There was a moment at halftime of the Falcons’ game on Dec. 15 when one could not help but wonder if Mike Smith would not return as head coach for the 2014 season.
The Falcons had blown an early 14-0 lead at home to possibly the worst team in the NFL — and easily the most dysfunctional — the Washington Redskins. Washington was coming off a week of roiling turmoil as head coach Mike Shanahan elected to shut down franchise quarterback Robert Griffin III in favor of backup Kirk Cousins and some suggested that he was deliberately trying to get himself fired. Yet by halftime the Redskins led 20-17 as Cousins had shredded the Falcons defense for 248 yards and two touchdowns. If the Falcons had lost that game to as hapless a bunch as Washington, could Smith have kept his job? Might it have signaled that his message and his methods were completely lost on his players?
Perhaps. But that did not happen. Instead, the Falcons rallied for 10 points and evaded overtime when Shanahan elected to go for a two-point conversion, which the Falcons expertly defended in terms of being prepared, having the right personnel on the field, the right defense called and a player (rookie Desmond Trufant) executing a technique learned in practice — all elements that tend to fall on coaching.
They walked away with a fortunate 27-26 victory, but it was the kind of luck that comes from making one’s own breaks. It was the kind of break that had eluded the Falcons for much of the 2013 season, as they enter their season finale on Sunday with a 4-11 record against playoff-bound Carolina.
Having gone from there to play at San Francisco under the circumstances that the Falcons did — the 49ers’ still playing for a division title, the emotional regular season finale at Candelstick Park, etc. — Smith not only had the Falcons competitive but he helped to put them in a position to win in the game’s final minutes. The kind of break that went for them against Washington returned to its 2013 form and went against the Falcons on Monday, as a tipped ball deep in San Francisco territory resulted in an interception returned for a touchdown in a 34-24 loss.
This was the type of loss that could have come even in the best of seasons. It showed, along with the team’s body of work over the last four weeks of the season, that Smith continues to be the right person for the job heading into 2014 in what should be his seventh season at the helm.
In midseason, all of that was in question. In Weeks 8 through 11, the Falcons lost four straight games by a combined 74 points. The Falcons were not competitive at all. Injuries had hit their peak, perhaps the players’ demoralization at the realization that they would not return to last season’s glory hit them stark in the face, and, for whatever reason, their play proved inept.
They were the kinds of showings that cost Gary Kubiak his job as Houston’s head coach in midseason. They were the kinds of performances that appear as if they will ultimately cost Shanahan his job in Washington.
Had the Falcons continued through the final five games unabated — humiliation upon humiliation along with the unraveling of the fabric of the team — it could have cost Smith his job as well.
Instead, the Falcons have gone 2-3, with their three losses all coming in tightly-played games – the first two were by a total of five points — against teams that either will make the playoffs or will play for a chance to go to the playoffs in their respective regular season finales. This coming despite rookies playing a near majority of the snaps for the Falcons’ on defense and at a couple of key positions on offense (right tackle, wide receiver), plus a number of the Falcons’ top players out for the season with injuries.
On Tuesday, Smith, not the kind who would openly campaign to keep his job, typically deflected credit to the players and explained the kind of dynamic that might occur with so many key starters out and so many rookies and first-year starters playing significant roles.
"We’re just not executing," he said. "I think the execution is just off ever so slightly and when you are not executing, you are going to diminish your chances of having success. But the guys have worked hard. There’s no quit in them. There was never a doubt in my mind and in this coaching staff’s mind that the guys would let up as the season progressed the way it has and I think the effort is just like it was in Week 1 when we down to New Orleans. We’re doing it with different players, unfortunately, but the effort’s been outstanding."
On Thursday, quarterback Matt Ryan spoke of how Smith is still getting through to players while hinting at the idea that Smith cultivates a less-than-dynamic public persona.
"Smitty’s fiery and he’s passionate and he’s very consistent when he does interviews kind of in front of the camera but there’s another side to him, too," said Ryan, who has been patient with the team’s youth movement in recent weeks, even as it has caused him to get hit perhaps a little more often and, possibly, cost the team a win or two, "and in the locker room and in team meetings, he can get going and he can motivate guys and get guys fired up and sometimes you see that on the sideline. He’s into it, he’s passionate and I think guys respond well to that."
In the week leading up to the San Francisco game, left guard Justin Blalock, one of the team’s more thoughtful players, was asked if there were a danger in getting blown out in the final two games. The Falcons had done this in previous seasons to opponents that had either already fired their respective head coaches or were about to. Blalock responded somewhat incredulously, as if the question did not make much sense.
"I can assure you there’s no cash-in with this team," Smith said. "We’ve stated over the last couple of weeks that we want to finish strong and it doesn’t matter what your record is. You’re going to be judged on how you finish the season. Unfortunately, in this third quarter of the season we’ve played good football, we’ve only gotten the outcome we’ve wanted one time."
There is one more chance on Sunday against a hungry Carolina team, which hopes to win its first NFC South Division title since 2008. On Tuesday, the Falcons placed two more players on season-ending injured reserve, rookie safety Zeke Motta (neck surgery) and starting defensive tackle Corey Peters (torn Achilles’ tendon), further depleting them.
"Any time you have a game worth playing, it’s worth winning," Ryan said on Thursday. "You have to have that mindset."
Ryan might not need convincing, but others might and Smith seems to have accomplished that. The day after the season ends, Smith will meet with the media, as he always does the day after a game. He likely will be joined by general manager Thomas Dimitroff. Sometime after that, owner Arthur Blank will probably address the media, as he did after the disappointing way in which the 2011 season ended.
Based on his first five seasons — four playoff berths, an NFC title game berth — Smith deserves to be back. Ultimately, his fate sits in Blank’s hands. Earlier this season after a bad loss at Tampa Bay, the owner affirmed that Smith would return. He would be wise to look at the last five games and stick with that decision, even if it didn’t always seem clear.