: It’s hiring, firing, making sure game plans are well conceived, preparing players and prepping for critical game situations. Billick, the former Super Bowl winner, put it this way: “Schemes are schemes. Embarrassingly, everyone’s doing the same thing. There’s no magical schemes out there. It’s how you obviously integrate the players you have into the teaching sequence and prepare them for the key situations that come up in the game.”
Smith said he tries to concentrate on five areas. The first is being the least-penalized team in the league. Second is winning time of possession. Third and fourth are the starting field positions for his team and for the opponent. Last is the turnover ratio. Smith, who is highly analytical in his use of statistics, notes that almost all of these involve all three phases of the game.
“If you’re usually at the top of the league in those things, you’re usually going to like where you’re at, believe it or not,” he said, while many prefer to look at rankings for offensive yardage gained and defensive yardage allowed.
The Falcons are the least-penalized team in the NFL (152 yards), rank 13th in time of possession (which represents something of a change this season from previous ones, as they have veered from a ball-control offense to a more pass-oriented one) and they are tied for first in the league in turnover margin at plus-10.
And while football coaches can rightly earn the reputation as control freaks, Smith said he has tried to resist the urge to micromanage. He has benefitted from having made smart decisions on his staff. Mike Mularkey, who moved to become Jacksonville’s head coach, and Bill Musgrave, formerly the Falcons’ quarterbacks coach who is now the offensive coordinator of 4-2 Minnesota, helped to develop Matt Ryan and a successful running game.
New offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter is widely credited with creating an explosive unit (Ryan ranks fifth in quarterback rating) and new defensive coordinator Mike Nolan, the former San Francisco head coach, leads a unit whose 17 takeaways are tied for first in the league.
“Well, I think in terms of a head coach, there’s different philosophies, but I believe you hire an offensive coordinator, you hire a defensive coordinator, you hire a special teams coordinator, they can devote so much more time than you can to looking at the offense, defense and special teams, you allow those guys with the staff to work with the (players),” he said. “I don’t believe in micromanaging. I believe that you’ve got to have a macro view and when you are a position coach or a coordinator, you’ve got to have a micro view and concern yourself with only one thing and not really worry about anything else and I’ve been very fortunate to have a great staff, guys around me that do a great job preparing their groups.
“When I started, I said my goal was I never wanted to call a play on offense or defense or special teams on game day. You ask for input on Monday through Saturday and let those guys do their job because you’ve got to focus on how to manage the entire game: decision-making in regards to whether you’re going to go for it (on fourth down), whether you’re going to run a fake play, whether you’re going to have an opportunity to run a special play. Those are the things you look at.”
Smith chuckled when asked if he had stuck to his pledge of not calling a play.
“I’ve done pretty good at it,” he said. “I can’t say that I’ve not done it but it’s usually not very often. My input in terms of the game plan is during the week and you let those guys, they’ve got more time to do it. (If) you micromanage — I’m not smart enough to call the defensive game and also be the head coach.”
Players say that what makes Smith successful is that attention to detail along with his ability to communicate, which also includes holding his players accountable.
Right tackle Tyson Clabo said Smith is intense – the cameras have caught him more than once on the sidelines with an outburst, whether it was in an altercation for which he was fined $15,000 in 2009 with Washington players or this season with defensive line coach Ray Hamilton when the Falcons only had 10 players on the field, lacking a defensive lineman on the last play of the game. Clabo said Smith is earning a trademark like Bill Cowher’s scowl: the red face.
“Just go the other way when you see that face,” Clabo said. “I do…. When we’re on the football field, the man is the same all the time, practice or games. You need to do your job and you need to do it well or the red face is going to come out.”
Thirteen-year veteran center Todd McClure, the team’s longest-tenured player, compared Smith to Reeves, under whom he also played, in that both are even-keeled.
“I think the biggest thing is Smitty’s just an honest guy,” McClure said. “He’s going to tell you how it is. If you’re doing good he’s going to tell you you’re doing good. If you’re not doing good, he’s going to call you out. But he’s always approachable.
“You can go and talk to him in his office. He’ll consider anything you have to say. He might not do it or he might not like it, but he’ll consider it. Guys just love playing for a guy that you can relate to that you can talk to and you can trust.”
Aside from culture, McClure said that Smith and his staff constantly preach details, sometimes to the chagrin of the players.
“I think the biggest thing is when we go in our meetings, the little details are constantly pointed out,” McClure said. “I know we get tired of hearing it sometimes as player. It gets a little frustrating. ‘We already talked about that, talked about that for a month.’ They stay on it. They stay on the little details and when you stay on the little things, the big things become important and they’ll be good for the team.”
Sticking to the details and being prepared for situations is part of what has made the Falcons turn difficult late-game situations into victories. Quarterback Matt Ryan owns 19 fourth-quarter or overtime victories, the most of any quarterback since Ryan entered the league in ’08, the same year as Smith.
Billick said in making his media rounds this week, he was constantly asked about the Dallas-Baltimore game, in which the Cowboys’ poor clock management proved costly. The Falcons may have won by the skin on their teeth in their last three games, but Smith has negotiated his way through ruinous management issues. Last season, he did lose a couple of games, including in the playoffs in part, because of fourth-down decisions, but those were not issues of preparation. They were researched and discussed beforehand.
“Mike is so detailed,” Billick said. “There’s no stone unturned. I think the players would tell you they feel very prepared going into a game because of the way they practice…. and it’s that weekly preparation. I think the players who play for Mike, they have a great deal of confidence that they’ve had every possible detail covered about ‘Here’s what we’re going to do in these situations.’
“It may be right, it may be wrong but at least they know what the plan is.”