Falcons’ Smith saw warning signs in training camp

Atlanta Falcons head coach Mike Smith says part of the team's offseason strengthening program will include pushing more weight in an effort of getting bigger and stronger.
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Atlanta Falcons head coach Mike Smith says part of the team's offseason strengthening program will include pushing more weight in an effort of getting bigger and stronger.

Mike Smith can admit it now: He got a little too drunk on success. It happens when you win a bunch of games. Wins allow a coach to think, “I got this.” Warning signs are minimized, if not ignored. Some may view it as arrogance, but it’s more about being lulled into a false sense of security.

“When you’re winning … things get overlooked,” Smith, the Falcons’ coach, said Tuesday. “You realize later that maybe you should have addressed them that year. And even the year before that.

“It’s a cleansing, believe me, that you go through. It’s a humbling situation.”

This was Tuesday, the day Falcons players began offseason workouts, and in a sense, Smith could begin to turn the page on last year’s four months of misery.

He can admit now what he couldn’t, or wouldn’t, at any point in 2013: The realities about last season’s team hit much sooner than the first loss, or the ninth, or the ninth or the 12th.

“Were there some oh (expletive) moments? Absolutely. Training camp. Preseason games,” Smith said.

The Cincinnati Bengals traveled to Atlanta in August for a week of practices before facing the Falcons in an exhibition game. Rumors followed that Bengals players left town believing the Falcons were a soft team. Smith now acknowledges he had the same concerns. He saw the practices, particularly the second day when his players seemed less spirited and were getting pushed around. He also had conversations with Bengals coach Marvin Lewis when the two exchanged thoughts on each other’s teams.

“You can ask people who you trust: What do you think?” Smith said.

“The Bengals were a bigger and stronger team than we were, no question. And they had a much better season than we did.”

But Smith believed the Falcons could scheme around their weaknesses. They had all of those wonderful toys: Matt Ryan, Roddy White, Julio Jones, Stephen Jackson, Tony Gonzalez.

“You believe as a coach you can fix everything,” he said.

He was wrong.

Smith, the old-school football coach, the coordinator of tough physical defenses in Baltimore and Jacksonville, got romanced along with the rest of us. He wasn’t blind to the Falcons’ problems on the offensive and defensive lines. He knew football always has been and always will be about blocking and tackling. He just believed the Falcons had enough talent to work around the issues.

“I lost my way,” he said.

It was his way of summarizing how he had lost perspective on what football is still about: size, strength, toughness. Punching the other guy in the mouth. The offensive line getting a six-inch push. The defensive front putting pressure on the opposing quarterback, giving him something to worry about.

In his long postseason self-analysis, Smith realized something else: He needed to change.

He is going into his seventh season as the Falcons’ head coach. That makes him the seventh-longest tenured coach in the NFL. Five of the six ahead of him have won Super Bowls: Bill Belichick (New England), Sean Payton (New Orleans), Mike Tomlin (Pittsburgh), Tom Coughlin (N.Y. Giants) and Mike McCarthy (Green Bay). Lewis is the exception. Long tenures are rare in the profession because even successful coaches discover after a period that athletes start to tune them out.

Players love playing for Smith. They say it all the time. Sometimes it seems they say it too much. When praise is frequent, even during losing times, it can create a perception that the coach is too nice of a guy, particularly when the coach is never caught getting in a player’s face in public.

Smith acknowledges the nice-guy perception has to change.

“Do I have to kick ass more? I think I have to dispel some myths: Mike Smith is not a nice guy,” he said. “Everybody says, ‘Smitty’s a nice guy.’ Hey, there’s one thing I’m about. It’s winning. … ‘Oh, Smitty’s so nice …” I’m not nice!”

His voice rose at the end. If the delivery was for effect, it worked.

“You’re leading a group of guys,” he said. “When you don’t have success you have to look at: What was the message this week? What was my delivery? You can’t do it the same way or they will turn you off.”

His objective from this point forward: Don’t let things slide. Reaffirm what’s acceptable and what’s not. Improve his communication with assistants and players. He and the training staff also have put a greater emphasis on getting stronger in the weight room, something that had faded in recent offseasons.

“We’ve got the guys who can make the ‘SportsCenter’ highlights,” Smith said. “But that’s not enough.”

There’s nothing more sobering than a 4-12 season.