It's rare that the hiring of an offensive line coach causes such a stir.
The Falcons' offensive line caught much of the blame for the struggles the team experienced during the 2011 season on their way to the postseason. The loss to the Giants in the playoffs was especially painful. Though New York only registered two sacks, they pressured quarterback Matt Ryan all day.
So when the team announced a few weeks after the humbling playoff defeat that the fiery, matter-of-fact Pat Hill would be coaching the much-maligned line, the news resonated throughout the halls of 4400 Falcon Parkway and the entire Falcons fan base.
During Wednesday's media session, Hill provided a glimpse into the coaching style that served him well during his 15 years as the head coach at Fresno State, where he compiled a record of 112-90.
"I didn't come here to split the atom," Hill said. "I came here to really work on fundamentals. At this level you have a chance to really tweak a person's game. It's like being a swing coach for a golfer. . . Here you're trying to develop technique to help each one of your players get better."
So far it's paying off. Hill brings a new perspective to an offensive line that overall has been highly productive during the four seasons under head coach Mike Smith. In his short time with Atlanta, Hill has quickly established himself as a mentor to a line that features two incoming rookies, but is still loaded with experience. He's established an accountability with the linemen and is showing them he cares.
"Obviously he knows the game of football, he's been in it for almost 40 years," tackle Will Svitek said. "He's a great football mind. He's a great person. He's a guy you want to play for and play hard for. He's one of those guys that you don't want to let down. You feel like you're letting down someone close to you. He knows the game. He's real big on technique and he's been really informative so far."
As soon as Hill was hired, he quickly reached out to every player on the line and began working on his relationships with them. Through the OTAs they've been spending time off the field and out of the meeting rooms together. They have lunch together every day. Their conversations consist of a little bit about the technique of being a lineman and a lot about life.
Former offensive line coach Paul Boudreau came to the Falcons when Smith was hired in 2008. He also brought a lot of coaching experience with him and helped the line perform at a high level for much of his first three seasons. Last season got off to a rocky start, but he helped right the ship, though the entire line says they could have played much better throughout the year.
But none of the linemen blame their former coach for anything that went wrong last year. They view Hill as a new teacher and are ready to learn some new things in an effort to continue to get better and help the Falcons reach the pinnacle.
"Sometimes things don't work out," Svitek said. "You can obviously do things better. I think we learned some great things from coach Boo and now we're learning some great things from coach Hill. I think it's good to have some new minds in there. We had a lockout last year, but this year we have OTAs and now we're really trying to break things down and going back to fundamentals whereas last year we were so involved with schemes."
Veteran center Todd McClure thinks Hill's experience as a head coach helps enable him to see the big picture on offense. Hill's seen a lot during his time in the NFL and college ranks and his knowledge of offense helps make him a more well-rounded coach when it comes to teaching technique adjustments and giving his players an edge they didn't have before. McClure thinks that's Hill's biggest asset.
Hill isn't concerned about the past. He calls the linemen he's inherited highly intelligent, something he says is hard to train. Blessed with an cerebral core, he's making tweaks with his players to make them better all around. He sees himself as just another piece of the puzzle, coming in to help make everything better. He's not the missing link, he's just a new voice.
"I've had 38 different coaches during my time," he said. "Every one of them went on to big jobs. I think a new voice is good. You've got to keep that fresh though. You always want to have something fresh. I think new voices are good. That's why after 15 years, they needed a new voice where I was at. It was time for a change even though we had great success. At this level a new voice is good. I think as time goes on, as a coach, you've got to stay up with it. You can't get too methodical in what you do."
Hill's passion for coaching is unmistakable. His players have picked up on it right away. He brings a practical simplicity to the position and the job, as evidenced by some of his other comments during his colorful Wednesday Q & A.
But the line knows he can't fix everything
Some of the issues that cropped up for them last year are still on them to correct. Svitek said Hill plays a role in fixing things, but when push comes to shove, it's on them to get the job done on the field.
The left tackle said the experience every player gained last season is valuable and they're learning from their mistakes. It's producing more competition this year so far in OTAs and that will continue. Whatever happened last year, Svitek says, is fixable.
"Things are always correctable," he said. "There are always details that you can do better and things you can fix. There were some good things we did and some bad things. You try to build on that. We're a year older and a year better. We'll definitely learn from those mistakes. I think we all got experience, especially for a guy like me with my first time getting an opportunity to play a lot. It's been valuable."
Hill also provided valuable input to the personnel staff prior to a draft that added two hard-nosed, intelligent rookies: Peter Konz and Lamar Holmes. The 38-year veteran of the coaching ranks couldn't wait to start working with them.
"You're always a teacher," Hill said. "That's what this profession is all about, teaching. There's a lot less to deal with outside of football at this level. It's really enjoyable. You're just coaching football and working one-on-one with individuals."