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Eyes on the South
Mike Smith has the backing of his players and the Falcons in reach of a division title

FLOWERY BRANCH - Mike Smith isn't about to change his routine with the Atlanta Falcons.

In his first year as a head football coach at any level, Smith told his players in September that they could stay home and rest on the day after a victory.

Well, sort of.

His intention was clear: 'Take the day off if you want to, but I bet most of your teammates will be here.'

As Smith said 12 weeks ago, he wanted to create an atmosphere of 'passion and accountability' for a team that managed just four wins in 2007.

Even though the Falcons (7-4) have won three of four following their 17-point victory over NFC South-leading Carolina, 44 players reported Monday for 'optional' film study and weight training.

'It kind of gets to be a peer-pressure thing,' Smith said Monday. 'But they get to watch the tape together without the coaches in there. Our staff has already (graded the film), and we give them written reports so they can come in and watch in groups of five or six.'

For a 10th-year NFL veteran like center Todd McClure, Smith's approach has been a big blessing.

McClure told a story in Week 3 of how Smith came into the treatment room during training camp to check personally on every injured player.

'I'd never had a head coach do that for me or really even heard of it on this level,' McClure said. 'He just comes across as a very likable guy, very open, and it's easy to communicate with him. He truly cares about each player, and when you see that from your head coach, you gain a lot of respect for him.'

Even so, Smith doesn't hesitate to reprimand a player who makes repeated mental mistakes in practice. He's also willing to take risks, like naming rookie Matt Ryan as the starting quarterback at the end of preseason or passing up on a field-goal attempt to let Michael Turner try to score on fourth-and-goal Sunday.

Turner never doubted he'd get the chance to score.

'I knew we were going to stay on the field and let them make any defensive adjustment they wanted to,' said Turner, who scored from 1 yard out. 'We were just taking pride and having an attitude in wanting to get it in the end zone.'

Fourth-year receiver Roddy White knew Smith was the right man to replace the aloof Petrino when he saw his new coach arguing with the officiating crew at Tampa Bay on Sept. 14.

Though the Falcons lost to the Buccaneers, Smith impressed White, who appeared to lose a fourth-quarter fumble, by passionately insisting that Atlanta maintained possession on the play because the ball was still in the air when Tampa Bay's Elbert Mack was called for roughing the passer.

'Coach Smith is the kind of guy who's got your back,' White said. 'He earned our respect as soon as he arrived, but appreciation for him continues to grow each week.'