FLOWERY BRANCH. — In his first NFL season as an assistant nine years ago, Mike Smith wasn’t sure how professional players would respond to a career college coach.
Would they respect a guy who had never played or coached in the league? After the Baltimore Ravens won a Super Bowl in his second NFL season, Smith had the credibility he needed to advance his career as a defensive assistant and become a head coach.
His first big day on the job arrives on Sunday when he coaches the Atlanta Falcons’ season opener against the Detroit Lions, but the 49-year-old Smith is no longer concerned with feelings of legitimacy.
“There’s always a feeling-out process between players and coaches,” Smith said Thursday. “What players are looking for is a coach that help them play better. I think that’s the bottom line.”
Sounds simple to Falcons defensive tackle Grady Jackson, who last year left a dysfunctional coaching staff in Atlanta and signed with Jacksonville during Week 9.
The 345-pound Jackson became a free agent after former Falcons coach Bobby Petrino unexpectedly cut a 10-year veteran whose 13 tackles for lost yardage led the NFL in 2006.
Jackson benefited from Petrino’s decision, joining a team that finished 11-5 and advanced to the second round of the AFC playoffs.
He considers it a blessing that Ray “Sugar Bear” Hamilton coached the Jaguars’ defensive line.
Hamilton, working his fifth season in Jacksonville, had earned a reputation from 1973-81 as one of New England’s more productive and durable linemen, starting 110 straight games and ending his Patriots career with 54 sacks.
Before re-signing with the Falcons on July 29, Jackson told his agent he wasn’t interested in listening to other teams’ offers because he wanted to play for Smith and Hamilton.
“They taught me a lot about football, but more importantly they know how to treat grown men with the dignity they deserve,” Jackson said. “You’re going to work hard for guys like that because you know they’ve got your back.”
That wasn’t the case with Petrino, who quit last December and left Atlanta with a 3-10 record. His sudden departure for Arkansas caused many Falcons to describe him as “gutless, cowardly and pathetic.”
One of Petrino’s more reviled mannerisms was to walk through the locker room and other main thoroughfares of the team complex and never make eye contact with players.
Smith takes the opposite approach. He smiles, nods, winks or stops for a quick chat.
“That’s how it should be in any business with your co-workers,” receiver Brian Finneran said. “Be polite. Converse. We really didn’t have that last year. It was a tough, tough situation. This year, it’s so much better to be around.”
For fullback Ovie Mughelli, none of Petrino’s behavior reflected on his former position coach, Ollie Wilson, who now works with the San Diego Chargers.
Mughelli, in his sixth season, is playing under a second consecutive running backs coach without experience as a player, Gerald Brown.
Credentials mean very little, though, as long communication stays intact and the staff and players have respect for each other.
“You appreciate this cast of characters we have this year after going through what we went through last year,” Mughelli said. “They expect the best from us, and we give them better than they expect. That makes them have higher standards for us and the result is we work even harder. It’s great for the players and great for the coaches. We feed off each other.”