Mike Smith and Tony Sparano performed so brilliantly as rookie head coaches it was almost impossible to separate them.
Both coaches oversaw sensational turnarounds, leading their teams from last-place finishes in 2007 to playoff berths this year. Their achievements were reflected by the closeness of the balloting, with Smith getting 23.5 votes and Sparano 22.5 from a nationwide panel of 50 sports writers and broadcasters who cover the NFL.
After improving from 4-12 to 11-5 and making the NFC playoffs as a wild card, the Falcons fell 30-24 at Arizona on Saturday night. That should not detract from a memorable season that bodes well for the football future in Atlanta.
"I think we have tried to establish that we'd be very systematic in how we did things, that we were going to have a plan," said Smith, who helped guide quarterback Matt Ryan to the AP Offensive Rookie of the Year award. Smith also had a first-time starter at running back, Michael Turner, who rushed for 1,699 yards and 17 touchdowns. "We laid that plan out from the very beginning how we were going to practice, how we were going to travel, how we were going to meet, how we were going to communicate, and I think the guys really appreciated definitely how we presented the plan in the framework for us to start the season."
Smith also had to deal with a makeover of the Falcons organization and its image following the incarceration of quarterback Michael Vick for dogfighting and the resignation after 13 games last season by coach Bobby Petrino. He left Jacksonville, where he was the defensive coordinator, to take on one of the biggest rebuilding challenges in sports.
"We went through every bit of pain last year that an NFL owner or a franchise or a community of fans could imagine," said Falcons owner Arthur Blank, who hired Thomas Dimitroff away from New England to be general manager before hiring Smith. "At least that's my viewpoint. On the other hand, to see things come around this year as well as they have, it's just a tribute to the men involved who are making these decisions."
Sparano, a former offensive line coach in Dallas, joined Bill Parcells with the Dolphins and the makeover in Miami was just as impressive as in Atlanta. The Dolphins were 1-15 a year ago before cleaning house, and Sparano guided them to an 11-5 mark that won the AFC East. They were hosting Baltimore on Sunday in a wild-card game.
Sparano echoes Smith's philosophy on establishing a winning identity.
"You have to have some kind of luck," Sparano said. "But I think part of it is a philosophy you try to put into place. You want to make sure they understand from Day 1 that if you're a guy who thinks being in the training room is a good habit, it can get you beat. Not being on the practice field, we don't get better at fundamentals and our techniques."
Only one team has ever improved as much as Miami's 10-game turnaround: the 1999 Indianapolis Colts.
Just four coaches received votes despite a year in which a half-dozen did exemplary work. Tennessee's Jeff Fisher, the longest-tenured coach in the league, received three votes, while last year's winner, Bill Belichick of New England, got one.
Smith is the second Falcons coach to win the award; Dan Reeves got it in 1998 -- when the Falcons went to the Super Bowl.