FLOWERY BRANCH – While most consider Arizona defensive coordinator Todd Bowles, Seattle defensive coordinator Dan Quinn or New England offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels as the leading candidate to replace Mike Smith as the Falcons' head coach, special teams coordinator Keith Armstrong should not be easily dismissed.
Armstrong, 51, played for Arizona head coach Bruce Arians at Temple and has coached in the NFL for the past 21 years. He’s an effective, clear and thorough communicator. His units with the Falcons have always been strong and the set a punt-coverage record in 2008.
“He’s a fantastic young coach,” said Arians before facing the Falcons in 2013. “He’s going to be a head coach someday. I’ve admired him for a long time ever since he played for me at Temple."
Armstrong or Bowles, who also played for Arians at Temple, would become the first African-American coach in the team’s history. But the search is starting to feel like 2004 when Lovie Smith appeared to be the leading candidate, but the Falcons were dazzled by Jim L. Mora's three-ringed binders and took a flyer on the untested coach.
The Falcons are copying part of the Baltimore's front office structure by having assistant general manager Scott Pioli have the same duties and his counterpart Eric DeCosta in Baltimore.
Ironically, Baltimore was the last team to promote a special teams coordinator to head coach in Jim Harbaugh.
Armstrong, a native of Trenton, N.J., could keep most of the coaching staff and could shift assistant head coach/wide receivers Terry Robiskie over to offensive coordinator. Robiskie was an offensive coordinator with the Los Angeles Raiders and Cleveland Browns. He also has the respect of the players.
Offensive line coach Mike Tice has also been an offensive coordinator.
He could hand the defense over to Tim Lewis, who’s been a coordinator in the past, and has interviewed for head coaching positions five times.
The group of assistant coaches know the players on hand. They’d know which players to keep and the ones to release.
Armstrong, who nearly landed the Kansas City job two years ago, was interviewed for the team’s vacancy on Sunday, Jan. 4, as first reported by Alex Marvez of Fox Sports
Armstrong’s punt coverage unit set the league record for yards allowed (49) for a 16-game season in 2008. Vince Lombardi’s Green Bay Packers set the lowest amount for a 14-game season back in 1967, with 22 yards allowed.
Seattle came close to the record last season as they entered the regular-season finale with 22 yards allowed, but finished with 82 yards after the Rams broke loose in the last game of the regular-season.
The key was the directional punting of Michael Koenen, who allowed just 20 of his 59 punts to be returned.
Armstrong’s units have consistently been ranked among the league’s top groups. He was one of the stars during the team’s appearance on HBO’s Hard Knocks. Perhaps, the Falcons could benefit from his man-to-man communication skills and he was put out front to help lead their "Toughness campaign."
In addition to interviewing with the Chiefs in 2012, Armstrong has had interviews with the Eagles and the Bears.
Armstrong’s interview with the Falcons, according to league officials, did put the team in compliance with the league’s Rooney Rule. An actual interview is required and not just asking for permission, as John Wooten of the Fritz Pollard Alliance told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
The Falcons, while they haven’t hired a minority coach, have a history of going beyond the minimum requirements of the Rooney Rule.
After the 2007 season, they interviewed Leslie Frazier and Jim Caldwell.
In the search that ended up with Bobby Petrino as coach, the Falcons interviewed Michael Singletary.
In the search that landed Jim L. Mora, the Falcons interviewed Lovie Smith.
Armstrong, who sent cover man and returner Eric Weems to the Pro Bowl in 2010 and returner Devin Hester this season, drew an unsportsmanlike last season against Arizona.
After Hester was called for questionable face-mask penalty on an apparent 70-yard touchdown, Armstrong went ballistic. He went onto the field to voice his displeasure with the call and was flagged.
“You just move on,” Armstrong said at the time. “You have to get to the next play. You have to keep coaching, keep playing.”
Before returning to coach with the Falcons in 2008, Armstrong coached special teams for the Dolphins (2001-07), Chicago (1997-2000) and was the Falcons’ safeties coach in 1994 and '95 and the secondary coach in 1996.
Before entering the NFL, he coached in college at Temple, Akron, Miami, Notre Dame and Oklahoma State.
He was also part of the NFL’s Minority Coaching Fellowship Program during training camps with the New York Jets (1991), Dallas Cowboys (1992) and Chicago Bears (1993).