- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 24, 2004

GREENVILLE, S.C. — The bareheaded guy tossing footballs and bounding across the practice field at the Atlanta Falcons’ Furman University training camp isn’t some rookie quality control assistant looking to make his mark in the NFL.

He did that job 19 years ago. These days, the 42-year-old Jim Mora Jr. is the Falcons’ new coach, even though his energy level and easy nature sometimes belie that.

“Coach has a passion to win,” said cornerback Jason Webster, who played for Mora the past four years when he was a defensive coordinator in San Francisco and rejoined him in Atlanta as a free agent. “He’s special, not just because of the X’s and O’s but because of the way he cares for his players. He’s usually encouraging even when you get beat.”

Quarterback Michael Vick said he relates to the “real cool” Mora much easier than his 60-year-old, CEO-like predecessor, Dan Reeves. Mora refers to his players by nicknames like “Schauby” and “Swifty” and easily trades banter with reporters, answering questions with refreshing candor instead of typical coach-speak.

Mora also is friendly with members of the rock band Pearl Jam, whose guitars bear Falcons stickers. In other words, Mora isn’t his father, former New Orleans and Indianapolis coach Jim Mora, best remembered for postgame meltdowns in 1996 and 2001.

“In this day and age, players want to be told why, and Jim is willing to tell them why and wants to interact with them and bring the best out of them,” said Falcons offensive coordinator Greg Knapp, whom Mora brought with him from the 49ers.

While the young-looking Mora never has run a team, he’s as far from inexperienced as a rookie coach can be. Mora, who joins Dave Shula and Wade Phillips as the only sons of NFL coaches to become coaches themselves, grew up so immersed in football that he spurned his acceptance to Southern Cal’s graduate school of athletic administration in 1985 for an entry-level job with the San Diego Chargers’ personnel department.

Mora stocked the refrigerator and copy machine. He fetched meals. More important, he listened. So when his boss, Dave Adolph, became the Chargers’ defensive coordinator six games into the season, Mora, just 23, was one of the NFL’s first quality control coaches because he knew the defensive signals.

Nineteen years later, Mora finally has the job for which he has long prepared.

“I’m ready,” said Mora, whose mentors include Hall of Famer Bill Walsh, former boss Steve Mariucci and his father. “I’ve taken all the necessary steps to get to this point. The only thing I haven’t had to do is stand on the sidelines as a head coach. I saw my dad after wins. I saw him after losses. I saw how he handled the team, how he handled the media, the things he did well, the things he should have done better.”

Mora wowed Falcons owner Arthur Blank and general manager Rich McKay during his interview with his detailed plans for running a team.

“We believe in character players,” Mora said. “Talent is a factor obviously, but so are guys who come from good programs and who have been winners. We’re going to implement a work ethic and an intensity level that we hope others don’t match. We’re going to set a high standard and always strive to achieve it. This team never has had back-to-back winning seasons. We want to compete for the Super Bowl every year. We have to change the mind-set.”

McKay knows all about changing a mind-set. In 1996, he and rookie coach Tony Dungy — like Mora, a defensive coordinator from a winning program — inherited a Tampa Bay team that hadn’t reached postseason in 13 years. The Buccaneers made it in McKay’s second year as general manager.

“Jim was a real good fit because of his energy and willingness to build with young players,” McKay said. “I also wanted a commitment to defense because it had really come apart [ranking last in the league]. As much as we want to focus on Michael [Vick], it’s very hard to win championships if you don’t have the defensive side of the ball accounted for.”

Mora’s 49ers defenses never ranked in the top 10, so a quick fix isn’t a given, but any failures won’t be from a lack of effort by the Falcons’ defenders or their coach.

“It’s fun for me to be out on the field,” Mora said. “I don’t need to stand there all stoic. They say the team takes on the personality of its coach. I don’t know if that’s true, but I believe the players do feed off your energy.”

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