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Falcons hire Jaguars' Smith as new coach

ATLANTA - The Atlanta Falcons say Mike Smith is everything they want in a head coach, no matter that he's never been one before.

The first test for Smith, the former Jacksonville defensive coordinator hired by Atlanta on Wednesday night, will be to outlast the 13-game stint of Bobby Petrino, the 2007 rookie coach who quit during the season to return to the college ranks.

'Mike possesses all of the key qualities we were looking for in a head coach,' said general manager Thomas Dimitroff, in his first month on the job.

Dimitroff said the 48-year-old Smith, a 26-year coaching veteran, 'has strong experience with winning teams, a track record of success, a solid, smart approach to the game, and high character and integrity.'

Smith, the Jaguars' defensive coordinator since 2003, had his second interview with the Falcons on Friday.

Smith said his emphasis on each side of the line will be the running game.

'My goal is to build a well-disciplined, hard-nosed football team that will be able to run the football on offense and stop the run on defense,' Smith said. 'I've always believed that's what makes championship teams.'

Falcons quarterback Byron Leftwich was with Smith in Jacksonville for four years.

'I've played against his defense more than anybody in the world,' Leftwich said. 'I did it every day in practice for four years. I think he's a great guy for the job.

'A lot of people might not know his name, but I've seen the work he puts in every game, how guys were so prepared on Sundays that they knew exactly what teams were going to do.'

Smith, a former defensive assistant with Baltimore, had the league's No. 12 defense with Jacksonville this season after ranking second in 2006 and sixth in 2005.

Leftwich said Smith would never receive enough credit in Jacksonville because many assumed Jaguars coach Jack Del Rio, a former defensive coordinator, was the real mastermind of the defense.

Jaguars defensive end Marcellus Wiley confirmed that opinion when he said on ESPN Wednesday, 'Jack Del Rio was the defensive coordinator, and if it wasn't him, it was (linebacker) Mike Peterson.'

Wiley said Smith 'was just a guy who stood at the front of the room when Jack Del Rio was leading the defense.'

Wiley said the Falcons 'really went down low on the totem pole.'

Jacksonville defensive end Paul Spicer said his message to the Falcons is 'they are getting a gem.'

'He is very competitive,' Spicer said of Smith. 'He wants the best out of you. He demands the best of you. Mike Smith gained the trust of a lot of Jaguars players over the years. He has definitely gained my trust.'

Jaguars defensive tackle Marcus Stroud said Smith is 'definitely a deserving coach.'

'He's been a good coach for a long time,' Stroud said. 'He will bring stability and a tough-minded approach. He's a leader and will do a great job in Atlanta.'

Leftwich said he was aware of Wiley's comments but said of Smith: 'I was with him for four years. Somebody had to be calling those plays in Jacksonville. It was him.

'We always said Smitty would be a great head coach because the time he put in and the way he interacted with players and how seriously he took his job.'

The Falcons were mostly woeful in their 4-12 season, but most of the few bright spots were on defense, where Smith will find several established or rising stars: John Abraham, Rod Coleman, Keith Brooking, DeAngelo Hall, Lawyer Milloy and Michael Boley.

Even before hiring Dimitroff, Blank's search focused on defensive coaches. The Falcons may try to build a strong defense around those established players while rebuilding an offense devastated by the exit of Michael Vick, the star quarterback who was the face of the franchise before his guilty plea to federal dogfighting charges.

Vick is serving a 23-month sentence. He also is under an indefinite suspension by NFL commissioner Roger Goodell.

A key early decision by Smith and Dimitroff will be whether to chose a new quarterback with the Falcons' first pick, as high as No. 3 overall, in the April draft.

The Falcons tried three starting quarterbacks in 2007, but Leftwich, Joey Harrington and Chris Redman are not seen as long-term answers at the position.

The loss of Vick was too much for Petrino to overcome. Petrino quit with a 3-10 record to take a job at Arkansas, leaving secondary coach Emmitt Thomas to finish out the 4-12 season as the interim head coach.

Smith will be Atlanta's sixth coach since December 2003. Before Petrino quit, Dan Reeves and Jim Mora were fired. Wade Phillips and Thomas worked three games each as interim replacements.

Smith first interviewed with Blank before the Jaguars lost to the New England Patriots in a divisional playoff game. His second meeting with the team was his first opportunity to meet Dimitroff.

Other candidates included Minnesota Vikings defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier and former Ravens defensive coordinator Rex Ryan.

The team did not wait on an interview with New York Giants defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo. The Falcons were denied permission to interview Spagnuolo while the Giants, preparing for the Super Bowl, are in the postseason.