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Falcons smitten with Smitty
Players laud coach's balanced approach
1125Falcons sj
Atlanta Falcons coach Mike Smith reacts after a first half touchdown Sunday against the Carolina Panthers in Atlanta. In his first season as a head coach, Smith has led the surprising Falcons to a 7-4 record. - photo by Dave Martin

Falcons vs. Chargers

When: 4:05 p.m. Sunday

Where: San Diego

TV, radio: Fox (WAGA-5; 550-AM, 92.9 FM)

FLOWERY BRANCH — Mike Smith isn’t about to change his routine with the Atlanta Falcons.

In his first year as a head football coach on any level, Smith told his players in September that they could stay home and rest on the day after a victory.

Smith’s intention was clear: "Take the day off if you want to, but I bet most of your teammates will be here."

His plan was to create an atmosphere of "passion and accountability" for a team that managed just four wins in 2007.

Even though the Falcons (7-4) have won three of four following their 17-point victory over NFC South-leading Carolina, Smith was delighted that 44 players reported Monday for "optional" film study and weight training.

"It kind of gets to be a peer pressure thing," Smith said Monday. "But they get to watch the tape together without the coaches in there. Our staff has already (graded the film), and we give them written reports so they can come in and watch in groups of five or six."

For a 10th-year NFL veteran like center Todd McClure, Smith’s approach has been a big blessing, particularly after the Falcons suffered through the embarrassment last year of Michael Vick’s dogfighting sentence and Bobby Petrino’s abrupt resignation.

McClure told a story in Week 3 of how Smith, known affectionately as "Smitty," came into the treatment room during training camp to check on every injured player.

"I’d never had a head coach do that for me or really even heard of it on this level," McClure said. "He just comes across as a very likable guy, very open, and it’s easy to communicate with him. He truly cares about each player, and when you see that from your head coach, you gain a lot of respect for him."

Smith also won’t hesitate to bark orders on the practice field when a player makes repeated mental mistakes. He also takes calculated risks, like naming rookie Matt Ryan as the starting quarterback before the end of preseason and calling for the Falcons to pass up a field goal attempt so Michael Turner could score a 1-yard touchdown on fourth-and-goal Sunday.

"No doubt at all," Turner said when asked if he thought Smith would decide instead to send in kicker Jason Elam. "I knew we were going to stay on the field and let them make any defensive adjustment they wanted to. We were just taking pride and having an attitude in wanting to get it in the end zone."

Fourth-year receiver Roddy White knew Smith was the right man to replace Petrino when he saw his new coach arguing with the officiating crew at Tampa Bay on Sept. 14.

Though the Falcons lost to the Buccaneers, Smith impressed White, who appeared to lose a fourth-quarter fumble, by passionately insisting that Atlanta maintained possession on the play because the ball was still in the air when Tampa Bay’s Elbert Mack was called for roughing the passer.

"Coach Smith is the kind of guy who’s got your back," White said. "He earned our respect as soon as he arrived, but appreciation for him continues to grow each week."Notes: Defensive end John Abraham probably won’t practice until later this week after leaving early in the fourth quarter against Carolina with more pain in his neck and shoulder. But Smith believes Abraham, whose 12 sacks are tied with two others for second-most in the NFL, will be ready by gametime. ... Rookie left tackle Sam Baker, out since undergoing surgery for a herniated disc on Oct. 30, still needs a couple of more weeks of rehab before Atlanta can consider letting him play. "He’s ramping up in terms of what he’s been able to do not only in the training room and his rehabilitation in the weight room but also out in the field," Smith said. "I can’t really put a timeline on it."

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