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Mike Smith helped save Atlanta Falcons, but a change is in order

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Yogi Berra famously said, "It ain't over 'til it's over."

And in theory, in the incredibly weak NFC South, it's not over for the Atlanta Falcons.

In reality, though, it's over. Has to be.

"It" is the reign of Mike Smith as Falcons head coach.

I don't write this to sensationalize. I don't write this with a smile on my face, considering how much I like and respect Mike Smith.

But you know when a regime needs to end. You see it. You feel it. The expiration date for Mike Smith is at the end of the 2014 season, after a largely solid tenure running the Falcons.

Smith, in conjunction with general manager Thomas Dimitroff and quarterback Matt Ryan, rescued the organization from the depths of embarrassment. Amid the foul odor of franchise face Michael Vick being imprisoned for running a dog-fighting ring followed by head coach Bobby Petrino quitting in cowardly fashion, the Falcons were in football hell. Smith helped bring Atlanta back to respectability. That can't be diminished. Mike Smith is 62-41 as the Falcons' coach in the regular season. They made the playoffs four times in Smith's first five years at the helm -- after hitting the postseason just five times in the 25 years prior to Smith's arrival. That's good stuff.

But is he the right man to take this franchise to the next level, to make the Falcons a consistent bunch that can win in the playoffs?

Evidence says absolutely not. Intuition says the same thing.

Mike Smith's playoff record is 1-4. His fourth-down antics in a wild-card loss to the New York Giants back in January of 2012 serve as a snapshot of Smith's goofy and questionable in-game strategy in big spots, a microcosm of larger frustration.

The Falcons were supposed to fly last year. Even before devastating injuries absolutely leveled the team, early losses to the New Orleans Saints and New York Jets were preventable. And since the start of the 2013 season, Atlanta is 6-17. You must give Smith credit for the early winning percentage. But you also must criticize him for 10 double-digit losses in his past 17 games. Clearly, this is going in the wrong direction.

As displayed in HBO's "Hard Knocks" this past summer, the Falcons' grand plan in the build-up to this season was to shed a reputation as a "soft" team. And frankly, this characterization wasn't simply a media creation. Atlanta was punished and pushed around in the trenches in 2013, finishing with the NFL's worst rushing offense and second-worst rushing defense. In response, Dimitroff hit this past offseason with a purpose, pouncing on three valuable line assets on Day 1 of free agency (NT Paul Soliai, DT Tyson Jackson and OG Jon Asamoah) and proceeding to spend the Falcons' first- and second-round picks on spots in the trenches (OT Jake Matthews at No. 6 overall, DT Ra'Shede Hageman at No. 37).

The result? Atlanta is still getting crushed. The blowouts are starting to pile up. During their current four-game losing streak, the Falcons have lost by an average of two touchdowns. The home debacle against Chicago in Week 6 was followed up by a no-show in Baltimore on Sunday. Yes, Sean Weatherspoon's offseason injury hurt, as have ailments along the offensive line. But it's just a bad brew right now, snowballing downhill.

The irony isn't lost that the final nail for Smith could have come against a coach he'll always be compared to. Baltimore hired John Harbaugh the same year Smith was the pick in Atlanta. The Falcons spent a first-round selection on Matt Ryan that offseason. The Ravens did the same with Joe Flacco.

Harbaugh's regular-season mark (67-36) isn't much different from Smith's record. The separation, of course, comes in the playoffs. Harbaugh has eight more postseason wins -- and, most especially, he was what Smith craves: a Super Bowl championship.

Baltimore has dealt with major adversity this year stemming from Ray Rice's domestic violence incident. Seven weeks into the season, the Ravens are in first place in a strong AFC North.

Meanwhile, Atlanta is a two-win team dwindling in the bottom half of a weak division.

That's a noteworthy juxtaposition.

Now, the NFC South has become a hot mess from top to bottom. You can't trust any of the four teams, as the division's winless weekend proved yet again. (Last-place Tampa Bay didn't lose ... because the Buccaneers didn't play.) Thus, the Falcons are not dead in the division race. But even if the Falcons win nine games (which I don't think will happen) and grab the NFC South crown (again, long shot), is that good enough? Is that considered a success when the bar has supposedly been raised in Atlanta?

The 2014 season was about toughness; it was about proving the 2013 disaster was a fluke.

Unfortunately, the lackluster campaign of last year is looking more like the beginning of a trend. And it will be a bitter disappointment for Atlanta to not take advantage of its hapless competition.

The Falcons are moving into a new, state-of-the-art stadium in 2017. They can't keep sinking. Owner Arthur Blank needs a winner. He deserves one.

Smith, Dimitroff and Ryan all arrived in 2008. If we are ranking how they've each performed, I think Smith is clearly No. 3. And the downward spiral of the past 14 months proves it's time to cut the weakest link.

Maybe this is the job that attracts the next big-name college coach. Maybe this is the gig Nick Saban jumps at, with his ties to front-office folks in Atlanta. Maybe it's the next hot NFL assistant, or the currently-out-of-work coach with a Super Bowl ring.

But there's no maybe about Atlanta needing a different voice for 2015.

Mike Smith helped save the franchise. Now it's time for the next coach to get Atlanta to the next level.

Follow Adam Schein on Twitter @AdamSchein.

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