As season opens, it’s Mike Smith 1, Falcons 0

Allow Mike Smith this departure from his norm. The man was known to speak in shades of beige when he was the Falcons’ head coach, by design. But if there was any day when he might pop just a little bit, it would be Sunday.

First game of the season.

First game back in the NFL after taking a year off.

First game against the team that fired him.

Win. Win. Win.

“(Bleep) yeah!” he said after stepping off the elevator and walking toward the visiting locker room at the Georgia Dome.

I asked him how it felt to win.

“God bless,” he said, beaming.

Was it sweeter because it came against the Falcons?

“It goes around,” he said.

Allow him this moment.

Smith walked toward the locker room door, quickly said hello to another familiar face, screamed another expletive with joy, then ducked into the room.

This is what it feels like to win. Smith did a lot of that in his first five seasons as Falcons’ coach but not nearly enough in the next two. So he was fired.

His return to the Georgia Dome Sunday as Tampa Bay’s defensive coordinator served as a wonderful study in contrasts for two organizations in Week 1 of the season.

The Falcons lost 31-24. They failed to run the ball with any efficiency against Smith’s defense (52 yards total, 2.4 per carry), failed to score touchdowns on three of their four drives into the red-zone, failed to complete a comeback (which used to be their forte).

Tampa Bay, perceived to be a team on the rise, did nothing to change anybody’s thinking. The Buccaneers won their first game behind an athletic and strong-armed quarterback, Jameis Winston, who threw four touchdown passes. He has an effective tutor in head coach and defacto offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter (who used to work for the Falcons) and the team is backed by an improving defense under Smith. Tampa Bay again looks like the better team in the NFC South and has won the last three meetings against the Falcons.

This was not the way the Falcons expected to open the season. It was pretty much the way they closed it last year.

Red zone failures. An offensive line that couldn’t move people. A defense that couldn’t muster a pass rush (zero sacks again). A defense that gave up too many big plays (touchdown passes of 23, 30 and 45 yards). A defense that STILL is missing too many tackles.

Tampa Bay’s go-ahead score came on a toss to running back Charles Sims III just before the half when he made two Falcons whiff (Kemal Ishmael and Deion Jones) and broke the feeble tackle attempts of two others (Jonathan Babineaux and Ricardo Allen).

Is this still 2015?

“We had some plays we should’ve stopped,” Ishmael said. “I don’t think it was anything they were doing. It was us. Tackling, proper angles – things we can fix.”

Things they haven’t fixed.

It was a bad day to be the Falcons.

It was a good day to be Mike Smith.

He was beaming afterward and the life of the party – or wake, depending on your perspective. Former players like Babineaux and Roddy White and other team employees stopped by to say hello. Smith sensed he would be toast as coach after those last two seasons in 2013 and 2014, when the team went 10-22. But nobody has ever said a bad word about him on a personal level.

“I’m a happy man today, but this is a crazy business,” Smith said. “We made a lot of mistakes but we came away with the win.”

The Falcons had a final chance with 1:52 left, but started a possession on their own nine-yard line and with no timeouts. Matt Ryan completed a 19-yard pass to tight end Jacob Tamme. Then came four straight incompletions to end the game.

“So many games in this league come down to the last series,” said Smith, who ironically was on the wrong end of too many of these games in Atlanta. “Somebody has to make plays at the end and we made the plays.”

Asked if he still harbors any bitterness about the way things ended with the Falcons, Smith said, “Not at all. I owe a lot to the Falcons. They gave me an opportunity and business is business.”

Before the game on the field, Smith spoke to owner Arthur Blank and general manager Thomas Dimitroff. He and Matt Ryan embraced.

“He’s a hell of a coach,” Ryan said later. “I know that probably better than anybody. He had them coached up today but we could’ve done better.”

Yes on both counts.

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