FLOWERY BRANCH — Mike Smith has a dangerous throwing arm.
Just ask Thomas DeCoud.
After a touchdown catch by Washington's Todd Yoder in the corner of the end zone on Sunday, Smith decided to challenge the play.
As he ran toward the field, the Falcons coach couldn't find the red challenge flag in his back pocket. Smith kept running, gaining speed and momentum as he kept digging before finally he fired the flag about 15 yards — right at DeCoud's head.
The Falcons safety had to quickly lean back to avoid Smith's toss.
"I thought he didn't have his feet inbounds either, so I was telling him to throw it," DeCoud said. "It just so happened he hummed it at me. I had to pull a little 'Matrix' move to get out of the way."
Smith laughed on Monday when asked if he had been practicing his throws.
"I was worried," he said. "I was digging deep in my pocket and couldn't get the darn thing out. That was a decision to challenge a touchdown so I wanted to make sure it got out there in time before the extra point was attempted."
Smith lost the challenge, but the zeal Smith showed when challenging the play was only part of his emotional day during the Falcons' 31-17 win over the Redskins that left Atlanta (5-3) in playoff contention at the midpoint of the season.
Redskins cornerback DeAngelo Hall wasn't so happy with Smith's sideline demeanor.
The NFL is looking into a sideline incident involving Hall and members of the Falcons after LaRon Landry's late hit on Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan in the second quarter.
Hall followed Landry to the Atlanta sideline and was quickly engulfed by Falcons players and coaches, including Smith. Hall claimed Smith "cussed me out" and tried to put his hands on him "in a harmful way."
From the Falcons' viewpoint, Smith was only sticking up for his players.
"That's the type of coach you want," said Falcons defensive tackle Jonathan Babineaux. "You want a coach who's going to stand in there for us and have our back just like we have his back."
DeCoud said players feed off the coach's animated displays of emotion.
"It's great to have a coach who gets fired up on the sideline and gets mad about things and wears his heart on his sleeve pretty much when he's coaching a football game," DeCoud said. "You like to play with that kind of passion and that kind of fire, and it's great to have a coach who emulates the same kind of sentiments and you can feed off his energy as well as his teammates."
Babineaux said Smith coaches as if he wishes he could be in uniform.
"We know he's got that fire in him and I'm pretty sure he wishes he could be out there with us playing, but he's out there giving his all throughout the week and throughout the game and keeping us fired up and motivated," Babineaux said. "He's a hell of a coach."
The former Jacksonville Jaguars defensive coordinator quickly won over the Falcons locker room as the full-time replacement for Bobby Petrino, who quit before the end of the 2007 season.
The Falcons, who were 4-12 in 2007, advanced to the playoffs with their 11-5 turnaround last year as Smith was chosen The Associated Press NFL Coach of the Year.
Smith is in position to lead the Falcons to their first back-to-back winning records in franchise history.
Longtime Falcons center Todd McClure said the fire that had Smith in the middle of Sunday's sideline fracas has played an important role in the team's turnaround.
"He's always like that," McClure said. "I love playing for him. I think everybody in this locker room does. He's always got your back. He is always looking out for his guys. Like (last) week in practice, we were banged up a little bit, we took the pads off and he took care of us. I think guys responded, came out here and played a good game."
Smith said his fiery, animated style of coaching hasn't changed since he was an assistant with Baltimore from 1999-2002 and in his five years in Jacksonville.
"I think I'm different than I was in my first game last year," Smith said. "I can assure you I was very, very nervous in my first game.
"But in terms of how I coach, I've been coaching for a long time and I've always coached this way, with a lot of enthusiasm, and I want our players to have that same enthusiasm and that same drive."