Have you had the epiphany yet?
Not an epiphany in a religious sense, though we do take our football seriously. I’m thinking of an epiphany in the sense of a sudden flash of recognition.
As in, “Hey, this Mike Smith’s going to be a good coach.” As in, “Hey, this Matt Ryan’s going to be a good quarterback.”
Before we go any further, a caveat: I acknowledge that we’re discussing the Atlanta Falcons. We must be ultra-conservative in our upside projections concerning anyone connected with this plagued franchise.
After all, ecstasy would reign supreme if this team could merely string together back-to-back winning seasons. Even that modicum of success has been beyond reach.
Recall that Jim Mora stepped in as coach in 2004 and promptly led Atlanta to an 11-5 record and a spot in the NFC Championship game.
Then recall that Mora never registered another winning record.
Mora was handed the keys to a Cadillac, not an old crate sitting in a junk yard. In 2002, Dan Reeves coached the Falcons to a 9-6-1 record — and a playoff victory over the Packers in Lambeau Field, an historic first.
In 2003, the Falcons stumbled 5-11 as their quarterback fractured his fibula and missed the first dozen games. Despite the circumstances, owner Arthur Blank replaced the older, reserved Reeves with the younger, outgoing, players-best-friend, Mora.
It worked briefly.
Mike Smith, by contrast, inherited a disaster. We’ll not rehash the ill-fated exploits of the Falcons’ former quarterback and Arkansas’ current coach. Suffice it to say that when Smith was hired on Jan. 23, expectations could not have been lower. Most pundits felt Smith would be doing a great job to win three games.
Mission accomplished. With 11 games to go.
Sunday’s 27-24 win in Green Bay showed how far Smith has already brought his minions. Road kill in their first two games away from home, the Falcons took Sunday’s opening kickoff and promptly drove 81 yards in 10 plays for a touchdown.
It was the final play that caused a stir. Smith went for the touchdown on fourth and goal from the Packer one-foot line.
The defense then stopped the Packers in three plays. The Falcons then drove 37 yards for a field goal, the drive stalling only because Jerious Norwood dropped a pass.
Now fast-forward to the fourth quarter. With 10 minutes to go, the Packers had finally drawn even. They did it in devastating fashion, the touchdown drive going 80 yards in only four plays.
Right here is where the last three editions of the Falcons would have packed it in. Not Smith’s group. They sprung Norwood on a nice kickoff return to midfield, and Ryan maneuvered the team into position for Jason Elam’s go-ahead field goal.
And after Michael Boley’s interception, Ryan led the Falcons into the end zone for the clinching touchdown.
How did Smith take this team on the road and have them so ready to play in the most hostile and storied environment in the NFL? Perhaps the players are responding to a no-nonsense coach who communicates and seems to know what he’s doing.
This team plays tough, no-nonsense football, clearly taking their cue from their coach. Green Bay knew the Falcons were going to run the football, and the Falcons did so anyway, to the tune of 176 yards.
That rushing total is all the more impressive when you add a rookie quarterback to the mix. Ryan has played well enough to make the defense honest. He’s already able to audible into better plays, as he did on a 22-yard touchdown pass to Roddy White in the second quarter.
“They were playing man coverage, and it was just a go route,” White told atlantafalcons.com. “Matt told me that if I had one-on-one out there that he would throw me the ball, and that’s exactly what he did.
“It's good chemistry, and we work hard at practice. If you work hard at practice it will come through in the game. He’s giving me chances to catch balls, and that is all you can ask for.”
Like on the game’s opening play, when Ryan hit White for 37 yards. Like on the drive’s final play, when the fourth down call asked Ryan to roll out and pass for the score. Clearly, he’s already earned the confidence of his coach.
“I thought he performed extremely well all the way through, and was able to make plays when they were presented,” Smith told atlantafalcons.com.
Ryan even impressed Packers coach Mike McCarthy. “I thought he had a good game,” McCarthy told atlantafalcons.com. “He managed the game well.”
Just imagine what Smith and Ryan might do once they get a little more experience.
Dare we dream of back-to-back winning seasons?