NEW ORLEANS -- Lee Smith has seen it all during an 11-year NFL career working for three different teams. He has played for playoff contenders and cellar dwellers. He knows which teams have lasting power which ones will get knocked down by the slightest breeze.
In sum, the Falcons tight end has been to the puppet show and seen the strings.
He also has no filter, no tolerance for BS.
That makes him the man to see when checking the pulse of a team. Friday wasn't the first time I've done so.
I've known Lee a long time, having covered him for years with the Raiders in Oakland. Trust me. He always tells it like it is.
That's why I wanted to speak with him heading toward this season's midpoint, to get his perspective on where the Falcons are heading into Sunday's pivotal contest against the New Orleans Saints and where he thinks they can go.
The ClifsNotes version: Smith [rightly] made no bold or outlandish predictions but expressed optimism the Falcons can be good now and into the future.
"If it was a s* show, -- it isn't -- I sure wouldn't tell you that directly, but I would find a way to jump around the question," Smith said during our Friday conversation. "I don't have to do that right here. It's a great group of men with a great quarterback [in Matt Ryan] that has thrown 60 thousand fricking yards or whatever. So, yeah, there's definitely some excitement that we can get cranked up and win some games."
The Falcons sit in the middle of the pack following a 3-4 start featuring some good and some regrettable moments for a team still finding itself under new head coach Arthur Smith and defensive coordinator Dean Pees. There's an opportunity to stay in the mix with quality play against tough competition and build on the progress already made to this point. Lee Smith believes that is possible with this group. His playing experience tells him so.
"I have been on every side of it. I've had seven head coaches. I have won. I have lost. I have been in the playoffs. I have been out of it when December comes around," Smith said. "Yes, I do see something special about the team and where we're going. It comes from flashy moments. It comes from leadership.
"I've also got to say that Matt Ryan makes a big difference. When you have a guy like him in the huddle, it's a feeling of comfort. You don't feel like you're driving a car with no airbags. You have the security of a guy who has seen it all and done it all and has a rare sense of composure. He makes an astronomical difference on a young team and a new staff trying to build this thing the right way. He's the trump card. With him and Arthur here, I see potential for solid growth."
That's something the Falcons continuously strive for in the early periods of this new era. It's also a realistic expectation, honestly preferred over Smith or anyone else guaranteeing a playoff run or puffing up a team's prospects with hot air.
"I've been on teams where you're just hoping and praying that you can get a horseshoe … for good luck and actually win a game," Smith said. "At this point, that's not where we're at. We've shown flashes in our game that we can be good. We just need to put it all together at the right time."
That's the next goal for a team that has played well in spurts but has lost games or have been forced to win close due to execution lapses. That'll happen with a new and/or young team in some transition. That's where the Falcons are at this point, following a series of disappointing seasons.
Smith believes he can help usher in a new and prosperous era, helping a foundation of young talent become solid pros.
"The Kyle Pitts' and Richie Grants of the world will carry the torch forward," Smith said. "I'm someone who can help teach those guys what a true pro looks like. There's a reason there are a few 10-year vets on a team with a bunch of puppies everywhere. If I went out there and got my ass kicked every Sunday it wouldn't matter how good of a leader I was.
"I'm here to serve a role on the field. Off the field, I want to make sure that I can look back two or three years from now and feel like I was a part of the growth and the initial phases of this team truly taking off. That's exciting to me. It's something I'm passionate about."
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