With a few years of continuity on both sides of the ball and the benefit of an entire offseason to work together, developing team chemistry isn't a big hurdle for the Falcons heading into this season. Other teams with new head coaches, roster turnover or other factors have to contend with simply getting to know each other.
The focus for the Falcons this off-season was merging the schemes and game plans of Dirk Koetter and Mike Nolan, the team's new coordinators, with the talents and knowledge of existing players.
One of the biggest themes to emerge from the offseason is that the Falcons are embracing the changes in wholesale fashion. As Nolan and Koetter introduce their ideas, the team has looked for ways to lessen the learning curve and help each other tackle the new philosophies. By most accounts, and judging by how many times it was brought up by players and coaches in the offseason, transitioning to new language and terminology has been top-of-mind for everyone.
"One of the things they tried to do, with this staff coming in, they tried to use the same verbiage, so all of us on offense didn't have to relearn new terminology," Todd McClure said earlier this year. "They've adjusted their schemes and terminology to what we were doing and fitting in. It's been an easy adjustment for us."
The Falcons players appear to have taken to this style of merging and delivery well. There's an appreciation by the players that the coaches didn't overhaul everything. Everything wasn't broke and didn't need fixing, they seem to say.
"Right now we're just really getting familiar with each other," Michael Turner said in June. "We've got to get used to his terminology and the way he likes to get things done. Right now it's working out great."
Offensive line coach Pat Hill said that merge of previous and new knowledge was one of the harder aspects of what the coaches are trying to do. Much of the work of creating understanding falls on their shoulders to ensure the players can focus on execution.
"The hardest part is, you've got to change the chip," Hill told AtlantaFalcons.com's Jay Adams. "The words are now different. If we all had the universal chip where all the blocks were the same and the plays were the same, it'd be a lot easier game, but everybody's got different names for things. Same thing with me. For example, 62, 63 protection was a lot different for me than 62, 63 is here. It takes me a while to snap into the new chips, so we're all learning a new language."
The Falcons staff, led by Smith, Koetter and Nolan, appear to be doing this correctly. Koetter and Nolan were largely hired because of their success directing their respective sides of the ball during the careers in the NFL and college. They also come from extensive coaching backgrounds that perhaps better enable them to step back and take a more global view of delivering information.
Nolan's father was a highly successful head coach in the NFL and Koetter's father is recognized as one of the greatest high school coaches in the history of Idaho state football. Jim Koetter's coaching career also included a championship season at Idaho State.
Smith himself is the son of a football coach as well. His lineage is teaching and he's always shared that as one of the more enjoyable aspects of what he does. Smith would accompany his father to practices as a child growing up, immersing himself in the world of football. Koetter also spent much time in his father's football life. Koetter would fall asleep in the basement of his parent's home surrounded by his dad and coaching staff as they continued game planning.
That life-long experience of football for Smith, Koetter and Nolan likely helps them manage this offseason's biggest job, ensuring the players learn the new system inside and out. Their deep roots in football and teaching surely didn't hurt their chances for employment with the Smith-led Falcons. The staff has used their experience to ensure they're equally learning about their players as helping them learn about the new schemes.
"When you get into meeting rooms with these guys, you can see how guys learn," Koetter said. "You can see what guys ask good questions, what guys ask the "What if" questions. You can see how guys compete, if guys take it personal or not. It's way different. Tape is great, but tape doesn't tell the whole story."
Speed is the name of the game in the NFL and it's not always about how fast you can run the 40. How quickly a player can process information and respond is the difference in the inches of the game. Nolan, specifically, has spoken about how he wants his players to know the scheme well enough that they can react more and think less. It's as if his motto on defense is "play simpler and play faster". One of the ways he's accomplishing this is by removing some of the fat that may exist in any team's playbook.
"You have to get it to the point where, first off, you have to simplify the teaching," Nolan said during the offseason. "You can't have 10 different words for the same thing and you can't have words mean absolutely nothing. There has to be that to play fast, so I'd like to think it's that, but again, it's a process. There's some things we play faster than other right now because they've done them maybe before, but there's some new things we need to play fast that, in the process, that's really our goal through all these OTAs and training camp and minicamp."
The extent to which this solid mix of veterans and young talent is able to internalize the new offensive and defensive game plans will factor heavily into whether the Falcons fulfill their fans' expectations, which this season clearly extends beyond notching a winning season or playoff berth.