Smith brightens the Falcons’ days

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The first time Todd McClure heard the term, back before the start of the regular season, he did a double take. The Over 30 Club? The Atlanta Falcons’ veteran center thought the team’s first-year coach, Mike Smith, might be messing around when he called for a meeting with the team’s 11 thirtysomethings.

Soon McClure, 31, and his fellow Falcons graybeards were up in gray-haired coach’s office, looking around in wide-eyed wonderment. “Man, that’s the first time I’ve been in this office in awhile,” one player joked, provoking laughs and knowing eye-rolls from his audience.

Smith told the veterans he wanted to meet with them regularly to discuss anything they had on their minds, from practice schedules to the overall mood of the team. The grateful players went back and forth with the coach on a few topics, goofed on one another in the process and left the room blown away by what had just gone down.

Six weeks into a season in which the Falcons have emerged as the NFL’s feel-good story of early autumn, McClure credits the new coach for putting the fun back in the Falcons’ universe – and for caring enough to involve the players in the process.

“Twice a month Coach Smith gets the older guys together and lets us know what’s going on and what he’s thinking,” he says. “He entrusts the team to those veteran leaders, and he lets us sell his system to the young guys and patrol the locker room. It’s nice to be able to go up there and have that relationship with the man in charge.”

As opposed to last season, when Falcons players literally couldn’t get a hello in the hallway from their head coach – one of many flaws that made Bobby Petrino’s 13-game reign of error one of the biggest disasters in NFL history. How much better are things under Smith, 49, the former Jacksonville Jaguars defensive coordinator who generated almost zero buzz before getting the Atlanta job last January?

Photo Smith, with Falcons owner Arthur Blank, after Sunday’s win over the Bears.
(Getty Images/Kevin C. Cox)

“The best analogy I can give is it’s like Dorothy when she was looking for the Wizard of Oz,” veteran safety Lawyer Milloy says. “When she finally accomplishes her goals, you just see the dark skies open up and all of a sudden it’s glorious sunshine.”

Ding dong, the wicked witch is dead!

Even better, Petrino’s replacement is the NFL’s version of Glinda, minus the pink dress and fairy dust. A man whose pre-Falcons profile was as extraordinary as his name, Smith has been energized by an opportunity he never saw coming and carries a near-constant smile to prove it.

Smith, the surprising choice to rescue the Falcons from the dual-edged disaster of Michael Vick’s dog-fighting conviction and Petrino’s horse’s-ass disposition, has snuck up on the outside world like the team he coaches. Heading into their bye week and coming off back-to-back victories over the Packers and Bears, the Falcons (4-2) have already equaled their ’07 victory total and are in a three-way tie for first place in the NFC South.

There are many reasons for Atlanta’s early success, from the influx of impact players like rookie quarterback Matt Ryan and free-agent halfback Michael Turner to the effective teaching of a coaching staff that features 188 collective years of NFL experience. The biggest factor, however, is also one of the simplest: Smith, through the tenets of positive thinking and open communication, has turned a once miserable workplace into a fruitful one.

“I’m a very communicative guy, and I want my players to communicate with me as well,” Smith says. “We’ve tried to focus on camaraderie, teamwork, resolve and positive energy. It’s kind of a novel thing, huh? One of the things I say to the team is, ‘Rules without interaction will lead to rebellion.’ You’ve got to have interaction – that’s just being a good person, and it’s important in any business.”

Now contrast that with Petrino, who came to the Falcons from the college ranks (Louisville) and quickly fled back (Arkansas), saying goodbye to his players via form letter on a Black Tuesday in December. The previous day, former franchise quarterback Vick had been sentenced to 23 months in prison. Hours later, the Falcons suffered a humiliating Monday night home defeat to New Orleans that dropped them to 3-10.

The toxic workplace, in McClure’s eyes, was a function of Petrino’s disdain for his players. “I guess that’s kind of the sense we got,” he says, “because it wasn’t ever really expressed that he did enjoy being around us. You’d pass by him in the hallway and you might get a head-nod, at best. With some guys, he wouldn’t even look up. That’s kind of hard to take, because communication is the key to a good team environment.”

According to Milloy, Petrino’s rules included no talking on team planes, during pregame meals or in the locker room before taking the field. “If you talked, you had to whisper,” Milloy says. “In the locker room before a game, you could listen to your iPod, but otherwise it was dead silence. No TV, no sound system, no talking. During the meals, you could hear the spoons and forks clanking against the plates.

“We had to spend nine months out of the year with somebody like that. It’s one thing to have college kids and send a position coach to deal with them. In the NFL, there are real men with real concerns, and I don’t think he knew how to handle that. Last year – and I wouldn’t have said this at the time – I just never felt like we had a chance.”

Milloy says he would’ve tried to force his way out of Atlanta had the atmosphere not improved. McClure says there’s no way he would’ve put up with another season of Petrino.

“I don’t know if I’ve ever really said this to anyone except my wife,” McClure says, “but I told her in the middle of the season that if he had come back I was going to go upstairs and do what I could to get out of here. Because it was just miserable – the meeting room was so stale, and we all sat there straight-faced. If you stay serious all the time, you just kill yourself. Under Coach Smith, it’s been like night and day.”

Though Smith heard the horror stories, he never spoke to the players about the past, telling them at their first meeting in April, “It’s 2008, and we’re all starting with a clean slate.” Even before that time he had placed phone calls to numerous veterans and met with some in person, as he and new general manager Thomas Dimitroff, a fellow rookie, went about reshaping the team’s roster.

Milloy says he and his teammates knew so little about Smith, they began “doing research on the Internet to try to learn about what kind of person he was. From his first speech we heard a guy who was kind of beside himself to be in that position, and he showed it by smiling the whole time he was talking. Smitty had so much passion for the sport, and you could tell it was genuine. You could just feel his energy.”

The Falcons are feeling it even more now. In successive weeks, Atlanta pulled off an upset at Lambeau Field and stunned the Bears after falling behind with 11 seconds to go. Their top five draft picks, including third overall pick Ryan, are either starting or playing significant roles. Turner is second in the NFL with 597 rushing yards, as a formerly dismal offensive line has thrived under position coach Paul Boudreau. Wideout Roddy White is second in the league with 566 receiving yards, and defensive end John Abraham (another Over 30 Club member) has an NFL-best seven sacks.

Photo Abraham, right, has led the charge on defense.
(Getty Images/Al Messerschmidt)

Along with Boudreau, experienced assistants like offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey, receivers coach Terry Robiskie, quarterbacks coach Bill Musgrave, defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder, defensive line coach Ray (Sugar Bear) Hamilton and defensive backs coach Alvin Reynolds have connected with players while stressing fundamentals. And while Smith may be relentlessly positive, there’s no ambiguity about who’s the boss.

“Oh yeah, I’ve seen him (lose his temper) and it’s not pretty,” McClure says. “With Coach Smith, I don’t think there’s much of a middle ground with him. He’s either nice and upbeat, or he needs to get a point across and you know he means business.

“Three or four weeks ago in practice, the defense was supposed to be doing a specific stunt, and he started screaming at (second-year defensive end) Jamaal Anderson, ‘You gotta get across the guy’s face!’ Then Jamaal threw his palms up, and all hell broke loose. Coach screamed, ‘Don’t you ever throw your palms in the air on this field!’ The funny thing is, he came to find out later that Jamaal wasn’t at fault. And to his credit, he apologized.”

It’s the kind of mistake for which, as he grows into his job, Smith might get ribbed during an Over 30 Club meeting. If so, chances are he’ll laugh right along with his veterans.

“One thing you’ve got to do in any business, there’s got to be a time for some levity, enjoyment and having fun,” Smith says. “If you can’t do that around each other, it’s hard to be successful.”

Somewhere in Fayetteville, Ark., a failed Falcons coach is frowning.

TAKE IT TO THE ATM

The revived Rams will continue their NFC East destruction tour by upsetting the Cowboys at the Edward Jones Dome, with Steven Jackson having a monster game. … The Giants will be back with a vengeance against the 49ers, who’ll deal another blow to the already shaky job status of coach Mike Nolan. … The Pack is back: Green Bay will defeat the Colts at Lambeau, with Ryan Grant finally reverting to his late ’07 form.

PLEASE, BOSS, SEND ME TO …

Kansas City, home of the Chieeeeefffffffsssss. Yes, I know that makes me the polar opposite of Tony Gonzalez, but I’d like to get a good look at the league’s only undefeated team and get a little barbecue in my system.

LIES, LIES, LIES

1. NASCAR Craftsman Truck team owner Randy Moss was not amused when one of his drivers, rookie Donny Lia, wrecked on the backstretch and defiantly scoffed, “I brake when I want to brake.”

2. Though flattered by an endorsement from Dean Smith, Sen. Barack Obama declined the retired North Carolina coaching legend’s offer to help him install the Four Corners offense for the campaign’s final 2½ weeks.

3. The real reason John Madden will miss Sunday night’s game between the Seahawks and Bucs in Tampa is because of gas (or, to clarify: NBC executives balked at the cross-country fuel tab).

WORLD’S SIMPLEST POOL

When Josh Brown’s game-ending, 49-yard field goal soared between the uprights at FedEx Field, the Redskins’ four-game winning streak wasn’t the only thing that came to a sudden halt. The Rams’ upset also ended Detroit Pistons president of basketball operations Joe Dumars’ three-week run, though the man has been doing pretty well for himself as of late. Intent on keeping this in the NBA, I looked westward to Phoenix Suns general manager Steve Kerr, my old writing partner at Palisades High School and a veteran WSP contributor. The man with the highest three-point percentage in NBA history isn’t shying away from his opening shot. “I’ll go with Pittsburgh over Cincinnati,” Kerr says. “If they don’t win outright I will quit the celebrity prognostication business altogether.” First Shaq speaks out, and now this? I love it.

MY BUDDY’S ANNOYING FANTASY ADVENTURE

Though his fantasy team, Hand of Doom, boasts Drew Brees and LaDainian Tomlinson, my buddy Malibu is dinking and dunking his way into playoff contention in his Sex, Drugs and Fantasy Football league. Even after a 30-point victory over Varmint ‘Tang – big days by Brees, Devin Hester and David Garrard, and subpar efforts by ‘Tang’s Eli Manning and Jay Cutler made the difference – Hand of Doom has cumulatively outscored its opponents by just seven points while boasting a 4-2 record. That’s good enough for a tie for second place, and this week Malibu has mixed emotions: His son, A-Man, and struggling Man up Willis u (expletive), bring a 1-5 record into their upcoming matchup. A-Man’s team has been undone by injury (Carson Palmer, Brian Westbrook) and ineffectiveness (Willis McGahee, the man whose efforts, or lack thereof, inspired the team name) and now features Jeff Garcia, Donald Driver, Brandon Jacobs and Dan (Safety First) Orlovsky. With Garrard and Matt Ryan both on their bye weeks, Malibu resisted the temptation to take another quarterback (Joe Flacco) and instead plans to bring back injured wideouts Marques Colston and Joey Galloway.

As for UCSB women’s basketball coach Lindsay Gottlieb, Gaucho Madness evened its record at 3-3 by defeating dgame, led again by her Vikings triumvirate (Bernard Berrian was especially effective, along with Gus Frerotte and Ryan Longwell) and by Braylon Edwards’ long-awaited breakout performance, predicted by yours truly. Then again, I’ve been predicting that for awhile now. This week Gottlieb takes on Brooklyn’s Finest, a team featuring Kyle Orton, Frank Gore, Ronnie Brown and Ryan Grant, and managed by Chris Byers, who practiced against the Cal women last year while Gottlieb was an assistant there. “I’m feeling the Cal thing this week,” says Gottlieb, who will conduct her first official practice as a head coach Friday evening. “I’m playing Aaron Rodgers [vs. Indy] over Gus [at Chicago], and I’m expecting a big game out of Tony Gonzalez against the Titans. I know conventional wisdom would say a guy who’s mad that he didn’t get traded won’t have a big game, but I’m feeling otherwise.” Gottlieb also heeded my advice to drop Anthony Gonzalez and claim a mystery player who we hope to unveil in two weeks, after his team’s bye.

Speaking of women and fantasy sports, my man the Fantasy Man weighs in with some important sociological commentary.

OXYGEN-DEPRIVED THOUGHT FROM ABOVE

After successfully persuading Tony Romo to “suck it up and play”, shouldn’t Brett Favre pull Al Davis aside at the Oakland Coliseum on Sunday and tell the Raiders owner to “suck it up and pay” Lane Kiffin?

LET’S DO SOME DON JULIO SILVER SHOTS FOR …

My old friend Chris Mims, the former San Diego Chargers defensive end who was found dead in his Los Angeles apartment Wednesday at the age of 38. Mims didn’t necessarily make the most of his talent, and reliability was not always his strong suit. However, he was well liked by teammates and helped create the uncanny locker-room chemistry that the ’94 Chargers rode to their first Super Bowl. I enjoyed Chris’ broad smile and generous nature, and he was honest and revealing in interviews, such as the one I conducted with him for this Sports Illustrated story in 1997. I’ll remember him as a fun-loving dude who went out of his way to help me do my job, and my thoughts and prayers are with his loved ones and ex-teammates.

THIS WEEK’S PROOF THAT CAL IS THE CENTER OF THE UNIVERSE

When I started writing for the Daily Californian as a sophomore in 1984, my first beat was to cover a strange sport called field hockey, which featured athletic women in skirts and curved, wooden sticks. (One of the players, the exceptionally cool Gretchen Scheel, spent much of her sophomore season patiently explaining the rules to me, or I’d have really been in trouble.) The game has changed since then, and so have the Golden Bears, who now own a No. 15 national ranking and improved to 10-2 with a 3-2 victory at Old Dominion on Wednesday. Coach Shellie Onstead’s team, which faces Delaware on Friday and No. 3 Wake Forest on Sunday, features seniors Ashley Glosz and Andrea Lo – and, hopefully, is receiving impassioned coverage from an ambitious college journalist.

YAHOO! SEARCH WORDS OF THE WEEK

St. Louis youth football coach resigns

ROLLIN’ WITH THE ROYALS

Three Reading players helped their respective national teams to World Cup qualifying victories during the international break – Kevin Doyle for Ireland (1-0 over Cyprus), Brynjar Gunnarsson for Iceland (1-0 over Macedonia) and Andre Bikey for Cameroon (5-0 over Mauritius) – as the Royals prepared for Saturday’s match at Preston North End. Reading is third in the Football League Championship standings and first in all of English football in goals per game (2.60, ahead of Man City’s 2.57) and goal differential (plus-15). The Royals are also the only team in any division to have won all of their home matches, a streak they hope to continue Tuesday against Doncaster at Madejski Stadium.

TRIPPIN’ ON E(MAIL)

For those in search of real-time responses, be sure to come to Y! Sports for another installment of Live Trippin’ on Tuesday, Oct. 21, at 1 p.m. ET. If all goes well I’ll be joined by a special guest star, as teased in the previous LTs.

“Ok, just so you know, one of the reasons I am passionate about football is it can be a real good distraction when things are stinky … like there are no jobs out there, the economy is tanking, my love life is nonexistent! So I don’t need your reality check about my Patriots! Denial has been working for me since Sept. 7. I really like you better when you say what I want to hear. Sigh! … Thank goodness you don’t write about college football … who knows what reality I would have to endure about my Buckeyes! Geesh!”

Jill
Tampa, Fla.

Not to bum you out even more, but I’m pretty sure the guy whose injury you’re in denial about wishes nothing but misery on your Buckeyes.


“You’re just jealous that the Pats have won three Super Bowls in the last seven years! Nobody compares to Tom Brady. He’s the best quarterback in the NFL, so of course we might suck for the first game or two when he’s gone! Jealous, jealous, jealous!”

Janelle

It’s hard to be jealous when you go to the Super Bowl every year, as I have for the past XIV.


“You are so anti Colts! Rated behind a team they beat? Have you ever picked in favor of the Colts?”

Jon Rodeffer

No. For nearly a decade, since the start of the 1999 season, I have picked Indy to lose every single game. Alas, I am 51-112 during that span.


“dude seriously having the colts at 17 , behind the vikings. the colts just came off a big win against the statistical leader in many important defensive stats and they definetly looked a lot more like the colts im used to watching … why ranked sooo low just look at the teams infront and say that we wouldnt beat them if we played them next week.”

Tobey Earl
Indianapolis

You wouldn’t beat them if you played them next week. Especially if you played.


“Why do you keep rating the Jets so low honestly? They’re a good team that deserves to be ranked a lot higher. You always pick against them every week, even this week when Carson Palmer was out and the Bengals are awful.”

Joe
New Jersey

Yeah, well, I made that pick before I knew Palmer was out … and then I tried to change it … but the technology gods wouldn’t have it … aw, never mind. I obviously don’t have a very high opinion of the Jets – but I’m willing to reassess in the face of overwhelming evidence.


(Philip) Rivers is the focal point? Are you nuts? You have got to be the worst writer on Yahoo’s staff, and that’s saying quite a bit. Week 1 Rivers 125.1 QB rating = San Diego loss; Week 2 Rivers 120.4 QB rating = San Diego loss; Week 4 Rivers 58.8 QB rating = San Diego win. So their focal point has two near flawless games and his team loses, and then he has an abysmal performance but his team still wins? You sir, suck.”

Tyler

Thank you, sir, may I have another?


“Silver, nice call on Chrissie Hynde. She still rocks.”

Paul
Louisville, Ky.

Yes. And writes incredible songs. And sings them exceptionally. Other than that, she’s kind of a pretender.


“I just have a simple question: What will it take for me to bask in the honor of your presence over a couple of beers (or shots) and learn about football from someone who obviously knows his (expletive)?

Leonard
San Diego

A couple more emails like this one, for starters.


“I truly enjoyed your article on Gus Frerotte. Do you think the schedule between family and football will make this the last time we see him play? I have always thought Minnesota has been in dire need of a good leader like Frerotte, but am afraid that they will be years away from a good playoff run without a Favre, or, dare I show my age, a (Fran) Tarkenton or (Joe) Kapp? Disappointed since being a Vikings fan since 1971.”

Ted B.
Port Neches, Texas

If the season goes the way I think it will, I suspect Gus can be coaxed into another season. As for Kapp, he was the quarterback who led the team that has been disappointing me for a similarly long stretch to its last Rose Bowl appearance – 50 years ago. That’s a streak I would really like to break.


“What is wrong with you? Y are you always picking the cowboys to loose? The Cardinals? They suck!”

Junior
Fort Worth, Texas

I guess they sucked six points less than the Cowboys on this particular Sunday.


“ ‘You say you’re a soccer dad, but can’t even get the terminology right?! Goalies play hockey and rec league ball. At any competitive level, the person between the posts is a keeper.’ ” In my part of the world you got this exactly right. The person who stands between the posts is, to give them their full title, the goalkeeper. As all sports names are given the diminutive ‘ie’ form this is abbreviated to goalie, which I was many moons ago. Like your writing, keep up the good work.”

Andrew Johnston
Dundee, Scotland

He shoots, he scores!


Oh my Mirror in the bathroom … I’m lovin’ it! BTW great call on how Aaron Rodgers would do this year when the Favrenator retired. He may not be able to get the defense to play as well as last year but I think nobody could. Enjoy your articles and your songs. Keep up the good work.

Ray

Thanks. A certain left-handed ’90s rock icon will be here shortly &hellip:


“Dude! You ought to get William Shatner to offer up his ‘dramatic interpretation’ of your lyrics. I believe each complements each other perfectly.”

Frank
Alameda, Calif.

That is the scariest idea I’ve heard in a long time. It’s also not bad.

LYRIC-ALTERED SONG DEDICATION OF THE WEEK

The Seahawks have become so painfully loathsome that even the ghost of Kurt Cobain can’t take it anymore. Here’s the late, great Seattle grunge god’s updated take on Nirvana’s “Polly,” delivered supernaturally to ‘Hawks owner Paul Allen.

Paul A. wants a slacker?
A coach with one foot out the door
Who’s acting like a lame duck
Shadowed by Jim Mora

The misery
They’re sick birdies
Let me clip
Their dirty wings
Will they show some pride?
Don’t hurt yourself
Receivers yelp
“We need some health”
Your bed is made
Your coach got paid
He’s conning you
Your line is through
Was one hell of a ride
Don’t gag yourself
Don’t be so stealth
You’ll need some help

Paulie saw the Packers
With their sore-armed QB
He tore up Marcus Trufant
Still chasing after Greg Jennings

You’re 1-4
They’re such a bore
Makes me sigh
Just like Al Gore
If I were alive
I’d hurt myself
Even your wealth
Can’t really help
That Super Bowl?
As dead as Hole
Or RCK CNDY
Or Layne Staley
Madden took a pass
On Tampa Bay
What can I say?
He’s seen you play

Paulie A.

Matty says his back hurts
And he’s just as bored as me
Hutch was his favorite guard
It amazes him how much that you stink

Don’t look at me
I’m six feet deep
Sunk like the
Economy
Watching Charlie Frye
Conduct himself
Just like Ralph Malph
It makes me ralph
I’ve had enough
Can I shoot up?
What about you?
A microbrew?
Will Microsoft provide
Some kind of help?
You want relief?
It’s on my shelf