Falcons instilling toughness with coaching additions of Tice, Cox

New Falcons hires Mike Tice (left) and Bryan Cox have enjoyed success at nearly every coaching stop of their respective NFL journeys.

When Falcons head coach Mike Smith was asked the day after the 2013 regular season ended if his team was nasty enough, he answered by saying, in part, the Falcons did not win the line of scrimmage often enough and that the battles that take place on the line tend to be nasty.

In a roundabout way, without throwing his players under the bus, he was agreeing.

It was not always that way. Former Falcons offensive line coach Paul Boudreau, who instilled that nasty factor in linemen like Harvey Dahl and Tyson Clabo, used to joke that linemen were the village idiots. He taught his players to play to the "echo of the whistle."

This style of play infamously caused New York Giants defensive end Justin Tuck, in the lead-up to the teams’ playoff game in January 2012, to say the Falcons offensive line were "scumbags."

For Boudreau’s first few seasons, the Falcons had one of the league’s better running games. Since the Falcons fired Boudreau (now with the Rams) following that 2011 season, that element has been missing.

In hiring Bryan Cox as defensive line coach and Mike Tice as offensive line coach, Smith is trying to amp up that nasty factor on the Falcons’ two lines.

In terms of personality, Smith appears to have the right men for the job. The question, however, is whether those personalities can translate to the players and into their play on the field.

In some ways, the Falcons need to add a dose of nastiness or toughness — call it whatever you want. With others … it’s also about ability.

The Falcons not only need to find players on their lines who play nasty but they also have to find more who can do better than allowing quarterback Matt Ryan to be sacked nine times in the season finale against Carolina, improve over having than the last-ranked running game in the NFL and to finish higher than tied for 29th in the NFL in sacks with 32.

Those issues will not be resolved until the draft, offseason team activities, training camp and, ultimately, the regular season. For now, let’s take a look at the personalities of the new position coaches who are unquestionably tough.

Here’s a little tidbit about Cox from a 1993 profile that ran in Sports Illustrated at the outset of Cox’s third season. He was coming off 14 sacks and a season as an Associated Press first-team All-Pro linebacker. Cox acknowledged his tough upbringing in gritty East St. Louis, Ill., and that he had been involved in more than 100 "messy brawls" and that he had "lost only a handful of them," according to the article.

"In the ghetto," Cox told the magazine, "if you want my respect, you have to respect me. If you’ve got a problem, you light your way out. If I hit you, you’re going to sleep."

In terms of his ability to coach, Cox, the street fighter, has shown results. In the last two seasons with Tampa Bay, he helped defensive tackle Gerald McCoy become one of the league’s best.

Over the past two seasons, McCoy posted 14 sacks — a total even more impressive when considering that it came from the tackle position — and earned a Pro Bowl selection in 2012 and become an AP first-team All-Pro this past season.

In 2008, Cox worked on the staff of New York Jets coach Rex Ryan, one of the best defensive minds in the league. Cox was part of a coaching staff whose defense finished seventh in the NFL in sacks in 2008 and advanced to the AFC Championship Game.

In 2011, he was on the staff of then-Miami defensive coordinator Mike Nolan, now in the same role with the Falcons, when the team finished in the top 10 in sacks.

Part of the reason for hiring Cox, it seems, is that sacks do matter.

Just as anecdotes attest to Cox’s toughness, so do they with Tice. Here is one the Chicago Sun-Times reported in September 2012 when Tice served as the Bears’ offensive line coach.

As a freshman in 1977, Tice arrived at the University of Maryland as a quarterback. That year, he got into a fight with a teammate, a senior all-ACC defensive lineman, after the lineman kept giving him cheap shots.

"Most quarterbacks won’t stand up for their rights," Tice said, as reported by the Sun-Times. "I just hauled off and hit him."

When Tice got to the NFL with Seattle, it was as a quarterback but, at 6-foot-7, 253 pounds, he switched to the tight end to be able to stick in the league. He ended up playing 14 seasons in the NFL.

"He’s a tough, tough guy," Jim Zorn, the Seahawks quarterback at the time who went on to become the Washington Redskins’ head coach, told the Sun-Times.

Like Cox, Tice also comes with his own accolades. He has presided over excellent rushing attacks, although his record in protecting quarterbacks is a bit more suspect. He also has head coaching experience.

His role might be even more demanding than that of Cox. In players like Jonathan Babineaux, if the Falcons retain the free agent, Corey Peters, Peria Jerry (another free agent), Osi Umenyiora and Kroy Biermann, Cox at least has a base of talent to deal with.

On the offensive line, the talent base is thinner, more injury-riddled and greater potential exists for the Falcons to fill roles with new faces through either free agency or the draft — in all, the Falcons face more questions on that side of the ball.

So while, on paper, the hires generally have won approval, the ultimate test of their success will come when the games matter.