FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. — No NFL team has a better record than Mike Smith’s Falcons, and perhaps none has made fewer headlines.
They practice, they play and they win without hype. There’s little drama and even less national publicity in this post-Michael Vick era.
Maybe that’s why the Atlanta coach laughs when asked whether there has been more national demands on his time with the 7-2 Falcons atop the NFC.
"Uh, no," Smith said. "They don’t want to talk to me."
Not even after his team’s exciting last-minute 26-21 win over the Baltimore Ravens last week. Even the Falcons’ losses have been impressive — at Philadelphia and in overtime at Pittsburgh.
Doesn’t matter. Smith, who carries one of the lowest profiles of any coach in the league, never detours from the all-business script that his players follow faithfully, if almost anonymously.
And if the nation yawns, that’s fine. Call these Falcons dull, but call them winners.
"I just feel like we’re flying under the radar and we’re doing a good job of that and we’re just going to stay where we’re at," receiver Roddy White says.
There’s not a lot of flash in the Falcons, who place an emphasis on running the ball and stopping the run. It’s not a style that commands a lot of attention, but it has Smith on pace for his third straight winning record with a franchise that had never before had back-to-back winning seasons.
Few outside of Atlanta may know much about even the team’s top players.
White’s numbers are up there with the NFL’s best receivers. He’s a clutch performer with an engaging personality and the most-quoted player on the team, not that many outside of Atlanta have noticed.
White doesn’t criticize teammates or second-guess his coach. He doesn’t earn repeated fines from the league for his tweets. He doesn’t have his own TV show.
This is Smith’s team, and foolery is not tolerated.
It’s little wonder why White and his teammates are so willing to wrap themselves in their blanket of anonymity.
The Falcons had more than their share of headlines the last few years, and little of it was positive. While Vick is flourishing in Philadelphia, his fall from grace while the face of the Atlanta franchise overshadowed the team for two years.
There was the Jim Mora Jr., firing, which came after he expressed on talk radio his desire to coach at the University of Washington. The Falcons hit bottom when Mora’s replacement, Bobby Petrino, quit with three games remaining in a 4-12 2007 season.
The moves prompted Falcons owner Arthur Blank to pledge going forward that he would choose substance and character over flash and style. To get it done, he hired general manager Thomas Dimitroff — a little-known director of college scouting for the New England Patriots.
Dimitroff’s hiring led to Atlanta signing Smith — the Jacksonville Jaguars’ defensive coordinator — free agent running back Michael Turner and drafting Boston College quarterback Matt Ryan.
"Matty Ice" as Ryan is known, was the 2008 NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year. But like many of his teammates — including White, Turner and defensive end John Abraham — Ryan isn’t in discussions about the NFL’s elite.
White, a three-time Pro Bowler, has 70 catches, seven for TDs, and is second in the league with 934 yards receiving. Turner has 733 yards rushing and should easily post his second 1,000-yard season in three years. Abraham is fourth in the league with 8 sacks.
Then there’s Ryan, coming off a breakout game against the Ravens in which he threw for 316 yards and three touchdowns, including the game-winner to White with 20 seconds remaining. Ryan’s 16 TD passes with only five interceptions are almost identical to this year’s numbers from Peyton Manning and Tom Brady, but it’s still too early for Ryan to be grouped with the top quarterbacks.
It all adds up to Atlanta playing for a still-skeptical national audience. Winning seems to generate more questions about whether they are for real than buzz about their success.
The Falcons aren’t complaining, particularly Abraham.
He played under the media microscope during his six seasons with the New York Jets and is happy with the peaceful quiet — and success — of the Smith regime.
"I kind of like it," Abraham said. "I think it’s good for us that people are still talking about other teams being better than us. We’re just going to continue to keep winning and as long as we keep winning I really don’t care necessarily about what they’re saying."