FLOWERY BRANCH - On his first day as coach of the Atlanta Falcons, Mike Smith summed up the state of his new team.
'I'm thrilled to be a part of this organization,' Smith said. 'There's nowhere to go but up.'
As Atlanta's third full-time head coach in three years, Smith hopes to stabilize a franchise rocked last month by the sudden resignation of his predecessor, Bobby Petrino, and the imprisonment of quarterback Michael Vick.
Smith, who spent the last four years as defensive coordinator in Jacksonville, acknowledged Atlanta has problems that aren't easily dismissed.
'I know it was a very difficult year with the off-the-field issues,' Smith said. 'Those are things that have happened in the past. I'm concerned about what's happening from today on, but in terms of mending the situations that occurred, I'm very open and I'm very personable. I like to have relationships with the players whether it's an open-door policy where we can get in and talk.'
Many of Atlanta's veteran players strongly disliked Petrino's personality, which they described as aloof and unapproachable. When Petrino left for Arkansas after going 3-10 in his only season, respected team leaders like Warrick Dunn, Lawyer Milloy and John Abraham called him a coward and a liar.
Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff, who joined the team last week after leaving New England as director of college scouting, believes Atlanta has struck a proper balance with Smith.
'He is very communicative,' Dimitroff said. 'He has a very well-defined plan to put in place, and he will adhere to that plan. For us, we believe Mike will be a very stabilizing and consistent element in this organization, and he'll set the tone across the board. We are very excited about that. It's something we feel the Falcons are in need of at this point.'
Longtime NFL assistant Emmitt Thomas, who led the Falcons to a 1-2 record as interim head coach, will return in 2008 for his seventh season with Atlanta. Thomas will serve as assistant head coach and oversee the secondary.
Smith also named Brian VanGorder as defensive coordinator. VanGorder, Atlanta's linebackers coach last year, returned to the team after just four weeks as coordinator at South Carolina.
Regarding his candidates for offensive coordinator, Smith indicated that his brother-in-law, former Baltimore head coach Brian Billick, will not join the staff. Smith worked under Billick when the Ravens won the Super Bowl to conclude the 2000 season.
Dimitroff indicated that Smith was the right hire even though the Falcons considered waiting to interview Giants defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo after the Super Bowl.
'It's been a very eventful week, a lot of interviewing, much round-table discussion as well as a myriad of conferences referencing on a number of the coaching prospects,' Dimitroff said. 'We feel very comfortable that we did the right thing in making the choice now.'