Thursday January 20th, 2005

ST. LOUIS -- While Rich McKay was taking over as the new general manager in Atlanta on Monday, the man who very well could emerge as the Falcons' next head coach spent his afternoon with a case of Bengals on the brain.

St. Louis Rams defensive coordinator Lovie Smith is one of the leading candidates for the Atlanta head coaching vacancy, but for now he's keeping his present job demands front and center, without losing sight of his long-term goals.

"I have tunnel vision right now,'' said Smith, whose NFC West champion Rams began preparations for Sunday's game against Cincinnati.

"We have the Bengals coming in. They're fighting for the playoffs. We're in the playoffs and are trying to get home-field advantage. I have Jon Kitna on my mind. And those great runners and receivers that they have. We know we have a battle on our hands. A long time ago in Macomb [Ill., training camp], we set out to be world champions, and we're still taking steps toward that.''

But on a parallel track, Smith keeps taking steps toward realizing his career-long goal of becoming an NFL head coach. The better the Rams play, the better Smith's candidacy looks. Many within the league now believe him to be well-positioned to land the Falcons' job, joining McKay, with whom he worked with from 1996-2000 in Tampa Bay.

"I saw a long time ago myself being a head football coach in the NFL,'' Smith said, taking a brief break the day after St. Louis (11-3) wrapped up the division with a 27-22 showdown win against visiting Seattle. "I'm a patient man, but hopefully that time is coming soon. I feel like right now every Sunday I get a chance to interview for a head coaching job. And that's the best interview I can have, for us to continue to put a good product on the field.''

Given the NFL's rules against tampering, the Falcons can't contact St. Louis to request permission to interview Smith for another two weeks -- the day after the Rams' Dec. 28 regular-season finale at Detroit. But with it looking very likely that St. Louis will have a first-round bye in the playoffs, Smith could meet with the Falcons as early as that week, in the window that the league has provided for the interviewing of coaching candidates whose teams remain alive in the postseason.

"I'm getting calls from folks, but I really haven't heard a thing,'' Smith said of the buzz that he'll interview for the Falcons' job. "My family and friends have heard a little on the news. But I can honestly say I've never talked Rich about being a head football coach. And Rich just got the Atlanta job [Monday]. There's a lot of speculation out there, but believe me there's nothing to any of that at this point.''

But rest assured there will be, and even Smith had trouble concealing how much the Falcons' situation and the idea of working with McKay again intrigues him.

"As I say, my goal is to be a head coach in the National Football League,'' Smith said. "I wouldn't even comment on a job that is supposed to open, but the Atlanta Falcons' job is open, and we played them this year and I'm very familiar with who they have there.

"I'm sure with Rich running the organization, it's going to be a great situation. And you say, 'Sure, Lovie, you're going to say that.' But I know him. I've been with Rich. I know him and how he operates. Trust me, it'll be a great situation. I'm going to be excited no matter where I end up one day as a head coach. But whoever the coach for the Atlanta Falcons is is going to be pretty happy.''

While league sources say the Falcons and McKay are expected to make a big push for LSU head coach Nick Saban, the odds of luring him away from Baton Rouge are considered long. Smith is thought to be the next strongest candidate in McKay's eyes, and his hiring would be a virtual echo of the move he attempted to make in Tampa Bay when he intended to have then-Ravens defensive coordinator Marvin Lewis replace head coach Tony Dungy in January 2002. Smith is a disciple of Dungy's Cover 2 defensive scheme, a system that McKay believes in.

Smith is in his third season as the Rams' defensive coordinator, and has been viewed as one of the league's hot head coaching prospects since 2001, when his improved St. Louis defense helped the Rams reach their second Super Bowl in three seasons.

"He'll be a tremendous head coach,'' Rams third-year safety Adam Archuleta said Monday. "He's pretty much destined for this. It's just a matter of when, not if. That guy, he's been the best coach I've ever been around, period. It's hard to put into words if you haven't been around him on a daily basis, and see how he deals with the players, how he talks with us, how he motivates us.

"And there's not only that, but there's his football intelligence. Lovie is a very, very smart man when it comes to defense and X's and O's. I know [Rams head coach] Mike [Martz] is like that on the other side of the ball, he's at the top. But with Lovie, it'll be a hell of a deal for whoever gets him. And it'll be a bad deal for us. I don't think you'll find any guy in that locker room who has a negative thing to say about him. Everybody in that room would play for him anywhere, any day.''

After serving as Dungy's linebackers coach in Tampa Bay, and Martz's defensive coordinator in St. Louis, Smith feels he has been exposed to two of the best coaches in the league, on opposite sides of the ball. His preparation for a head coaching job is close to complete.

"I feel like I've been put in situations to make myself a better head coach once I do get there,'' Smith said. "There's no doubt I feel ready. You never know anything for sure, but believe me, I'm confident I can do the job as a head football coach of a team in the NFL. Before I became a coordinator, I thought I was ready for it the year before I got the opportunity. I had to wait another year, but I was ready when I got my chance.''

But for now, Smith has only to keep working and keep waiting. Knowing that his time, and his turn, might be fast approaching.

"I'm excited about so much,'' Smith said. "I think there are so many good things that can happen in the future for me. But right now we still have a bad taste in our mouth around here, from 2001. That hasn't gone away. That can occupy all your thoughts right there. And then there's Cincinnati, beating them can help us get where we want to go.

"But in the same sense, you can look a little farther down the line and you can hope that that head coaching job is in your future. I believe it is. But right now I'm being paid by only one organization, and that's the Rams, and they expect me to do my job 24/7.''

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