I'm sure every coach has a few players he connects with a little more than others. As men at the pinnacle of their profession, they're rarely going to let their emotions lead their decisions, instead balancing their head and heart with the pragmatic approach necessary to lead 50-plus men.
It's never been a secret that linebacker Mike Peterson is one of head coach Mike Smith's "guys."
The two go back a long way, to their days in Jacksonville when Peterson was a prized free-agent pickup for the Jaguars and Smith was beginning his ascent in the coaching rankings when he took over as defensive coordinator. The linebacker has spent the last two years re-joined with his head coach after one year apart.
Peterson's a guy known for many things: the vocal leader of the defense, the locker room DJ, the savvy veteran. His teammates love playing beside him because he matches his 13 years of experience with the exuberance of a rookie. You can tell by listening to Peterson speak about his head coach that "Smitty," as he calls him, was a big factor in his decision to come to Atlanta.
The loyalty between the two men is not one-sided.
Ask Smith about his linebacker leader and he beams a little out of a mutual admiration and respect for the player. Tuesday morning, he began a short statement on Peterson with one simple statement first:
"Mike Peterson is a football player," he said, placing emphasis on "player" as he grinned, most likely as some of the scenes of Peterson's career flashed before his mind.
He went on to speak about Peterson's desire to play football and help any way he can, a trait that I personally can attest to. I know I've asked the 35-year-old linebacker on more than one occasion about the possibilities that he may take a reduced role. He's always taken the high road, sharing that he's more than happy to teach, or — to echo his coach — do whatever it takes to make the Falcons a winner.
Last season, he stepped forward and began helping out on special teams around the time when the unit's play grew shaky. Smitty said Tuesday morning the guy would even play offense if he were asked to.
"It doesn't matter if it's defense, special teams, he's going to do whatever it takes to contribute and help our football team win," Smith said. "If you asked Mike he'd tell you he'd go over on the offensive side and play some positions over there as well. You love to have guys like that. He's just a pro. He's a baller. He just loves to play the game of football."
Peterson is once again involved in a training camp battle. He and Stephen Nicholas are both jockeying for one of the outside linebacker roles. Smith said regardless who wins, he likes Peterson's versatility and comfort with all three linebacker positions.
"Right now, Mike Peterson and Stephen are competing," Smith said. "Of course, we feel very good about what Stephen has done developmentally and we know that Mike has the ability to play all three positions. That gives us a whole lot of flexibility. Not only in our base package but in our sub package. The thing we want to do is get as many guys as possible ready. When you have a 53-man roster, you have us talking about it all the time, it's all about cross-training because from week to week you're going to have all kinds of adjustments that you're going to have to make throughout the season."
Peterson just takes it all in stride every day, flashing his friendly smile and never hesitating to share what he knows about football and this team specifically, whether it's with players or the media.
He was asked about rookie linebacker Akeem Dent on Tuesday morning and his response says as much as I can about Peterson and where he fits in with the Falcons.
"Impressive," Peterson said of the rookie. "He's what we pretty much expected. As the veteran guys and the coaches, we're just trying to shorten that learning curve, get him up to speed and speaking our language as far as the terminology. He's coming along and I think he'll be fine."