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Coach Mike Smith restores Atlanta Falcons' reputation

At the time of his hiring a year ago, he couldn't have seemed more anonymous — a career assistant coach, nothing gimmicky about his plans, even the plainest of names.

Now Mike Smith is making quite a name for himself.

And, in the process, restoring the name of a Falcons franchise tattered and tarnished by the Michael Vick controversy, the Bobby Petrino coaching calamity and three eternally long seasons in the parity-happy NFL without a winning record.

The addition of Pro Bowl running back Michael Turner and the emergence of rookie quarterback sensation Matt Ryan have made the biggest impact on the field. But to those within the team's Flowery Branch headquarters, it's obvious how big a difference it has made to have Smith on the sideline.

"A lot," Falcons president Rich McKay explained. "He has created a very clear vision for this team that was easy to understand: how they were going to practice, how they were going to prepare, what kind of team they were going to be. It's a completely different perspective than what was in the building last year that breathes a little life into the building.

"In a very understated way, he has affected the franchise greatly."

General manager Thomas Dimitroff, who was also new, made what seemed like a reach when he hired Smith with hopes they'd get back to .500 this season.

"To see how quickly this team has come together and really believed in Mike Smith and his staff and the message they have been disseminating has really been a, let's say, a surprise," Dimitroff told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

"They came together, and they believed in each other. With 60 percent of the roster changing, usually that would take a bit longer. It's a major feather in the cap of the coaching staff to get the team to buy into a whole new culture."

Smith, the oldest of eight kids, grew up in Daytona Beach the son of a teacher/coach. He starred at linebacker for Father Lopez Catholic High before breaking his right arm his senior season then played at East Tennessee State. He then began a long string of college and pro assistant coaching assignments, including five years as Jacksonville's defensive coordinator before being hired by the Falcons.

"I was aware of the situations that have occurred (in Atlanta), but at no time have I ever spoken to the team about 2007," Smith said this week. "My philosophy is that we are starting anew. It was a fresh, clean slate. 2007 was history. It was 2008, and we were going to move forward. The philosophy of being a very communicative coach, that is how I wanted to operate with these guys to let them know that my door is always open and they can always come and talk.

"I think when you have that open line of communication, there is no gray area. It is all pretty much black and white when you basically lay the plan out to your guys and let them know what you are trying to get done."

Smith, 49, said he never focused on moving up to be a head coach, that he has "always just been very task-oriented and my dad always told me that if you work hard people will take notice and just do the best you can do every day. And that is how I have tried to approach this profession."

For this Falcons team, in this situation, it couldn't have worked out any better.

"The biggest thing is that he is honest," Ryan said. "He is up front with the guys, and he treats us like men. And I think guys respect him for that. He is fiery when he is on the field and passionate about what we do, but he is always positive and upbeat.

"So in that sense, he is a lot of fun to play for."

Times sports columnist Gary Shelton contributed to this report. Marc Topkin can be reached at topkin@sptimes.com

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Today

NFC wild card: Falcons at Cardinals, 4:30 p.m., Ch. 8

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Sunday

AFC wild card: Ravens at Dolphins, 1 p.m., Ch. 10

NFC wild card: Eagles at Vikings, 4:30 p.m., Ch. 13

Coach Mike Smith restores Atlanta Falcons' reputation 01/02/09 [Last modified: Saturday, January 3, 2009 10:47am]
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