When Mike Smith took over the Atlanta Falcons in 2008, he inherited a team that had a few seasons in a row where they got worse and worse for discipline and penalties. The season prior to Smith’s hiring saw the Falcons flagged the 26th most times in the NFL. Smith and his staff improved that immediately as the Falcons finished as the fourth fewest penalized team in 2008 and then again in 2009. In 2010, they were the least flagged team in the NFL.
In 2011 they took a small step backwards, but they were still were a top-10 team for fewest penalties. This season, Smith’s squad was flagged a measly three times per game, which reclaimed their spot as the least penalized team around. It is no coincidence that the Falcons were the no.1 seed in the NFC in 2010 and 2012 as they had marvelous discipline and skilled play. In fact, the 2010 and 2012 Falcons were two of the three best teams for fewest penalties in league history.
Penalties are of course a hot topic for any coach, but Smith in particular is pretty clear about his disdain for having his guys flagged. The angriest moments we see from him during a game is when he is jotting notes about which player was called for which penalty. Those notes will be brought up, likely unpleasantly, next week in practice.
A positive side effect is that the Falcons have been so good for so long under Smith as far as playing the right way that if there is a moment requiring a judgement call or benefit of the doubt, Smith’s squad has seemingly earned favor in those scenarios. My hat is off to Smith and his staff for earning the reputation as a team that plays football the right way and within the rules.
John Abraham was their top offender for penalties, but he was flagged just six times and most of those were trying to get good jumps off the snap in order to do what he does: attack the quarterback. He is not a guy who you want to try to curb his aggressiveness, so even some of those flags were digestible for the Falcons. They are simply not going to give you free first downs, they are not going to go backwards on offense and they are simply not going to beat themselves under Mike Smith. Impressive.