Does Mike Smith belong on the hot seat?

Kevin Hoffman-USA TODAY Sports

The Falcons experienced a frustrating fall last season and ended up as the league's biggest disappointment with only four wins. Does Mike Smith deserve the hot seat talk that comes with it?

Six years ago, the Atlanta Falcons took a chance on Mike Smith. Even after averaging 10 wins per season, some are still wondering if it was the right decision.

USA Today recently released its list of head coaches on the hot seat, and Smith was listed among the ones with least job security in the NFL.

The Falcons were dealt with a devastating series of injuries last year, specifically to wide receivers Julio Jones and Roddy White. With a brand new offensive line, Atlanta won’t have any excuses for another substandard season.

It's par for the course for Smith, who has heard such rumors swirl over the last few offseasons. This year, those rumors could come true if the Falcons don't make some serious noise in the playoffs.

Despite last season's 4-12 record, what makes this story so compelling is that most NFL teams would kill for the version of "good" that the Falcons have enjoyed.

Quick start

In 2008, Thomas Dimitroff made the decision to hire Smith, then a defensive coordinator with the Jacksonville Jaguars, as his new head coach, above other interviewees like Leslie Frazier and Rex Ryan. It was Smith's first stop as a head coach, despite a deep history in both the collegiate and professional ranks. His experience coaching stout defenses with the Ravens and Jags certainly helped, but it was still a risk for a coach who had never been the man.

From the outset, the results were strong and made Dimitroff look good as a newly crowned decision-maker himself. In Smith's first year, the Falcons went 11-5 and made the playoffs after missing out the previous three seasons. The trend only continued as the Falcons made the postseason in four of Smith's first five seasons on the job. Through five years, Smith held an incredible 56-24 career coaching record.

Then came the tumble of 2013. The Falcons were the NFL's most disappointing team last season at 4-12, one year after a 13-3 regular season ended with an NFC Championship appearance. They came into the season favored to once again challenge for the NFC title and walked away with the sixth overall pick in the draft.

Not surprisingly, Smith was on the hot seat.

A familiar place

A quick look back, however, reveals that this is not the first time Smith's job security has been questioned. Despite Smith's strong regular season record, his struggle to win in the playoffs (1-4 career record) has worked against him. The exits have not been pretty:

  • In 2008, Smith's Falcons went 11-5 and finished second in the NFC South. They faced the Arizona Cardinals, who wound up the best of a horrible bunch at 9-7 in the NFC West, in the first round. The Cardinals shut down the Falcons in the second half and won 30-24.
  • In 2010, the Falcons finished 13-3 and were the top seed in the NFC (by two games). After a first-round bye, the Falcons flopped, losing 48-21 at home against a surprising Green Bay Packers team that marched all the way to the Super Bowl. This is perhaps the biggest postseason blemish on Smith's résumé.
  • In 2011, the Falcons made the playoffs after a 10-6 regular season, and faced the New York Giants in the first round. Despite an offense that finished seventh overall in points scored, Matt Ryan and company were silenced by the Giants. The only points in the 24-2 loss came from a first-quarter safety.

Of course, the Giants and Packers both went on to the win the Super Bowl, so the Falcons were not the only franchises surprised by the sleeping giants. Still, it wasn't until 2012 that Smith earned his first playoff win, only to lose in the conference championship game against the San Francisco 49ers.

Consequently, Smith's name has been mentioned on the hot seat before this offseason. Arthur Blank had to come to his coach's defense after the 2011 season:

"I think if you tell me Mike Smith is on the hot seat, then find a hot seat on the North Pole," Blank said. "That's as hot a seat as he's on. That perception is about as far from the truth as you can get."

The same thing happened the following season, as rumors were at least whispered about Smith's security as head coach. Dave Choate of The Falcoholic spoke against the rumors of Jon Gruden's interest and other hot seat talk with the following just over a year ago:

Mike Smith will not be fired. He will not be replaced by Jon Gruden. If Smith's Falcons stumble badly a year from now, he could find himself on the outs with Arthur Blank, and I'm sure the job is desirable for a host of high-profile coaches. After guiding the team to a 13-3 record and an NFC Conference Championship berth, there's absolutely no way he's getting canned short of Bill Cowher being possessed by the spirit of Vince Lombardi and demanding the job. Blank wanted improvement from a year ago, and he got it.

Prove it

Earlier this offseason, the Falcons gave Smith a one-year extension since he was coming into the final year of his previous contract, a three-year deal signed in 2011. To leave Smith hanging in a contract year would've put the leadership of the franchise in doubt, potentially dissuading free agents from wanting to sign. Thus it wasn't surprising to see Smith ink a new deal, though the single-year extension signals a short leash.

This means that 2014 is a "prove it" year for Smith. If the Falcons stumble once again in the NFC South and fail to turn things around as quickly as they fell from grace, then Smith is likely a coach on the outs. Yet even after last year's devastating season, Smith still holds a 60-36 record as the team's head coach. It begs the question: is this fair?

Under Smith, the Falcons have won the division twice in six seasons and been to the postseason in four of those years. The Falcons only made the playoffs four times in the previous 16 seasons before Smith. In addition, Smith's career coaching record places him favorably alongside the NFL's finest coaches. Check these records through six seasons with their current franchise:

Name Team Name Record through 6 seasons
Mike Smith Falcons 60-36
Sean Payton Saints 62-34
Bill Belichick Patriots 63-33
Mike McCarthy Packers 63-33
John Harbaugh Ravens 62-34
Mike Tomlin Steelers 63-33

The difference between all of these coaches and Smith, of course, is a Super Bowl win, and therein lies the biggest argument against the Falcons head coach.

Who knows if Smith will ever guide Atlanta to a Super Bowl appearance or victory, but the fact is that he's shown the ability to win consistently despite last year's debacle. The Falcons believe the window is open now for postseason glory, which places the spotlight on Smith to win now or else. In the end, however, they might find letting Smith go would be the loss that stings the most.

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