Atlanta Falcons veterans know Mike Smith will listen

John Abraham says that a big part of the Atlanta Falcons' success is due to the fact that head coach Mike Smith takes the time to listen to his veteran players.

John Abraham, bottom centre, says Mike Smith, his head coach, standing, is a good listener.
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John Abraham has a pretty good idea for one of the reasons the Atlanta Falcons have found success under Mike Smith.

It is their "Over 30 Club" - a group of veteran players whose regular dialogue with Smith has created an open line of communication from the head coach to the locker room.

"He listens to everything we're saying," Abraham, a four-time Pro Bowl defensive end, said. "He puts it in his mind to use the stuff you're saying, and it eases the situation for everybody on the team."

Smith often calls on the veterans to meet and discuss a wide range of topics affecting the team.

Without his coach's management style, Abraham doubts the Falcons would have gone 33-15 in Smith's tenure and earned two play-off spots and an NFC South title in the last three years.

It is a protocol Smith first learnt while working in Baltimore from 1999 to 2002 under his brother-in-law, the then-head coach Brian Billick.

Smith said one reason the Ravens won the 2000 Super Bowl was Billick's establishment of a team "pyramid" established a fluid dialogue between management and players.

"I don't know if it's a common practice around the league, but it was something we did in Baltimore," said Smith, who was a defensive assistant with the Ravens. "I don't know if it was done prior to that, but it was when I first became involved with it.

"To me, it was neat, because you got your mentors, your older guys, to tell the younger players about what it means to be in the NFL. I think it just makes for a healthier work atmosphere."

When the Falcons hired him in January 2008, one of Smith's first notable changes was to create a give-and-take relationship with players, whose voices had been stifled under Bobby Petrino, his predecessor.

Petrino, who quit after only 13 games of his first NFL season and left for the University of Arkansas, told players he did not care what they had to say. He would often pass veteran players such as Abraham, Todd McClure and Ovie Mughelli in the hallway and make no attempt at eye contact or conversation.

Everything changed under Smith, an affable, professional boss, who took over a 4-12 team that was in disarray after the 2007 imprisonment of Michael Vick, the quarterback, and the abrupt departure of Petrino.

"It was good to have your viewpoint heard with any situation," Abraham said. "It was no longer a dictatorship."

McClure, the centre who has been an NFL starter since 1999, said: "With Smitty, you don't have a guy that's holding a stick over your head as the hard, stern ruler. He's actually worried about each guy and their health, and making sure they'll be able to get out on the field. He said that the first time he came in these doors, and we respect him for that."

For a chatty, intelligent person like Mughelli, the fullback, the change from Petrino to Smith made him feel wanted.

Mughelli was drafted by the Ravens in 2003, the year after Smith left Baltimore to become the defensive co-ordinator in Jacksonville. He decided to sign as a free agent with the Falcons in 2007, Petrino's lone season.

After attending team dinners in which players were not allowed to speak unless spoken to under Petrino, Mughelli welcomed the familiar approach he knew would help the Falcons win under Smith.

"In Baltimore, if the over-30 players thought we should let up, do a little more or how we might change some things, Brian [Billick] would listen," Mughelli said. "Smitty does the same thing. He's very much a players' coach, and I don't think that's a bad thing at all.

"It helps us fight harder for him. It helps us believe in him."

And Smith's word becomes universal in the locker room when his over-30 guys take his message back downstairs.

"A lot of times players will receive things better if it comes from one of their peers rather than from a coach or a head coach," McClure said. "If it's coming from another guy that's lining up with them, they might take it a little better. What Smitty does is he puts messages to the over-30 club and he wants it to get out to the team and spread it in our own way."