TAMPA — Dirk Koetter's first game as head coach is also a trip into his past, and Sunday's trip to Atlanta will pit him and defensive coordinator Mike Smith against key players they worked closely with in their years with the Falcons.
"Dirk was awesome. I learned a ton from him in the three years I spent with him," quarterback Matt Ryan said after a preseason game two weeks ago in Orlando. "He was great for our organization and our offense at the time. I think Jameis (Winston) is lucky to be working with a guy like him and I think they're going to do really well together."
Ryan is even closer with Smith, who was Atlanta's head coach for his first seven NFL seasons, including playoff trips in four of his first five years. They were a combined 56-24 together.
"Smitty and I are really, really close and have a great relationship," Ryan said. "For him to be in Tampa now, I'm happy for him. He's a hell of a coach and Tampa has a really good staff. I know that firsthand. They'll be tough to go against, but I'm happy for both of them."
The Falcons, who swept the Bucs in 2014, faced Koetter twice last season when he was the Bucs' offensive coordinator. Tampa Bay's sweep in 2015 added to the back-and-forth of a close divisional rivalry.
"For me and Mike, we're both two years removed, so there's less and less guys that they've kept," Koetter said Monday. "I think my emotional time with that has passed. We have to look at this as a football team as this is a divisional game on the road to open a season. So a huge game, and the league wants it that way. Everyone knows they count double, especially on the road. … For me, I'm just worried about what our team does."
Falcons Pro Bowl receiver Julio Jones, who led the NFL in receiving last season, had his first 1,000-yard season when Koetter became Atlanta's offensive coordinator in 2012. He said he believes Koetter will do well as a head coach, given how well he handled the Falcons offense.
"He takes it very seriously, but lets you have fun," Jones said. "He holds guys accountable. He's going to go over everything, make sure everybody has the correct assignments. He's really good at what he does, especially predicting what defenses are going to play. Dirk's a great guy and a great coach."
Falcons linebacker Sean Weatherspoon started 41 games under Smith from 2010-13, returning to the Falcons this season. He missed Smith's last year in Atlanta with a torn Achilles tendon, but remembers well how prepared Smith had his players.
"Mike was so detailed," Weatherspoon said. "That's the one thing that really sticks out. He wanted to make sure every player was on the details of the game. A coach should be that way. We're really detailed here now in Atlanta, but that started with Mike."
Weatherspoon was close to Koetter, even on the other side of the ball — he went to Missouri and remembers not only that Koetter was once an assistant there, but that his son Derek went to school there. When he was injured in 2014, he joked that Koetter wanted to keep him away from Falcons practice because he could call out offensive plays as he recognized them.
Cornerback Desmond Trufant, another defensive player who had a bond with Koetter as an offensive coach, said he's excited to go up against him as he did so often at practice with the Falcons.
"We were always competing," Trufant said. "Great mind, obviously, but a real cool guy, real chill, laid back, humble guy. His scheme, he's going to take shots and find a weakness and attack it. They've got some good coaches down there."
Weatherspoon drifts into Smith's voice, smiling and recalling the simple conversations they'd have on the field before a game: "Hey, let's get 'em" and "Lead 'em!"
"I just loved when the head coach would talk to me before games," Weatherspoon said. "He's a good dude and I look forward to seeing him do some great things down in Tampa, but not when they play us."
And even if Koetter and Smith will downplay the personal importance of going up against an old team, their players recognize what it would mean for them to get them a win in their trip back to Atlanta.
"They're not saying it, but we can sense it," defensive tackle Gerald McCoy said. "Coach Koetter, obviously you want to win for your head coach, but I'm on the defensive side of the ball. Coach Smith isn't going to admit it, but he has a little fire in his eyes."