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Falcons hire Jaguars defensive coordinator Mike Smith as head coach
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ATLANTA _ The Atlanta Falcons' new rookie coach already is sounding like the veteran who took the team to its only Super Bowl.
Mike Smith, the former Jacksonville defensive coordinator hired by the Falcons on Wednesday night, could have been reading from former Atlanta coach Dan Reeves' script.
"My goal is to build a well-disciplined, hard-nosed football team that will be able to run the football on offense and stop the run on defense," Smith said. "I've always believed that's what makes championship teams."
Reeves used that formula to take the Falcons to the NFC championship in 1998. Reeves' successor, Jim Mora, also stressed the run in his three years. Then came Bobby Petrino, who lasted only 13 games.
In announcing his first hire as general manager, Thomas Dimitroff said Smith "possesses all of the key qualities we were looking for in a head coach."
Dimitroff said the 48-year-old Smith, a 26-year coaching veteran and the Jaguars' defensive coordinator since 2003, "has strong experience with winning teams, a track record of success, a solid, smart approach to the game, and high character and integrity."
Smith had his second interview with the Falcons on Friday.
Falcons quarterback Byron Leftwich, who was with Smith in Jacksonville for four years, applauded the hire.
"I've played against his defense more than anybody in the world," Leftwich said. "I did it every day in practice for four years. I think he's a great guy for the job.
"A lot of people might not know his name, but I've seen the work he puts in every game, how guys were so prepared on Sundays that they knew exactly what teams were going to do."
Smith, a former defensive assistant with Baltimore, had the league's No. 12 defense with Jacksonville this season after ranking second in 2006 and sixth in 2005.
Leftwich said Smith would never receive enough credit in Jacksonville because many assumed Jaguars coach Jack Del Rio, a former defensive coordinator, was the real mastermind of the defense.
Jaguars defensive end Marcellus Wiley confirmed that opinion when he said on ESPN Wednesday that Smith "was just a guy who stood at the front of the room when Jack Del Rio was leading the defense."
Jacksonville defensive end Paul Spicer disagreed, saying the Falcons "are getting a gem."
"He is very competitive," Spicer said of Smith. "He wants the best out of you. He demands the best of you. Mike Smith gained the trust of a lot of Jaguars players over the years. He has definitely gained my trust."
Jaguars defensive tackle Marcus Stroud said Smith is "definitely a deserving coach."
"He will bring stability and a tough-minded approach," Stroud said. "He's a leader and will do a great job in Atlanta."
Leftwich said he was aware of Wiley's comments but said of Smith: "I was with him for four years. Somebody had to be calling those plays in Jacksonville. It was him.
"We always said Smitty would be a great head coach because the time he put in and the way he interacted with players and how seriously he took his job."
The Falcons were mostly woeful in their 4-12 season, but most of the few bright spots were on defense, where Smith will find several established or rising stars: John Abraham, Rod Coleman, Keith Brooking, DeAngelo Hall, Lawyer Milloy and Michael Boley.
The Falcons may try to build a strong defense around those established players while rebuilding an offense devastated by the exit of Michael Vick, the star quarterback who was the face of the franchise before his guilty plea to federal dogfighting charges.
Vick is serving a 23-month sentence. He also is under an indefinite suspension by NFL commissioner Roger Goodell.
A key early decision by Smith and Dimitroff will be whether to choose a new quarterback with the Falcons' first pick, as high as No. 3 overall, in the April draft.
Leftwich, Joey Harrington and Chris Redman shared the position in 2007.
The loss of Vick was too much for Petrino to overcome. Petrino quit with a 3-10 record to take a job at Arkansas, leaving secondary coach Emmitt Thomas to finish out the 4-12 season as the interim head coach.
Smith will be Atlanta's sixth coach since December 2003. Before Petrino quit, Reeves and Mora were fired. Wade Phillips and Thomas worked three games each as interim replacements.
Other candidates included Minnesota Vikings defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier and former Ravens defensive coordinator Rex Ryan.
The team did not wait on an interview with New York Giants defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo. The Falcons were denied permission to interview Spagnuolo while the Giants, preparing for the Super Bowl, are in the postseason.

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