(Updated: 5:30 p.m.)
The NFC South just became infinitely more interesting -- and if the Falcons suddenly find they can't ascend even past the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the division next season, they can blame at least two (maybe three) former employees.
Dirk Koetter, the former Falcons and recent Bucs offensive coordinator, was hired as Tampa Bay's new head coach on Thursday. Koetter then made his most important hire Friday, and it hit close to home in Atlanta: Mike Smith, the Falcons' former head coach and Koetter's former boss, is the Bucs' new defensive coordinator.
It's a brilliant move by Koetter for two reasons: 1) No matter how things may have unraveled in his last two seasons with Falcons, Smith has a strong resume as a defensive coach; 2) It gives the Bucs' two coaches with tremendous insight into a division foe and quarterback Matt Ryan.
"Experience counts for a lot in the NFL," Koetter said of Smith.
The two also worked together in Jacksonville in 2007, each as coordinators for Jack Del Rio.
"We were both in the press box. I had never seen anybody like Mike Smith before," Koetter said. "We had a good year. We lost to New England in the second round of the playoffs. Mike was hired by the Falcons the next year. We were never as good after lost Mike Smith in Jacksonville. To get a coach of Mike’s experience, not just as a defensive coordinator and a teacher but as a man, and to have the right kind of guy in front of our players, I couldn't be happier."
Smith, who has kept a low profile since his firing after last season, did not return a phone message.
As Koetter, Smith and the Bucs' front office work to rebuild the team, it's worth wondering if Falcons wide receiver Roddy White will be the next to transition from Atlanta to Tampa.
Koetter praised White late in the season, saying, "I tell friends of mine all the time that Roddy White is the single-most competitive football player I've ever met in my life. I've just never been around a guy that his desire to win and compete would let him overcome injuries."
In a new scheme under offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan, Ryan took a step back and had one of the worst seasons of his career. Also, White's role was reduced. The Falcons believe the Shanahan-Ryan dynamic will improve in a second season but White's future is uncertain. He has two years left on his contract (base salaries: $2.75 million and $3 million plus $1.5 million roster bonuses each year). Falcons coach Dan Quinn has said nothing but positive things about White but it seems less than 50-50 right now that the veteran will be kept.
If the Falcons don't want White back, they will attempt to trade him for a mid-to-low-round draft pick. If they have options, they obviously would prefer not to trade him to a team in the division, especially to coaches who know how best to use him. But NFL trades are rare and if they can't get a pick for White, they would have to release him.
If White becomes a free agent, he would have multiple offers. But his familiarity with Koetter (and Smith) and the chance to stay in this part of the country near his children and home would be major factors -- as would playing against the Falcons twice.
Whether White stays or goes, Tampa Bay is a better team now with Koetter and Smith in charge. Koetter earned the head coaching job because of his work with rookie quarterback Jameis Winston this season. Bringing in Smith should only help the Bucs' defense. The Falcons had a horrible record against division teams (1-5), in part because they went 0-2 against Tampa Bay. If fired Bucs coach Lovie Smith (4-10 against every other team) could have faced the Falcons more often, he might still have his job.
Smith's Atlanta tenure did not end well. The Falcons went 4-12 and 6-10 in his last two seasons. Smith's first five years brought four playoff berths and a narrow defeat for the NFC title. Some believe that fizzle was mostly the result of mistakes in personnel decisions by general manager Thomas Dimitroff (or Dimitroff and Smith in conjunction with each other). But nobody should doubt the Falcons' did not have the same focus in those last two seasons and Smith made some dubious in-game decisions.
But those first five seasons were mostly impressive, and Smith's resume as a defensive coach is strong.
The Falcons' division just got a little tougher, and their two games against Tampa Bay next season just got a little more interesting.
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