One day after falling 34-3 to the Carolina Panthers in the de-facto NFC South Title Game in one of the Falcons’ worst all-around performances in years, owner Arthur Blank announced the firing of the most successful coach in team history. In his seven years with the organization, Smith boasted a record of 66-46, including the franchise’s first back-to-back winning seasons. His tenure will always be highlighted by the trip to the NFC Championship in 2012 – for which he deserves as much credit as he is receiving fault for the past two seasons.
Smitty brought stability to an organization when it most desperately needed it – following the Michael Vick debacle and Bobby Petrino literally bailing on the franchise overnight before the season was even over. His even-keeled personality showed in the team’s on-field play. In his first four years, the Falcons twice finished as the least penalized team in football, and never finished in the top half in the league in penalties. They were disciplined, but some will argue they weren’t “tough” enough (whatever that truly means). It was undeniably a time for change, but Smith left the organization in a better place than when he found it; this organization is only in the position to hire an audacious personality because of Smtih. Overall, Smith’s settling presence for seven years has set the table for the Falcons to hire their next head coach: Rex Ryan. (Ryan has agreed to interview with the Falcons and was reportedly one of the final candidates for the coaching job eight years ago.)
A former defensive coordinator, Smith never led the Falcons to a top 10 defense (yardage wise) in any of his seven seasons in Atlanta; and they finished last in 2014. The team never had an above-average pass rush (they had just 22 sacks this year, with four coming in the same game) and Smith often pointed to a desire for 10 guys with four sacks as opposed to four guys with ten sacks. Well, neither worked out, and thus the secondary was left in a vulnerable spot during his tenure.
Rex Ryan, on the other hand, might be the best defensive mind in football today. In Ryan’s entire career (including his time in Baltimore) his defense has never had a worse ranking than 11th in yards allowed. The Falcons haven’t had a better ranking than 11th since 2000. Not to mention, nearly every player who plays for Ryan raves about him and his style, and when guys love playing for a coach they play harder. When the Jets fired him this past week after their final game, players poured out support for him. Linebacker David Harris told reporters, “Everybody in this locker room loves Rex. We came out here today with that in the back of our minds. We were trying to win this game for him. He deserved this win.” Ryan produces results everywhere he has been, and not hiring him because of his supposed “cocky attitude” would mean being comfortable with the mediocre play of the past few seasons of Smith era and it would ignore the vast evidence that the players actually love that attitude.
“Toughness” is a word that cannot merely be quantified. If you watched HBO’s Hard Knocks this offseason, you are well aware that “toughness” was thrown around as a trendy theme this offseason in the Falcons’ front office. The talk was just that: talk. The problem is, toughness isn’t something that can be beaten into the players’ heads as a mere point of emphasis without any fundamental change. Toughness is a culture, not a style of play that can be turned on with the click of a button or a change in tone. Rex Ryan will bring that toughness – however that may manifest itself – as coach of the Falcons. This team will not miss open field tackles on third down or get bullied by opposing defensive linemen at will. They will be done letting their franchise quarterback double as a battering ram because Rex Ryan will not put up with it.
For all the deserved credit Mike Smith got for his job in Atlanta, his inability to establish a team identity – an integral part of the head coach’s job – was the aspect that did him in. Defensively, Smith’s supposed point of expertise, the Falcons were consistently slow to the ball, poor tackling, and lacked an edge. One could say they were soft. Offensively, with their current personnel, the Falcons are clearly a better team when they’re pass-heavy and specifically in the no-huddle offense. Rex Ryan oozes identity. Ryan makes no secret that he demands a hard-nosed, aggressive team, offensively and defensively. He led the Jets to two AFC Championship games with Mark Sanchez under center, imagine what he could do with Matt Ryan?
Rex Ryan is the puzzle piece that fills the Falcons’ holes. No defense? He’ll fix that. Want to be tougher? Rex will demand it. No identity? That would change from day one under the Rex Ryan regime. He is not only the logical choice, but the only choice to be the Atlanta Falcons’ next head coach