ATLANTA -- The Atlanta Falcons hired Jacksonville defensive coordinator Mike Smith as their new head coach Wednesday night.
"Mike possesses all of the key qualities we were looking for in a head coach," said general manager Thomas Dimitroff, in his first month on the job.
Dimitroff said the 48-year-old Smith, a nine-year NFL coaching veteran, "has strong experience with winning teams, a track record of success, a solid, smart approach to the game, and high character and integrity."
"I've played against his defense more than anybody in the world," Leftwich said. "I did it every day in practice for four years. I think he's a great guy for the job.
"A lot of people might not know his name, but I've seen the work he puts in every game, how guys were so prepared on Sundays that they knew exactly what teams were going to do."
Smith, a former defensive assistant with Baltimore, had the league's No. 12 defense with Jacksonville this season after ranking second in 2006 and sixth in 2005.
Leftwich said Smith would never receive enough credit in Jacksonville because many assumed Jaguars coach Jack Del Rio, a former defensive coordinator, was the real mastermind of the defense.
A false assumption, according to Leftwich.
"We always said Smitty would be a great head coach," the quarterback said, "because the time he put in and the way he interacted with players and how seriously he took his job."
The Falcons were mostly woeful in their 4-12 season, but most of the few bright spots were on defense, where Smith will find several established or rising stars: John Abraham, Rod Coleman, Keith Brooking, DeAngelo Hall, Lawyer Milloy and Michael Boley.
Even before hiring Dimitroff, Blank's search focused on defensive coaches. The Falcons may try to build a strong defense around those established players while rebuilding an offense devastated by the exit of Michael Vick, the star quarterback who was the face of the franchise before his guilty plea to federal dogfighting charges.
Vick is serving a 23-month sentence. He also is under an indefinite suspension by NFL commissioner Roger Goodell.
A key early decision by Smith and Dimitroff will be whether to choose a new quarterback with the Falcons' first pick, as high as No. 3 overall, in the April draft.
The Falcons tried three starting quarterbacks in 2007, but Leftwich, Joey Harrington and Chris Redman are not seen as long-term answers at the position.
The loss of Vick was too much for first-year coach Bobby Petrino to overcome. Petrino quit with a 3-10 record to take a job at Arkansas, leaving secondary coach Emmitt Thomas to finish out the 4-12 season as the interim head coach.
Smith will be Atlanta's sixth coach since December 2003. Before Petrino quit, Dan Reeves and Jim Mora were fired. Wade Phillips and Thomas worked three games each as interim replacements.
Other candidates included Minnesota Vikings defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier and former Ravens defensive coordinator Rex Ryan.
The team did not wait on an interview with New York Giants defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo. The Falcons were denied permission to interview Spagnuolo while the Giants, preparing for the Super Bowl, are in the postseason.
Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved