FLOWERY BRANCH –The process is complete.
After seven seasons, the Falcons have decided to part ways with head coach Mike Smith, the winningest coach in team history.
“Smitty’s contributions to our club, team and city over the last seven years are numerous,” Falcons owner Arthur Blank said in a statement released by the team. “His accomplishments on the field made him the most successful coach in the 49-year history of the Falcons, and we are grateful for the foundation he has laid for us for the future.”
General manager Thomas Dimitroff, who’s had some questionable draft picks and shaky free agent signings, is safe at this time.
Hours before the team was set to face Carolina for the NFC South title on Sunday, it was reported by ESPN that the Falcons had retained search firm Korn Ferry about a potential head-coaching search.
Korn Ferry, an international firm, has an office in Atlanta. Blank declined The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s request to talk about Smith’s status before and after the game.
Korn Ferry has been involved with several NFL and college coaching searches, including the University of Michigan’s prolonged hunt for a new head coach.
Smith took the Falcons to the playoffs in four of his first seven seasons. In 2008 and 2009, he posted consecutive winning seasons for the first time in franchise history.
In the wake of the 34-3 loss to Carolina, Smith remained realistic about his plight.
“That’s not my choice,” Smith said when asked if he and his staff deserved to be retained. “This is a business about winning football games and that’s how you’re judged. I understand that and I’ll leave it at that.”
Over Smith’s first five seasons, his teams played solid defense, keep down penalties and made it a habit of winning close games. They were solid, play hard and were competitive.
He took over after the horrible 2007 season in which quarterback Michael Vick was sent to federal prison and head coach Bobby Petrino quit after 13 games into the season.
Smith helped restore order quickly as the team went 11-5 and went to the playoffs.
He talked regularly about “the process” leading to that team’s success.
The peak was reaching the NFC Championship game after the 2012 season. The 49ers rallied from a 17-0 deficit that day to win 28-24 at the Georgia Dome and advance to the Super Bowl.
It has been downhill ever since. After coaxing future Hall of Fame tight end Tony Gonzalez out of retirement last year, the Falcons were expected to be Super Bowl contenders. But a rash of injuries and perceived lack of toughness greased the slide for a 4-12 skid, followed by this season’s 6-10 campaign.
The team blew a 21-point lead to Detroit on Oct 26 in London when the Falcons left enough time on the clock for the Lions to score late. They later blew a late lead against Cleveland. A day after that 26-24 loss, Smith admitted to mismanaging the clock.
Smith’s record is 66-46 (.589), but he’s 1-4 in the playoffs.
He had plenty of support in the locker room after the loss to Carolina. Matt Ryan was the team’s first draft pick under Smith’s regime.
“The seven years I have been here, he has been first class,” Ryan said. “He shows up every day. He works really hard, he is incredibly consistent. You know where you stand with him as a player and I think the guys respect that. I have nothing but a lot of respect for Mike.”
The Falcons entered the final game with a chance to win the third NFC South title under Smith, but they were pummeled 34-3 by the Carolina Panthers at the Georgia Dome.
“Victory is the only option. Whatever it takes,” was a sign hanging on the Falcons’ locker room door.
Smith was not pleased with the effort in his finale.
“Today’s game, like most in the NFL, is about winning the line of scrimmage,” Smith said on Sunday. “We did not do that on either side of the football. Offensively, our quarterback was under duress all day. We weren’t able to establish the running game and I though after the first couple of drives at least we played a little bit better. We lost the turnover battle. You can’t give the ball to our opponent, have them return it for a touchdown multiple times. That was the difference in the game.”
Smith also said he had some regrtets.
“I wish I would’ve done a whole lot of things better,” Smith said. “Ultimately, I’m the one that’s held responsible. This is a 6-10 football team, and there’s one person that the record’s attributed to, and that’s the head football coach. We were 6-10 in 2014.
“There are a whole lot of things I could’ve done differently and better. They’re all learning experiences, and I will take those and in the future make sure that I don’t make the same mistakes that I made this season.”
At the time, he questioned the validity of the search-firm report and didn’t want to speculate on his future at the time.
“Look guys, I’m not going to comment about what you guys talk about, and what you guys have,” Smith said. “There’s distractions every day you go to work. When you go to work you have distractions at your work. When I go to work I have distractions at my work. I’m not going to comment about some report that probably has no validity to it.”
Some of the potential candidates to replace Smith include Arizona defensive coordinator Todd Bowles, Seattle defensive coordiantor Dan Quinn, Stanford head coach David Shaw, Indianapolis offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton.
Blank, who has questioned the team’s toughness under Smith, may be interested in talking to former New York Jets coach Rex Ryan. He was interviewed for the position in 2008, but the Falcons went with Smith instead.
Other candiates could include Denver offensive coordinator Adam Gase and New England offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, who was a major flap in a brief stop in Denver.
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