ORLANDO — For Atlanta coach Mike Smith, the road back to respectability in the NFC South became more challenging with the arrival of Lovie Smith in Tampa.
The Falcons averaged 11 wins per season and made the playoffs four times during Smith’s first five years with the Falcons before crippling injuries paved the way for a 4-12 finish in 2013. Atlanta ended up in third place, just ahead of the Bucs, who have dwelled in the division basement for three consecutive seasons.
“I’ve always thought the NFC South is the toughest division in the NFL,’’ Smith said Wednesday. “With Lovie and his administration coming to Tampa, it’s going to be even more competitive. I’m very excited about the opportunity to compete against Lovie. He’s a heck of a football coach. His defenses are always aggressive, not necessarily in scheme, but the way that they play. They’re a team that can always run and chase the football.’’
The Panthers won the division last season with a 12-4 mark under Ron Rivera, who earned NFL Coach of the Year honors. The Saints (11-5) advanced to the postseason as an NFC wild card.
“Ron had a great season in Carolina and their quarterback (Cam Newton) is one of the toughest to defend in the league — and you’ve got to play him twice,’’ Smith said. “When you go into New Orleans, you’re dealing with Drew Brees, who arguably is one of the best quarterbacks to ever play, and you know (coach) Sean Payton’s always going to have a great game plan.
“I think this division has gotten tougher, not easier. It’s probably the deepest in the league in terms of the quarterback position.’’
Rivera was asked repeatedly about Carolina’s decision to release five-time Pro Bowl WR Steve Smith, who was signed by the Ravens last week. There had been speculation the fiery Smith, who turns 35 in May, was jettisoned because Rivera thought he was a distraction and a negative influence on his young teammates.
“This was not a personal decision -- there was nothing personal about it,’’ Rivera said. “I’m a little disappointed that so many people reacted the way they did without truly understanding there was a lot of things that go into this. This was not a willy-nilly, fly-by-night vengeful thing ... this was very calculated.’’
Baltimore coach John Harbaugh acknowledges that Joe Flacco’s new weapon has lost a step. Still, Smith remains a big-play threat for an 8-8 club that ranked No. 29 in total offense.
“He’s a tough competitor and Steve Smith is a mature, grown man,’’ Harbaugh said. “He’s a family man and a man of faith. I think the world of him, I always have. He’s still got plenty left.’’
Tag, you’re it
It sounds like Saints Pro Bowl TE Jimmy Graham isn’t the only person in the organization who was disappointed when the Saints slapped the franchise tag on Drew Brees’ favorite target. Head coach Sean Payton said the NFL needs to re-evaluate the process of franchising a player, terming the procedure “antiquated.’’
Payton is also optimistic the Saints can work out a long-term agreement with Graham before the start of training camp.
“It’s hard to put a timetable on it,” Payton said Wednesday.
Graham, who led the cash-strapped Saints in receptions (86), yards (1,215) and touchdowns (16) last season, wants to be designated a wide receiver instead of a tight end so he can demand a more lucrative contract.