Jim Mora knows Philadelphia well. The rookie coach of the Atlanta Falcons says he loves the city. But he knows Philadelphia won't be loving him back this weekend, so he offered his players a midweek warning to pass on to friends and family members planning to be in the stands at Lincoln Financial Field this afternoon when the Falcons face the Eagles in the NFC championship game.
"I said, 'Listen, guys, if your parents or girlfriends or brothers or friends are going, tell them to wear green. Don't wear black and red because they'll get the [stuffing] beat out of them,' " said Mora, who spent two summers during his college years working for the Philadelphia Stars of the United States Football League when his father, who also goes by Jim, coached the team.
Mora chuckled and said it with admiration, almost affection. The fervor of the city's fans, he said, is something the Falcons would like to see emulated by their followers. But Mora knows playing in front of one of the league's roughest crowds will be even tougher than usual today because the stakes are so high. The Eagles are trying to avoid losing a fourth straight NFC title game. And when they and others look at the Falcons these days, they can't help but notice the resemblance to last season's Carolina Panthers, the team that went to Philadelphia and won the NFC championship en route to a loss to the New England Patriots in the Super Bowl.
Last season's Panthers had a rising star of a head coach in his forties with a defensive background in John Fox. The Falcons have the same in Mora, 43, formerly the defensive coordinator of the San Francisco 49ers. Last season's Panthers won the NFC South title with an 11-5 record, having begun their turnaround with a strong finish to a losing season the previous year. These Falcons won the NFC South crown at 11-5, building on their 3-1 finish to last season that followed a 2-10 start.
Last season's Panthers won with a tough defense keyed by a hard-charging line, complementing a run-first offense. The Falcons have a greatly improved defense featuring two top pass rushers -- end Patrick Kerney and tackle Rod Coleman, who combined for 24 1/2 sacks during the regular season -- and had the league's top rushing offense this season. And the Falcons have an ingredient the Panthers didn't have: quarterback Michael Vick.
With a healthy Vick, the Falcons went 9-6-1 and reached the playoffs in the 2002 season, winning a first-round game at Green Bay before losing at Philadelphia, 20-6, in an NFC semifinal. Last season's horrific start came after Vick broke his leg in an exhibition game, and the solid finish came with Vick back in the lineup. But that wasn't enough for former coach Dan Reeves to keep his job. Told by Falcons owner Arthur Blank he would be fired at the end of the season, Reeves opted to leave immediately and was replaced by defensive coordinator Wade Phillips for the final three games. This season, Vick was healthy again, and the Falcons were winners.
"We made the playoffs the year before with [Vick] healthy," Reeves said by telephone last week. "I definitely felt like we were heading in the right direction. We just lost him [last season]. You don't like to say you're depending on one player so much because it is a team sport, but there are some players who change so much. He makes the other players on your offense better because defenses have to adjust so much to him. He makes your defense better because they're not on the field so much. He's definitely one of those guys who changes the game."
But Vick isn't the only reason for the Falcons' success. Vick said last week Mora has brought enthusiasm and an attitude of toughness to the team. "A lot of guys believe it and his philosophy, and that's going out and playing and giving it everything that you've got," Vick said during a news conference.
Mora certainly was not the favorite for the Falcons' coaching job when the club interviewed him last winter. Blank spoke to his friend, Joe Gibbs, about the position, but knew as soon as the Washington Redskins' coaching job became available that Gibbs would return to his former team. The Falcons interviewed St. Louis Rams defensive coordinator Lovie Smith, who ended up as the Chicago Bears' coach, and Patriots defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel. The team approached LSU Coach Nick Saban about leaving the college ranks.
But Blank and new Falcons general manager Rich McKay were impressed by what they saw and heard in two interviews with Mora and signed him to a five-year, $7.5 million contract. The hire didn't seem to overwhelm Falcons fans. But Mora went about things the right way, assembling a coaching staff that blended old and new, experience and youth. He was deferential to Reeves, even retaining Reeves's son-in-law, Joe DeCamillis, as the Falcons' special teams coordinator. Mora and Reeves, who still lives in Atlanta, remain friendly.
Mora brought along 49ers offensive coordinator Greg Knapp to run his offense. He lured one of the game's most experienced and respected offensive line coaches, Alex Gibbs, from the Denver Broncos. He hired Ed Donatell, who had coached him at the University of Washington, to be his defensive coordinator. Donatell was ousted in Green Bay following last season's overtime playoff loss in Philadelphia in which the Packers' defense allowed the Eagles to convert fourth and 26 en route to a game-tying field goal.
The Falcons signed Coleman and cornerback Jason Webster as free agents and used the eighth overall choice in the draft on cornerback DeAngelo Hall, trying to upgrade a defense that ranked last in the NFL last season. They succeeded. The Falcons moved up to 14th in the league in total defense this season, and Vick and tailbacks Warrick Dunn and T.J. Duckett took care of most of the offense.
"We brought in a very experienced coaching staff, and our players have faith in our system," Mora said. "I hate to use the term 'bought into it' because it sounds like you're selling them something. I just think that they have faith in what we're telling them. . . . It's nothing magical. A big part of it is that the guy that takes the snap every time, he helps us win a little bit."
Said Reeves: "They added some players in the draft and in free agency who have made a difference. They've done a good job of that. There's such a small difference between winning and losing. If you can just change a few plays a game, you can turn things around. . . . It hasn't really surprised me at all what they've done."
Mora doesn't seem to dread playing in Philadelphia. He sounds like he can't wait, and he attempted to pass that sense of anticipation on to his players during his mid-week address.
"I said, 'You know what, it's going to be awesome. They might be throwing batteries at us. They might be dumping dog [excrement] on us. They might be throwing snowballs at us. They'll be spitting on us, throwing beers at us,' " Mora said during a conference call. "I said, 'Man, guys, you've got to love it.' "
Mora's father coached the Stars in 1983 and '84 before accompanying the franchise to Baltimore for the USFL's final season in '85. He led the Stars to two league championships, one with the club in Philadelphia. And the younger Mora spent two summers home from college living with his family in South Jersey, working one summer in the ticket office at Veterans Stadium and the other helping out in the personnel department.
After the USFL folded, Mora was in demand in the NFL and was pursued by the Eagles and New Orleans Saints. He chose the Saints -- over the objection of his son, who pushed for the Eagles. The Eagles ended up with Buddy Ryan as their coach for the '86 season.
Mora said his father plans to be at today's game, rooting for the Falcons. "I said, 'Hey, Dad, I'm going to put you up in the press box or down on the field,' " Mora said. "He said, 'No, no, no, I'm sitting in the stands.' And I said, 'There's no way you're sitting in the stands. Number one, they know who you are, and they're going to kill you.' He said, 'No, no, no, they love me in Philadelphia.' I said, 'Oh . . . Dad, they might love you, but they don't love me and the Falcons.' "