Cerebral Smith knows how to win

ATLANTA – Mike Smith prefers the big picture and he may be the best coach still in the Super Bowl hunt at actually seeing it.

The Atlanta Falcons' coach usually stands well behind the line of scrimmage during games, a tendency he developed when he went from being a defensive coordinator sitting in the box above the field to being in charge on the sideline. At one point during last month's game against the New Orleans Saints, Smith was standing 48 yards away from the line of scrimmage. He was nearly by himself, no one else around except some random game officials and equipment people.

The Falcons are 33-15 under Smith.
(John Bazemore/AP Photo)

Top when it's tight

Atlanta's Mike Smith leads all of the eight remaining playoff coaches in winning percentage in games that have been decided by six points or fewer.





Mike Smith




Bill Belichick




Lovie Smith




Pete Carroll




Mike Tomlin




Rex Ryan




John Harbaugh




Mike McCarthy




In a stadium with more than 70,000 people yelling and screaming, Smith found the closest place possible to being alone, the one place to think through the situations that come up from down to down.

As Smith and the Falcons get set to host the Green Bay Packers in the NFC divisional playoffs on Saturday night at the Georgia Dome, Atlanta has one asset that stands almost by itself: Smith's ability to manage games. In his three seasons with the Falcons, Smith has compiled a 13-7 (including the playoffs) mark in games decided by six points or less. In other words: contests that literally can come down to one play. Among the eight coaches remaining in the playoffs, Smith ranks No. 1 and well ahead of Packers coach Mike McCarthy, who at 11-16 in such games ranks last of the eight. In fact, McCarthy and Green Bay are 0-2 against Smith's Falcons, both losses by three points.

More impressive, when Smith loses, it's not against just anybody. His six losses have all come against coaches who had won or went on to win Super Bowls. That includes three against Sean Payton of New Orleans and one each against Mike Tomlin of the Pittsburgh Steelers, Mike Shanahan (then with the Denver Broncos) and Tom Coughlin of the New York Giants.

"Mike has a great understanding of situations and the decisions you have to make," said Baltimore Ravens president Ozzie Newsome, who watched Smith as a defensive assistant for four years with the Ravens.

"You can see the concepts and the preparation that he and his whole staff work on," said New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick.

The Falcons' attention to detail shows up in some very meaningful statistics. Atlanta ranked in the top three in the NFL in time of possession (second at 32:47 minutes per game), third-down conversion percentage (third at 47 percent, including a league-leading 112 conversions overall), turnover ratio (third at plus-14), fewest penalty yards (second at 598) and fourth-down percentage (first at 73 percent). As a result of the third- and fourth-down success, the Falcons also led the league with 1,097 total plays run on offense. Those rankings are reflective of a disciplined, smart team.

"What they do is play really sound football, very few mistakes," Belichick said. "They don't beat themselves."

In fact, they win probably more than they should … according to the statistics.

Of the remaining playoff teams, the Falcons are tied with Seattle for the worst yards per play differential, allowing opponents (5.6 yards per play) to gain 0.6 yards more per play than they get (5.0 yards per play). That's a stunning number in a category that is usually a very strong indicator of how good a team's chances are of winning. Yet the Falcons went 13-3 during the regular season. Seattle, fittingly, went 7-9.

"Mike is a very detailed person with his preparation," said Atlanta general manager Thomas Dimitroff, whose pivotal early moves upon joining the Falcons three years ago were hiring Smith and drafting quarterback Matt Ryan(notes). "Not that all coaches aren't like that, but Mike is very scenario driven and I think his way of presenting it to the team in a very clear way really gets the players to buy in and understand. They know that he's going to be prepared for anything and his presence and way of being even keel in any situation … the players feed off that. He's not blinking at the end of games."

In coaching, that's critical. Make-or-break situations are often when coaches gain or lose the confidence of players and fans the fastest.

"If you're a guy who wavers at the moment of truth, people sense that. Players, fans, other coaches, they smell it when a guy isn't ready to lead," New York Jets defensive end/linebacker Jason Taylor(notes) said. "Trust me, players know right away."

And the understanding among NFL coaches is that players will only listen to a coach as long as the players believe that coach can help them win.

"No question," said Smith, smiling uncomfortably at the precarious nature of his job. "If they don't think you can do that, they tune you out fast and you can't get them back."

Smith's calm in the face of nail-biting games is stunning in some respects. On the sideline, Smith looks like the NFL's version of Rodin's sculpture of "The Thinker." His chin rests on his left hand, which is propped into place by his left elbow resting on his right arm.

Sitting in a chair, Smith rarely exhibits this pose. In fact, Smith can barely sit still. He's a fidgety mess of energy and exuberance. He gobbles up questions about football and strategy, seemingly chewing on them with every part of his body as his legs and arms move about. At this moment, imagining Smith as the face of calm against the storm seems an unlikely vision.

That's the wrong interpretation. Even this past week, as the Falcons enjoyed the bye and braced for a severe snowstorm, Smith was thinking ahead.

"They were talking about power outages and he knew we were probably going to have to use our barn," Dimitroff said, referring to the team's indoor practice facility in Flowery Branch, Ga. "He had our equipment man go out and get all these generators and lanterns."

Good thinking, but Smith's emphasis is usually more specific to football.

"Mike is constantly thinking through situations, the things that will happen in a game," said Fox analyst and former Baltimore coach Brian Billick, who is Smith's brother-in-law and who hired Smith for his first NFL coaching job in 1999.

One of Smith's pet phrases in conversation is, "Talkin' ball," as in the strategies that go with the game. He often compares the football field to a chess board and refers to different positions on the field as chess pieces. That's not uncommon, but it speaks to Smith's view of the game as something more than the physical acts of blocking and tackling.

"We all know you're not getting anywhere if you can't do the basics," said Falcons guard Harvey Dahl(notes). "You better do that stuff or you're not playing. But [Smith] is getting you to focus on that and on all the other little stuff."

Dahl and White combined for a perfect example of the "little stuff" in a dramatic 16-14 victory over San Francisco in Week 4 this season. With the 49ers up by a point late in the game, San Francisco cornerback Nate Clements(notes) intercepted a pass that should have sealed the victory. But Clements tried to return the interception for a score instead of just falling to the ground, getting 39 yards before White chased him down and stripped the ball. Dahl ran close behind to recover the fumble at the bottom of a pile of players.

The Falcons took advantage of the second chance and drove for a game-winning field goal by Matt Bryant(notes) with two seconds left.

"That's about all the players buying in to what you're talking about," Smith said. "They're the ones who chased that down and made a play. We talk about that all the time, keep moving to the ball until the whistle blows, follow it up field on a big run. You never know when you might be part of the play."

While that's true, it's easier to get players to buy in when a coach has credibility. Smith has developed that with his attention to the most minute details. That was evident in his first year as head coach. During a game against Chicago in 2008, the Falcons were down 20-19 with 11 seconds remaining after a touchdown by the Bears.

Ryan has helped successfully execute Smith's plans.
(Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images)

After a short kickoff return, the Falcons had six seconds left. Ryan, a rookie that year, hit wide receiver Michael Jenkins(notes) for a 26-yard reception. Jenkins got out of bounds with one second left to allow kicker Jason Elam(notes) to hit a game-winning 48-yard field goal.

While improbable, the situation was, in fact, thought out. Smith has different pass patterns timed during practice to see just how far the team can get in a given situation.

"Everything has to go right to do it that way, but you want to be able to pull a play out in a certain situation, know that you can get this far in this amount of time," Smith said.

"That was one where you step back and say, 'OK, he really understands the situational aspects of the game," said Falcons president Rich McKay, who is the son of former Tampa Bay and USC coach John McKay.

Of course, having Ryan is another key. Besides throwing 28 TD passes compared to just nine interceptions, Ryan thinks the same way in terms of strategy.

"To me, it's Mike [Smith], [offensive coordinator] Mike [Mularkey] and Matt," Tampa Bay general manager Mark Dominik said. "You have three people there who are very strong in terms of how the game flows and what are the right decisions at a given time. You'll see them take a chance at the right moment or play conservative at a certain time. No matter what it is, you can see that they have thought it out long before that moment."