I had an uneasy feeling as I climbed into my car Sunday morning as I got onto I-75 South headed to the Georgia Dome. I am an unapologetic Falcon fan. I have been so since before most of you were born. I’ve seen some terrible teams – even witnessing Marion Campbell getting two terms as head coach, averaging maybe for wins a season. I was even at the Monday night game when Bobby Petrino left a farewell note in his team’s locker after the game and remember as I got home from that debacle of a game he was on the news being introduced as the new head coach of Arkansas. I also remember the “Gritz Blitz”, the “Dirty Birds” and “Ron Mexico” as well as winning big against the Rams in the playoffs and being ten yards shy of a Super Bowl. Not one to become emotionally attached to anything including modern day sports teams where there no longer is any loyalty, I had become attached to Mike Smith over the last seven years.
As I drove down the highway weaving in and out of traffic that was unusually busy this morning I tuned my radio on to 92.9 FM, Atlanta’s FM sports station. I was anticipating a highly competitive game between the Falcons and Carolina Panthers in a winner take all game for not only the division but the opportunity to host a playoff game.
I love covering playoff games. Since 2000 I had gotten to cover a handful of Falcon playoff games only being on the floor of the Georgia Dome once before the arrival of Smitty. Since his arrival I’ve been to three and was looking forward to a fourth. Then the news broke on the radio that changed my demeanor for the day as well as the locker room of the Falcons down in the Dome. It was announced that team owner Arthur Blank had hired a search firm to aid in the search for a new head coach. Really? Hour before some of the players’ biggest game in their pro career and certainly Smitty’s this gets announced for all the world to hear?
It was obvious at the Georgia Dome that I wasn’t the only one that heard this bit of news. The Carolina Panthers had a whole lot of fans in attendance and they were cocky. For the second game in a row it seemed that the visitors had outnumbered the home team fans and were as loud at times if not louder. Even Cam Newton looked cockier than ever – if that was at all possible. I hate him… but I digress.
On the opening drive the Panthers looked to move the ball easily against the Falcon defense that had shown marked improvement since the bye week. Newton was accurate on passes and the running backs found holes. They drove deep into Atlanta territory before they finally stiffened up and made the Panthers settle for a 21-yard Graham Gano field goal. The Falcons’ offense wasn’t as efficient. They managed one first down before being forced to punt.
The Panther drove right down the throats of the Atlanta defense running most of the way before Newton found Ed Dickson for a five-yard touchdown throw making the game 10-0 with seconds remaining in the first quarter.
Things looked up for the Falcons as Devin Hester returned the ensuing kick 66 yards to the Carolina 38 as the first quarter came to a close. From there the Falcons drove down deep into Carolina territory – down to the three to be exact. Atlanta looked to score an easy touchdown as Matt Ryan found fullback Patrick DiMarco wide open in the flat. A wide open DiMarco dropped the ball. From that point the Falcons never recovered. They settled for a field goal, their only score of the game. And while they sort of got close to scoring a few other times in the game. This one was over with 10:36 remaining in the second quarter.
The Panthers scored 24 unanswered points the rest of the way. Matt Ryan threw two pick 6’s with a third one called back because of a penalty and the usually sure handed Roddy White fumbled away the ball after a long reception that set up another Panther.
The feeling I got while being on the field was that the Falcons already knew the fate of their coach and nothing they were going to do was going to change that. It was part anger, dismay and disbelief the way they played. It was as if they were protesting the news announced yet in the process threw their coach under the bus. Of course this wasn’t the first blunder in Arthur Blank’s 12 years on owning the team.
Granted, Blank is one of the best owners in not only the NFL, but professional sports in general. For the most part he has kept his nose out of the team’s operations and has spent money where and when it needs to be spent. I think he pulled the plug prematurely on Dan Reeves and Jim Mora pandering to the players and fans.
In my humble opinion Blank is one of those guys that wants to be liked and popular. Most people do, I guess, but he makes these big decision with no logic or reason. There are tons of opinions on everything especially sports but he fired Reeves during a losing season that wasn’t the coach’s fault. QB Mike Vick missed most of the season because of a preseason injury and the team went from a playoff team to a double-digit losing team. It wasn’t the coach’s fault. To magnify the issue Blank famously wheeled Vick around in a wheelchair on the sideline of a game something he would regret a couple of years later when is star QB was sent to Leavenworth.
Then there was the Jim Mora era. Mora was a surprise pick, but with a new GM (Rich McKay) with a sound track record and no past history as an NFL coach maybe this might work. Sure enough the Falcons won the NFC South for the first time and hosted their first playoff game since the Super Bowl run of 1998. They won in a big way and lost in the NFC championship game to the Eagles.
The following year they fell to 8-8 after a 6-2 start and to 7-0 after another 6-2 start. Word got out that Mora while being interviewed on radio said his “dream job” was to coach Washington (college). Supposedly Blank didn’t find this humorous and despite all of Mora’s damage control was let go following the season.
It is time to note the activities of the team under Mora’s reign here. The inmates ran the asylum and Blank didn’t seem to matter as long as the stands were full and they were winning games. The team had taken on a “thug-like” mentality and there was a lot of dissention in the ranks between players unseen to those in the stands. Everything was about Michael Vick. Even when interviewing other players they were often asked about the quarterback. I remember sitting in a press conference with Warrick Dunn and he told the press there was more to the team than the play of their quarterback.
No matter what the coaches did they couldn’t succeed with Vick who was a world-class athlete but not much of a quarterback. And I argued this point with my fellow photographers and Falcons press in the lunchroom on game day until the end finally came in early 2007 when Vick ended up serving two years in Levenworth for his involvement with a dog fighting ring.
The team made what they thought was a big splash in the coaching market by hiring Bobby Petrino away from Louisville where he had just signed a contract extension. Weeks after the hiring of Petrino that’s when the news broke about Vick. Petrino was left with three quarterbacks of limited potential and no dynamic skills. One, Byron Leftwich was past his prime. The team was in chaos.
The preseason went well and full of optimism as the Falcons finished 3-1. But that was the highlight of the season. They started 0-3 scoring only 10 points combined in the first two games. During their whitewash loss to the Saints on Monday Night Football ironically Petrino’s last game as the coach, Roddy White lifted up his jersey after scoring one of only two touchdowns they scored that night displaying a t-shirt that read “Free Michael Vick”. Cornerback DeAngelo Hall sported face paint with the same message. Both were promptly fined $10,000 by the league. Petrino left after the game leaving a farewell note in the team’s lockers.
Back to ground zero. Who would they hire? First they moved McKay into the front office bringing in New England Patriot wunderkind scout Thomas Dimitroff in as the new GM. Hoping they would make the splash with a marquee name as coach they hired Mike Smith, defensive coordinator of the Jacksonville Jaguars a perennial top five defense. Who? I wasn’t sold, but going into the draft they had the number three overall pick and if looked like they were getting rid of the thug mentality as DeAngelo Hall and Jimmy Williams were sent packing – just two examples of problem children on the Falcons.
The Falcons took Matt Ryan with the third overall pick of the 2008 draft and offensive lineman Sam Baker with the 21st overall pick that was received in the trade of Hall to Oakland. After losing their first two preseason games the Falcons won their last two. Ryan was okay in preseason but was he ready to be thrown to the wolves yet? Where the Falcons going to start Chris Redman who had a string 2007 season in mop up relief of Joey Harrington and Leftwich? The team averaged barely 13 points a game in the preseason. It was announced that Ryan was going to be the game one starter.
Not knowing what to expect on Atlanta’s first possession of the game at the Georgia Dome Ryan dropped back to pass on the first play of scrimmage. He hit Michael Jenkins over the middle for a 62 yard score. The Dome erupted. Thus began the Ryan-Smith era. After being the embarrassment of the league the previous season all of a sudden the Falcons started surprising folks. Surprising everyone with an 11-5 record and making their first preseason appearance since 2004. The Falcons held a 17-14 lead over the Arizona Cardinals but could not hold the lead losing to the eventual Super Bowl representative 30-24.
The following year the Falcons did something they had never done before. They finished the season with another winning record – 9-7. In over 40 years in existence this was the only time they had back-to-back winning seasons.
Under Mike Smith they had five back-to-back winning seasons and four playoff appearances including falling just ten yards short of the Super Bowl in 2012.
Granted, the last two seasons have been a disaster but injuries are the blame for that and too much of a “win it now or never” attitude. It was almost as if Dimitroff felt pressure to win it all the next year or else. That resulted in some bad personnel decisions like signing a past his prime Steven Jackson, letting John Abraham to go and not signing another effective pass rusher. The Falcons fell to 4-12 with seven of those losses being one score losses. A couple of other games they were close or ahead going into the fourth quarter but depth kept them from pulling out the wins like in the previous five seasons.
This past season saw a lot of the same problems with no defensive pressure on opposing quarterbacks and almost as many “name” players on IR as the active roster. At 6-8 going into Sunday’s game they still were only a victory from winning their third division title in seven years and fifth playoff appearance.
The Smith critics started raising their voices loud last season calling for his head as early as October 7 after losing to the Jets on Monday Night Football 30-28 a they went into their bye week. 2013 was the first year Smitty had lost consecutive games as a head coach.
To me it seems as if Blank listens too much to sports talk radio as he gave in to the pressure of “popular” opinion. Like a eulogy I will remember Smitty as the best Falcons coach ever. Winning became expected under Smitty – not a novelty like in the past. In fact, I want to see where he goes next. I think the Bears should take a look at him. He’s obviously good at dealing with difficult situations.
The Falcons go into the off-season looking for a new coach and hopefully this firm “hired” to help with the search picks a winner. They sure gave up on one when they let Smitty go. He deserves a lot better.
– Dave Weinthal
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