- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 22, 2005

Jim Mora did not expect his son’s team to win so easily. His son, also named Jim Mora — James Lawrence Mora — is the first-year coach of the Atlanta Falcons. Saturday in Atlanta’s Georgia Dome, the Falcons beat the St. Louis Rams 47-17 in an NFC divisional playoff game. But that wasn’t the only surprise.

Visiting with his two brothers and some college pals in an office after the game, the younger Mora presented a football to his dad. Not a game ball exactly but more of a statement that proclaimed, “We finally got one.”

Jim Mora — James Ernest Mora — won two U.S. Football League championships as coach of the Philadelphia/Baltimore Stars but went 0-6 in the playoffs with the New Orleans Saints and Indianapolis Colts. Mora is the only NFL coach with at least 100 victories never to win a playoff game. Now here was his son going deep in his first postseason at-bat.

“It meant a lot to me,” Jim Mora said of the postgame presentation. “It brought tears to my eyes.”

Mora has watched his son grow into a man — although not as closely as he would have liked — and into the job of rookie NFL coach.

“I like the fact that he went in and set the standards high for the team,” the older Mora said. “He let them know what his philosophy was, and he had a very aggressive approach and stayed with that approach throughout the season.

“A lot of times, a coach will tell his team, ‘We’re gonna go for it on fourth down, we’re gonna fake punts, we’re gonna be aggressive,’ and when it comes right down to it to doing it, they don’t do it. He stayed with a very aggressive approach.”

The Falcons responded by going 11-5 during the regular season and winning the NFC South by three games. Then they clobbered the Rams. Now Atlanta finds itself playing the Philadelphia Eagles tomorrow for the conference championship and a ticket to Super Bowl XXXIX in Jacksonville, Fla.

The game is at Philadelphia’s Lincoln Financial Field, where the forecast calls for bitter cold, wind, maybe some snow and more than 68,000 fans disguised as basket cases. The Eagles have lost three straight NFC title games and have been to the Super Bowl just once, 24 years ago. How the fans will react specifically if their team makes it four in a row is uncertain, except that it won’t be pretty.

Meanwhile, the younger Mora has been blowing sunshine into his team’s collective psyche, downplaying the weather and the nasty environment and the fact that the Falcons are one of those “dome teams” that purportedly can’t play outside in harsh conditions.

“There’s nothing we can do about it, so we’re not going to worry about it,” Mora said earlier this week. “I don’t think it’s an advantage for either team. It’s just what it is. I think if you spend your whole week worrying about the conditions that you’re going to play in, then you’ve wasted a lot of energy on things you can’t control. Why worry about the things you can’t control?”

Mora does not seem to be the worrying kind, at least publicly. NFL coaches as a whole are a dour, serious lot who worry too much, work too much and sweat the details to the point of dehydration. An NFL coach for 20 of his 43 years, Mora is, by all accounts, as nitpicky and organized as the rest of them. But he emanates a certain sparkle, a high-energy, feel-good vibe that distinguishes him from many of his sourpuss peers.

And his once-sourpuss dad.

Today, as a radio talk show host and analyst on the NFL Network, Jim Mora the ex-coach comes across as a pleasant enough fellow. As a coach, his emotions spanned the agony of defeat to the agony of victory.

“I’ve always had a tendency to be a little too negative at times,” Mora said. “Someone would say, ‘What about next week?’ and I’d say, ‘I don’t know if we can get this one.’ [My son] is more like, ‘Yeah, we’re gonna win.’ He’s been pretty positive his whole life. And he’s always positive about his team. Maybe inside he didn’t feel as positive as the approach he took, but his outward demeanor is always positive.”

He is, however, no pushover. The Falcons’ Mora cedes nothing to the likes of Bill Belichick, Bill Cowher and Andy Reid in preaching toughness, discipline and teamwork, and he knows how to play bad cop when necessary — with players and those outside the program.

After defensive tackle Rod Coleman was hurt in a car crash in October, Mora ditched his usual rapport with the press and testily stonewalled the release of information, sparking an angry exchange with reporters. He is, remember, still a coach.

But he is also a kid, relatively speaking, the third-youngest coach in the league, who looks and occasionally acts even younger than his age. For example, Mora likes music, all kinds, rock to rap. So in addition to dealing with all the serious football stuff, he also picked the tunes played over the loudspeaker before Falcons games. As detail-oriented as Belichick is, does he even hear the music?

“I think he relates very well to his players, and they relate to him,” the elder Mora said of his son.

Asked what his coach has brought to the team in terms of attitude, quarterback Michael Vick this week said, “Just a lot of enthusiasm. A great attitude, a hard attitude that we’re going to go out and win every football game we’re going to play. And a lot of guys have bought into that and a lot of guys believe it and his philosophy. And that’s going out and playing and giving it everything you’ve got.”

Mora grew up in Seattle and walked on as a reserve linebacker at the University of Washington. After that, he embarked upon a coaching journey that took him to San Diego, New Orleans (where he worked for his father for five years) and San Francisco. Two years after Mora joined the 49ers as secondary coach, coach Steve Mariucci promoted him to defensive coordinator. Mora parlayed his success with that into the Falcons job.

Mora, who has four children, has said one thing that rubbed off from Mariucci was somehow trying to find time for family and interests outside of football despite the demands of the job. His father concedes, “He’s done a much better job of that than I ever did.”

The Atlanta job opened up after Dan Reeves was fired toward the end of last season. Playing most of the year without Vick, who broke his leg in a preseason game, the Falcons finished 5-11.

Mora is the first to acknowledge Reeves put most of the pieces in place for this year’s run. But it was Mora who brought not only a new plan and a new zest to the organization but also offensive coordinator Greg Knapp from San Francisco to install a version of the West Coast offense and Alex Gibbs, the acclaimed line coach. With a healthy Vick and running backs Warrick Dunn and T.J. Duckett (so named the “DVD” backfield. Get it?), the Falcons led the league in rushing.

On defense, Mora added coordinator Ed Donatell (fired after Green Bay’s fourth-and-26 debacle against the Eagles during last year’s playoffs), who junked the old 3-4 alignment. In their 4-3 scheme, the Falcons improved from last in total defense to 14th and led the league in sacks.

“I think he’s very perceptive about coaches,” former Falcons center Jeff Van Note said. “He knew what kind of football team he wanted to have and who he wanted coaching them. He’s pushed all the right buttons from the get-go.”

Van Note has a certain perspective when it comes to the Falcons. He played 18 years for the team, 1969 to 1986, and then went to the radio booth, which means he has seen just about every game in the last 36 years. (That includes his one season with Tennessee Titans’ radio network, when he viewed the Atlanta games on tape.)

“The head coach sets the tone, and his is a very uplifting one,” Van Note said of Mora. “I think he’s done the best coaching job with the Falcons I’ve ever seen.”

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