By Matthew Asher
With their last-minute 23-20 victory over the Oakland Raiders, Atlanta was able to stay as the NFL’s lone undefeated team for at least one more week. While Atlanta’s previous best start was 4-0, this sixth win of the season marked a milestone for Falcons head coach Mike Smith as he won his 49th game as a Falcons coach, tied for the most in franchise history with Dan Reeves.
“Our goal all week was to get through this game and get to our bye week 6-0, that was the mission,” Smith said. “Obviously, we didn’t want to make it as hard as we did. We made a lot of mistakes in the ball game, Offense, defense, special teams and coaching, but we were able to overcome all of that.”
It’s safe to say that since Smith joined the Falcons organization in 2008 he’s been the most consistent coach Atlanta has ever had. Currently with a record of 49-21, Smith’s .700 winning percentage shows he knows how to work with talent. Until Smith’s arrival, Atlanta had never had consecutive winning seasons, and in all four years he’s been the head coach Atlanta has never had a losing record. Even more impressive is Atlanta’s three playoff appearances in these four years since Smith took over.
Smith’s winning formula in Atlanta has not gone unrecognized outside of the Peach State. The Sporting News selected Smith as the Coach of the Year not just once, but twice (2008 and 2010) in his first four years. One big reason is his record at home. Currently at 28-6, Smith’s home victories in his first three years are the second most in the NFL for coaches in their first three years.
Atlanta may have dominated their first three opponents to start the season, but they’ve had to dig extra deep these past three games to stay undefeated. It’s typically hard to point to just one or two players who have helped a team continue their winning ways, but for Atlanta, two players have done just that.
Kicker Matt Bryant’s last-second field goal against Oakland was his second game-winning kick in three weeks. Just before attempting his kick last week, Oakland attempted to freeze Bryant. Rather than complaining, Bryant used that timeout to properly gauge his kick and was able to ensure Atlanta won the game.
“I said it many times: He’s got ice water in his veins,” Smith said. “We have an agreement that if they are going to ice you, we are going to kick the ball to get a practice. He did it even though the kick was blown dead really early. Got a shot at it, he made a great adjustment and he just knows how to kick those game winners. He is an key part of our football team and the success that we have had so far.”
Of course none of that would have been possible if Atlanta wasn’t moving the chains down the field. This means quarterback Matt Ryan has been able to consistently hit his receivers. For Ryan, this means taking what the defense gives him rather than always going for the home run play. “We wanted to get a chunk and they were not allowing us to do it so the coverage told us to check it down in which we did a nice job of checking down,” Ryan said about the Oakland victory. “I thought that we did a nice job. The guys that caught the balls on the sideline, they made sure that they didn’t put it in the officials hands were he was not going sideways because if they were not gaining ground the clock would have continued to run.”
Smith may just be tied with Dan Reeves at least for another week, but his road to 41 victories has been much more efficient. While it’s taken Smith fewer than five full seasons for this number of wins, it took Reeves seven seasons, with a much worse record of 41-59-1 for a less-than-stellar .401 winning percentage.
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Matthew Asher is a freelance writer covering all things Atlanta sports related. His work can be found on Examiner.com.