ATLANTA — Mike Smith gets noticeably uncomfortable when the spotlight is on him.
Well, he better get used to it.
The Atlanta Falcons coach is starting to keep some heady company.
He’s got one of the best winning percentages in NFL history at this point in his career, right up there with a bunch of Hall of Famers. If the unbeaten Falcons defeat the Oakland Raiders today, he would tie Dan Reeves as the winningest coach in Falcons history — in far fewer games.
“Uhh,” Smith said, seemingly caught off-guard by a question about his personal accomplishments, “that doesn’t mean anything in terms of what we’re trying to get done.”
But Smith’s players aren’t shy about praising their coach, giving him a large share of the credit for the best start (5-0) in team history. And, rest assured, they’ll do something to mark the occasion if he gets his 49th win.
“You get the same Smitty when we lose the game, you get the same Smitty when we win the game,” linebacker Mike Peterson said. “There’s no cutting corners with him. If he thinks you’re doing something right, you’re going to know about it. If he thinks you’re doing something wrong, you’re going to know about it. That’s pretty much what you want out of a coach. A lot of them say it, but they don’t actually live it. When you get a coach who actually does that, you’ve got to appreciate it. That’s why I’m always telling the guys, ‘Hey, it’s not like this everywhere.’”
Smith, who had never been a head coach at any level when he was hired by the Falcons in 2008, has guided a mostly downtrodden franchise to four straight winning seasons and three playoff appearances. His record is 48-21, tied with Baltimore’s John Harbaugh and Hall of Fame coach Joe Gibbs for the 11th-best winning percentage (.696) in NFL history through 69 games, according to STATS LLC.
The top 10 is a who’s who of coaching greats, including George Halas, Paul Brown, Vince Lombardi, Don Shula and John Madden — all Hall of Famers.
“He’s not a head coach who just walks around,” safety William Moore said. “He really gets after it, man. He deserves everything he’s been getting. I’ve been here with him since the beginning. I’m really looking forward to the things we’re doing around here.”
The Falcons have already built a commanding lead in the NFC South, and they’re a big favorite against the Raiders (1-3). But Peterson and the other veteran leaders — tight end Tony Gonzalez, center Todd McClure, defensive end John Abraham — have been stressing to the younger guys to keep their foot on the pedal.
McClure, in particular, remembers the Falcons starting 6-2 in 2005. They lost six of their last eight games and missed the playoffs.
“You don’t get trophies for going 5-0,” Peterson stressed. “It’s businesslike around here.”
For the Raiders, it’s business as usual for a team that seems in constant rebuilding mode. Oakland is a decade removed from its last winning season and on its third coach, Dennis Allen, in three years.
“Obviously, we didn’t start the season out like we hoped,” said the 39-year-old Allen, the league’s youngest head coach. “We’re not where we want to be right now.”
Especially when it comes to running the football.
Darren McFadden, who was supposed to be the centerpiece of Oakland’s offense, has been held to less than 35 yards in three games and is averaging just 3.5 yards per carry, far below his career average coming into the season. The Raiders are last in the NFL at just 60.8 yards per game, their zone blocking schemes facing heavy criticism from fans and the media.
Allen hopes an off week helped cure some of the problems.
“We spent a lot of time working on ourselves,” the rookie coach said. “It’s a process of getting the guys to understand what we’re trying to do and how we want them to do it.”
The Falcons have been vulnerable against the run, surrendering an average of nearly 143 yards to rank 27th. The defense has been very opportunistic under new coordinator Mike Nolan — coming up with nine interceptions and recovering five fumbles — but knows it must toughen up in the trenches.
“That’s something we have to do. That’s not even an option,” strong safety William Moore said. “To me, personally, it’s embarrassing to be ranked where we’re ranked. I know the type of guys we’ve got. I definitely know we can turn it around, but it’s got to be now. There are some tough offenses, some tough running backs we’re going to be facing.”
Raiders quarterback Carson Palmer said it’s vital for the Raiders to run the ball as a counter to Atlanta’s quick-strike offense.
“You want to control the clock a little bit and get your defense as much rest as possible,” Palmer said. “Running the ball is what we want to do. Obviously we want to do it better than we have and that’s why we continue to work at it. But it’s what gets the play-action game going, it’s what gets explosive plays, because Darren can score from anywhere.”
The Falcons have relied less on their running game than in past years. Matt Ryan threw a staggering 52 passes in a comeback victory over Washington and is on a career-high pace for attempts, which really shouldn’t be a surprise given his options. Roddy White and Julio Jones form a dynamic pair of receivers, and Gonzalez just keeps chugging right along at age 36.
Last Sunday, the Redskins made it a point to take away the deep passing routes, so Ryan kept dumping the ball underneath to his tight end. The result was Gonzalez’s most productive game since he was traded to the Falcons in 2009: 13 receptions for 123 yards and a touchdown.
Even though Gonzalez shows no signs of slowing down in his 16th season, he hasn’t changed his mind about this likely being his final year.
“I’m just enjoying it one week at a time,” he said. “I’m lucky enough to stick around this long. To end it like this, playing with some great players, a great quarterback, great receivers outside, it’s a lot of fun.”