For five seasons, they were on the same team. This Saturday night, Mike Smith and Jack Del Rio will approach the start of the preseason from opposite sides.
Smith was Del Rio's defensive coordinator for those five seasons, and the performance of the Jaguars defense under Smith won him the head coach's job with the Atlanta Falcons. In Jacksonville this Saturday, Smith begins the rather sizeable task of attempting to reverse the fortunes of a Falcons franchise that suffered through a nightmarish year in 2007.
"Yeah, I was Jack's guy," Smith said when asked about his role as the defensive coordinator for a head coach whose expertise is defense. "I've learned a lot from Jack; not just X's and O's but how to run a football team."
Smith watched as Del Rio built the Jaguars from a down-and-out team in 2003 to a club that is being billed as a Super Bowl favorite in 2008. Smith acquired a blueprint for rebuilding, and now he'll apply it to the Falcons, a team that may step immediately into its future this season with a rookie quarterback. Sound familiar?
"When they hired me, the thing we talked about is being very systematic in how we would put our football team together. We're starting with a new slate. We're changing the culture in the whole building. The first thing you have to do is change people's behavior," Smith said of his blueprint for change in Atlanta.
"It's been a process we're going through. We're very communicative. If we're accountable to each other, then we have a chance to be disciplined," Smith added.
His blueprint gets its first preseason test against the Jaguars, who are not facing the same kind of test the Falcons are. The Jaguars will likely spend the game evaluating talent and resting players. The Falcons will likely take a longer look at their front-line players.
"We're obviously in a different place. We want to go through the evaluation process but we're in a different place in terms of where our football team is. We're just starting the process. They're light years ahead of us. We don't have a lot of shoo-in guys who are going to make our roster," Smith said.
Del Rio's starting units are set, as is most of his roster. The changes and decisions that will result from this preseason will be fewer for Del Rio than for Smith.
The big issue for the Jaguars continues to be the absence of first-round draft choice Derrick Harvey from training camp. Harvey is the league's only unsigned first-round pick and training camp is now beyond the halfway point.
"There's really nothing to report. I'm aware that the number nine spot was filled behind us," Del Rio said of Keith Rivers coming to terms with the Cincinnati Bengals on Tuesday. Harvey is the eighth overall pick of the draft.
"Time missed is time lost and we're going to keep going with the guys we have," Del Rio said. "The higher percentage of players that stay out come in and get injured. It can be problematic."
Wednesday afternoon's practice was the final chance for Jaguars fans to attend training camp. Del Rio thanked those who had attended.
"We've been real pleased with the way the crowds have treated us this year. It's been a real good environment to work in," he said.