JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — No one expects the Atlanta Falcons to finish near first place in the NFC South, but players give new coach Mike Smith credit when they say they already feel they’re on top.
“We’ve been to the valley and now it’s the mountaintop,” said fullback Ovie Mughelli.
For Mughelli, the valley was the short-lived Bobby Petrino era. Petrino left bitter players behind in Atlanta when he quit with a 3-10 mark and three games left in the 2007 season.
Smith was hired after the season from Jacksonville, where he worked the last five years as the Jaguars’ defensive coordinator. Smith will have an NFL homecoming tonight when his Falcons visit the Jaguars in the preseason opener for both teams.
Smith faces difficult challenges in his first year as a head coach. He has joined new general manager Thomas Dimitroff to lead the rebuilding of the Falcons, who released such big-name veterans as Warrick Dunn, DeAngelo Hall, Rod Coleman and Alge Crumpler and may have a rookie starting quarterback in Matt Ryan.
Smith said Thursday veteran Chris Redman, who finished the 2007 season as the starter, will open the game. Smith’s goal is for the other quarterbacks, including Ryan, to receive equal playing time.
Petrino was sharply criticized from all corners of the lockerroom after he quit with three games left in the season and took a job at Arkansas without addressing players. Petrino came to Atlanta from Louisville, and players said they were treated like college players.
Smith, who has worked the last nine years in the NFL, has been a hit with players.
“We had the worst and now we appreciate the best,” Mughelli said. “We appreciate it. Some guys around the league don’t appreciate good coaches, but when you’ve been through tough times you definitely appreciate it when a good coach comes in.”
Smith is Atlanta’s sixth coach since December 2003, including the third full-time coach in three years.
Before Petrino quit, Dan Reeves and Jim Mora were fired. Wade Phillips and Thomas worked three games each as interim replacements.
Defensive end Chauncey Davis said the mood is upbeat under Smith.
“I feel it. It’s like you want to come to work now,” Davis said. “Last year no one really wanted to come after the season got started. We were losing and the whole situation with Petrino made it so that we weren’t really feeling it. Now, it’s totally different. Everyone wants to come to work. We’re excited.”
Smith has more than NFL roots in Florida. He grew up in Daytona Beach, Fla., and he said his family will attend his preseason debut.
“I’m excited about it,” Smith said.
“Of course, I’m going to get to see some friends and family. It’s going to be a good time. It’s going to be fun to compete against those guys.”
Atlanta’s preseason schedule ends with an Aug. 28 visit to Baltimore, where Smith was an assistant from 1999-2002.
“I kind of felt it was ironic to go back to Jacksonville for this first game and then not only play the Jaguars but to have the opportunity to play Baltimore, where I spent time,” he said. “There will be some familiarity for me.”
There also will be some familiarity for the Jaguars.
Jacksonville defensive end Paul Spicer said he was not surprised to see Smith hired as a head coach.
“I think he’s going to be a great coach,” Spicer said. “I’ve watched Smitty the past five years really just turning into someone who had a great approach to the game.
“He’s a very cerebral type of guy when it comes to football. He understands what it is about being a coach, and being a leader, and every year he just got better and better and better.”
Spicer said even before the interview with Atlanta he asked Smith “’When are you going to get hired? All of these guys getting hired, when are you going to get hired?’ Because I could see it in him, a guy that could take the reins and be a leader, and take a football team to where they need to go.”
Jacksonville linebacker Clint Ingram said Smith could be tough but was “a good guy.”
“You could talk to him and he always had a smile on his face, except when he was chewing me out for something, which I didn’t mind him doing,” Ingram said.