Head Coach, Atlanta Falcons
Coaching in today’s NFL requires a keen understanding of your players as well as the ability to manage the delicate ecosystem of an NFL locker room filled with veteran stars, promising rookies, hardscrabble journeymen, and off the street free agents.
Atlanta Falcons head coach Mike Smith has taken all of those different and diverse personalities and backgrounds and smoothly melded them into an aggressive, attacking-style unit that can quick-strike opponents with the long ball on offense and one that can keep enemy offenses off the scoreboard with a rugged defense.
For those who know Smith, it’s not all that surprising that his Falcons have posted a winning record in each of the past five seasons.
But one key question arises:
How has a first-time head coach in the deliriously popular National Football League managed to carve out those five consecutive winning seasons en route to posting the best record in the National Football Conference since 2008?
“I’m a firm believer that you win in the locker room first,” said Smith, the Daytona Beach, Florida native who is the oldest of eight children. “If you can win in the locker room first, your chances of winning on the field greatly increase.”
Smith is certainly all about the team.
He protects his players with fierceness, but all of his guys know that the Falcons are going to do things the right way every time all the time.
“Smitty is our leader,” said Falcons Pro Bowl QB Matt Ryan. “He sets the tone as to how we are going to do things. He’s got an open door policy where he will take in all of the information, but at the end of the day, he’s going to make the call. We respect that. We all understand that.”
Since becoming Atlanta’s head coach in 2008, Smith has established his team as one of the NFL’s most consistent performing franchises that seemingly always finds itself in the National, playoff discussion reserved only for the League’s elite teams.
During Smith’s impressive five-year run, the Falcons have compiled a 56-24 regular season record, which is the second-best mark in the NFL during that time, and has captured two NFC South Division titles.
Smith’s accomplishments in his first five seasons as Atlanta’s head coach are unprecedented in team history and are among the best in the NFL when measured against his coaching counterparts.
He became the first coach in franchise history to produce back-to-back winning seasons (2008-09), and in 2012, Smith became the first coach in team history to lead his team to three consecutive playoff appearances (2010-12).
The affable Smith — known as “Smitty” to his players and coaching staff — led the Falcons to an NFC-best 13-3 mark in 2012, securing the team’s third straight playoff berth. The Falcons also hosted the NFC Championship Game in the Georgia Dome for the first time in the franchise’s 47-year history.
Additionally, the Falcons became the first NFC team to earn the conference’s top seed twice in three seasons (2010 & 2012) since the Philadelphia Eagles posted the NFC’s best record in three straight seasons from 2002-04. For his efforts, Smith was named the Sporting News Coach of the Year for the third time in five seasons (2008, 2010 & 2012). Smith’s 56 wins are the most in the NFC and are the most by any Falcons head coach in team history during his first five seasons. In addition, Smith’s 56 wins in his first five seasons as a head coach are the second-most among any first-time head coach in NFL history.
Atlanta’s .700 winning percentage is the highest in team history over a five-year period and is also the second-best percentage in the League.
Smith’s steady hand at the helm includes a strong emphasis on establishing a true home field advantage and that philosophy has produced an astounding 33-7 home record and .825 winning percentage during his tenure, the second-best mark in the NFL over the last five seasons.
One of Smith’s basic coaching philosophies centers on his team displaying sustainability. He wants his Falcons to be able to maintain a certain level of performance, not just each season, but from game to game, quarter to quarter, and play to play.
Smith’s overall coaching philosophy is one based on starting fast in all three phases of the game. Perhaps that explains why his Falcons have amassed a 42-10 record in games where they score first. Coupled with core principles built around playing fundamentally sound football, Smith’s disciplined teams have displayed a knack for holding onto leads and closing out the opposition.
Smith’s troops have posted a 44-2 record in games where the Falcons lead at halftime (since 2008). Atlanta also owns a 42-1 mark in contests where the Birds hold the lead at the beginning of the fourth quarter since 2008.
Smith, one of the top defensive minded coaches in all of pro football, teaches a rugged and physical approach to defense, which has produced the third- stingiest group in the NFC in points allowed since 2008 at 20.1.
Also, the Falcons defense has been tough when closing out halves and games in the last three seasons by allowing just 17 points in 53 possessions in the final two minutes of either half.
During the 2012 season, Smith became the first coach in franchise history to reach 50 wins and the third fastest head coach since the AFL-NFL merger to reach 50 wins, accomplishing the feat in 71 games.
Additionally, the Falcons were among the best in the NFL last season in scoring offense and scoring defense – finishing seventh and sixth in the NFL in both categories, respectively. Atlanta averaged 26.1 points per game on offense; the Falcons defense surrendered 18.7 points per game in 2012.
From a team perspective, the Falcons lit up the NFL during the 2012 season. QB Matt Ryan earned his second trip to the Pro Bowl after setting franchise records for passing yards (4,719), attempts (615), completions (422), consecutive passes without an INT (272), completion percentage (NFL-best 68.6), touchdown passes (32), and 300-yard passing games (7).
TE Tony Gonzalez earned his 13th career Pro Bowl selection after becoming the first tight end and eighth player in NFL history to record 100 career touchdown receptions.
WR Roddy White recorded his franchise record sixth consecutive 1,000-yard season in 2012 while teammate Juilo Jones – who earned his first trip to the NFC Pro Bowl game – set a franchise record with 182 receiving yards in the NFC Championship Game.
In 2011, the Falcons defense ranked second in the NFL in red zone efficiency (78.7 pct.) and finished sixth in the NFL in rushing defense (97.0 ypg).
The Falcons’ special teams units have also excelled through Smith’s emphasis and direction by finishing in the top 10 in NFL rankings in each of the past five seasons.
Under the guidance of Smith, the Falcons posted a 10-6 record and earned their second consecutive playoff berth in 2011. The playoff berth marked the third time in four seasons Atlanta has reached the playoffs under Smith.
The Birds wrapped up the 2011 campaign in record-setting fashion, as QB Matt Ryan, RB Michael Turner and WR Roddy White all established new franchise bests. Ryan broke the franchise record for passing yards in a single-season after eclipsing QB Jeff George’s mark of 4,143 yards set in 1995.
Ryan finished the 2011 season with 4,177 yards, 29 touchdowns and a 92.9 quarterback rating, all career highs at the time. Turner broke RB Gerald Riggs’ franchise record of 48 rushing touchdowns, with two scores against Tampa Bay in Week 17, giving him 50 as a Falcon.
“The Burner” also led the NFC in rushing yards with 1,340 yards and added 11 touchdowns on the season.
White also got in on the action when he became the Falcons all-time leading receiver with 7,374 career receiving yards, breaking Terance Mathis’ old mark of 7,349 yards. The ninth-year receiver out of UAB also finished the season with 100 receptions and became the first player in team history to record multiple 100-catch seasons.
Atlanta also produced two Pro Bowlers in 2011 as White and TE Tony Gonzalez were each named to the NFC Pro Bowl team. The selection was the 12th for Gonzalez.
In 2010, Smith guided the Falcons to the second-most wins in a season in team history, the top record in the NFC with a 13-3 mark and an NFC South Division crown. The 13 victories also secured the number one seed in the Conference for only the second time in franchise history and the Division title was just the fourth ever for the team in 45 years in the League (and first since 2004).
His club’s eight-game winning streak during the 2010 campaign was the second longest ever in team annals. The Falcons also were the only team in the League to rank in the top 5 in both scoring offense (25.9 points) and scoring defense (18.0 points allowed) and boasted an NFL-high as well as a franchise-best nine players who were named to the Pro Bowl.
For all the milestones achieved in 2010, Smith earned the prestigious Sporting News NFL Coach of the Year and the KC 101 Club’s NFC Coach of the Year award for a remarkable second time in three seasons.
In 2009, Smith’s club captured their final three games of the season, including two victories on the road to secure a winning record and the first back-to- back winning seasons in team history.
His club’s hard-fought three-game winning streak at the end of the 2009 campaign to secure a winning season was especially impressive considering the Falcons faced the fourth-toughest schedule in the NFL and five of the team’s seven losses came against playoff teams. Smith’s Falcons also lost nine key starters for at least one game because of injury (and a total of 45 games of missed action overall) but still continued to display the kind of resolve that is characteristic of Smith-coached teams since he took over in Atlanta.
Under Smith’s determined leadership in 2008, the Falcons enjoyed one of the biggest turnarounds that the NFL has ever witnessed. The seven-win swing going from 4-12 to 11-5 is tied for the fourth-best mark (at +7 wins) in the League for a rookie head coach since 1978.
Smith’s 11 victories are tied for the top mark with five other head coaches for the best record for a rookie head coach taking over a team that finished below .500 the previous season. And only three rookie head coaches in NFL history had more wins in their first campaign on the sidelines than Smith.
Smith’s firm guidance in 2008 allowed the Falcons to make several improvements from the previous season, which included points per game average, rushing yards per game average, passing touchdowns to interception ratio and fewest sacks allowed. He had his team ready to play in every game in 2008 as the Falcons were tops in the League in first quarter points scored and registered a streak of holding opponents in 12 of 15 games to under 20 yards rushing in the opening quarter of games.
The shrewd drafting of quarterback Matt Ryan and astute free agent signing of running back Michael Turner were two aggressive moves that paid immediate dividends and laid a solid foundation.
For his coaching efforts in 2008, Smith earned Associated Press and Sporting News 2008 NFL Coach of the Year honors, as well as NFC Coach of the Year by the respected KC 101 Club.
Smith boasts a strong coaching background that includes 13 NFL seasons and 33 total years in football. His defensive track record has witnessed a remarkable amount of success as he helped guide the Baltimore Ravens to a Super Bowl XXXV Championship in 2000 as a defensive assistant coach and led the Jacksonville Jaguars defense to top 10 rankings in several categories (overall defense, points allowed and rushing defense) during his time as the club’s defensive coordinator (2003-2007).
With Smith’s help, the Jaguars had the sixth-most wins in the NFL (from 2004-07) with 40 victories. From 2003–2007, Smith led Jacksonville’s defensive unit, which ranked fourth in overall defense (296.6), third in offensive points allowed (16.1) and fifth in rushing defense (99.3) from 2003–2006.
In his last season in Jacksonville in 2007, the Jaguars rushing defense continued that trend as the unit ranked sixth in the AFC, holding opponents to 100.3 yards per game. The Jaguars defense under Smith’s direction also finished 12th in the NFL in total defense in‘07.
In 2006, Jacksonville ranked second in the League in total defense (283.6), which was the highest mark for the franchise in its history. The Jaguars defense also contributed to a team-record 20 interceptions and allowed an NFL-low 11 points per game on their home turf.
During Smith’s five seasons in Jacksonville, three defensive players garnered six Pro Bowl selections, which included defensive tackle Marcus Stroud (2003–2005), defensive tackle John Henderson (2004, 2006) and cornerback Rashean Mathis (2006). Smith also coached the likes of defensive end Bobby McCray, who became just the fourth Jaguar to record at least 10 sacks in 2005. Smith contributed to three winning seasons in Jacksonville (2004–2005, 2007) as the team reached the playoffs for the sixth occasion in franchise history in 2007 and defeated the Pittsburgh Steelers in an AFC Divisional Playoff game on the road at Heinz Field.
Prior to joining the Jaguars, Smith spent four seasons with the Baltimore Ravens and was the Defensive Assistant/Defensive Line Coach from 1999–2001, which included the team’s 2000 Super Bowl winning season. The Ravens defense set an NFL 16-game record by allowing only 165 points en route to the team’s first NFL championship.
In 2002, Smith served as Baltimore’s Linebackers Coach. That season, the Ravens featured All-Pro linebacker Ray Lewis and Pro Bowl linebacker Peter Boulware, who recorded 57 tackles, seven sacks for a loss of 51 yards, one interception and four passes defensed in his finest NFL season under Smith’s tutelage. Before joining the NFL ranks, Smith spent 12 seasons at Tennessee Tech from 1987–1998. He was the Golden Eagles’ Defensive Coordinator for the last three seasons as the team finished in the top 10 in the nation in total defense (1997 and 1998). He joined the Tennessee Tech staff as the Defensive Line Coach and then served as the Special Team Coordinator from 1988 to 1995. Prior to his last season with the Golden Eagles, Smith was promoted to Assistant Head Coach on top of his Defensive Coordinator duties.
Smith played college football at East Tennessee (1977–1981) and was named defensive MVP twice at his position. He led the team with a school record 186 tackles as a senior. Smith was born on June 13, 1959.
Smith, his wife Julie, and their daughter, Logan, live in Suwanee, Georgia.
Smith’s Coaching Background
- 2008-13 – Head Coach // Falcons
- 2003-07 – Defensive Coordinator // Jaguars
- 2002 – Linebackers Coach // Ravens
- 1999-01 – Def. Asst./Def. Line Coach // Ravens
- 1996-98 – Defensive Coord. // Tennessee Tech
- 1988-95 – Special Teams Coord. // Tennessee Tech
- 1987 – Defensive Line Coach // Tennessee Tech
- 1986 – Defensive Line Coach // Morehead St.
- 1983-85 – Linebackers Coach // San Diego State
- 1982 – Assistant Coach // San Diego State