One of the topics in Mike Smith’s speech for East Tennessee State graduates Saturday was adapting to change, and the Atlanta Falcons coach is doing a great deal of it after getting within 10 yards of the Super Bowl.
Smith, a record-setting ETSU linebacker who was inducted into the school’s Hall of Fame last week, has steered the Falcons toward the top of the NFL after taking over an organization tarnished in 2007 by the predictably quick exit of coach Bobby Petrino and the shocking downfall of quarterback Michael Vick.
But keeping pace won’t be easy. Atlanta released running back Michael Turner, defensive end John Abraham and cornerback Dunta Robinson for salary cap reasons, and ended up losing three of the top five cornerbacks.
So Atlanta traded up eight spots to take Washington cornerback Desmond Trufant with the No. 22 pick, and then chose another corner, Southeast Louisiana’s Robert Alford, with its next selection at No. 60.
Smith appears confident the Falcons can keep clicking, a belief perhaps best backed up by future Hall of Fame tight end Tony Gonzalez’s decision to delay retirement at least another year to continue pursuing that elusive Super Bowl ring.
“We obviously took another step in our progression to where we want to be this season, making it to the NFC championship game,” Smith said Saturday afternoon. “Tony was an integral part of the success that we had this year, and before the season started he had told me he was 95 percent sure he was gonna retire. I kept telling everybody, ‘I’m betting on the five percent,’ and it ended up turning out that way. I think at the end of the season Tony took some time and visited his family and decided he wanted to come back and play for another year. I think, in his mind, we are closer as a football team (to reaching the top), especially with him on the team.”
Former St. Louis Rams running back Steven Jackson also said the Falcons’ ability to make a Super Bowl run factored in his decision to sign with them. In a separate move, the Falcons traded the Rams three of their picks for the right to move up and hope Trufant would still be available.
“We’re a need-based draft philosophy. ... We’re gonna stack our board based on the needs,” Smith said. “And with what happened earlier in the offseason with losing two free agents and having to release a player because of salary cap demands or issues, we knew we had to address the corner issue. And we moved up about eight spots to get Desmond Trufant, who we think is an outstanding player that has the skill set to come in and play right away, as does the young man (Alford) from Southeast Louisiana, which was a I-AA (FCS) team, you know, basically at the level East Tennessee played at when I was here.”
The regret of the big one that got away is still visible when mentioning the NFC championship or the San Francisco 49ers. Atlanta built a 17-point lead and rallied to move the ball late to the San Francisco 10-yard line, but lost 28-24.
“Well, unfortunately, there in the fourth quarter of that ballgame ... we didn’t make enough plays, and it usually comes down to a handful of plays in the NFL,” Smith said. “A lot of sleepless nights, and you know, my mindset is probably a lot different than a lot of other people’s. I know a lot of people say, ‘Coach, you were 10 yards from the Super Bowl.’ I tell them, ‘We’re not 10 yards from the Super Bowl, we’re 250 days from the Super Bowl and we’ve got to recalibrate our roster, we’ve got to rebuild our team ... before we would earn the right to play in the Super Bowl.’”
Smith was on Brian Billick’s staff when Baltimore won the Super Bowl during the 2000 season, but Smith didn’t find any solace in Baltimore beating the 49ers in this year’s Super Bowl. In fact, he didn’t watch, as he was still sickened by the Falcons’ final loss.
Smith became a defensive coordinator in Jacksonville, where he helped the Jaguars to two playoff berths in three years before leaving for Atlanta. While in Jacksonville, Smith and the Jaguars drafted former ETSU defensive back Gerald Sensabaugh, who Smith mentioned having retired from the Dallas Cowboys this week.
“I had a lot of conversations with the guys here (at ETSU about Gerald),” said Smith, who is aware that Sensabaugh’s cousin, Coty, plays for the Tennessee Titans. “What a family of athletes.”
Smith said he played golf in a tournament with another Cowboy, tight end Jason Witten, last year in Reno.
“Both he and I — it was our first time out there, so we were talking about the experience,” Smith said. “And the year before that I coached him at the Pro Bowl. So I had Tony Gonzalez and Jason Witten on the NFC Pro Bowl team. I met his (Witten’s) wife and his young children. You know, Jason being from over in Elizabethton, we had conversations about East Tennessee and this region.”
Smith’s had many conversations about Johnson City with former Falcons. The team trained in Johnson City for four years (1967-70).
“Tommy Nobis is still involved with the Atlanta Falcons,” Smith said. “Of course, we talked when I got the job, when he saw that I was from East Tennessee State, he talked about his time up here. And there are a number of people, believe it or not, that still work with the Falcons that were in the organization in a support role that are still working for the Atlanta Falcons. ... Really, I think it was the first ... training camps that the Falcons ever had were here on the campus of East Tennessee State.”
Smith was a freshman at ETSU when it played its first game in the Minidome against North Alabama in 1977. The school hasn’t played football since the 2003 season, and Smith smiled thinking about its slated return for the 2015 season thanks to president Dr. Brian Noland.
“There’s nothing like a Saturday weekend home game on campus, and Dr. Noland and his staff have done a great job in fast-tracking making the decision that football was gonna come back here,” Smith said. “And I think it will create a lot of enthusiasm. This university is an outstanding university, not only academically, but in the athletics as well. And one of the missing pieces for former football players over the last 10-12 years has been football. And I know when it was announced that football was coming back that there was a groundswell of support from the former players. I heard from many of them, and I know that we’re excited about the process that the administration is going through right now in terms of restarting the program. It ought to be not only exciting for the administration, but for everybody here in the Tri-Cities area.”
Certainly, ETSU’s new administration, on a multitude of fronts, is eager to adapt to change.