Emmitt Thomas has longed for the opportunity to be a NFL head coach.
The 64-year old Texas native never thought it would happen like this.
"I'm glad to be in a position to do something that needs to be done," Thomas said.
Thomas has coached for 28 years, nearly all of it in the NFL. Before that, Thomas played 13 years for the Kansas City Chiefs as a defensive back, winning Super Bowl IV with the Chiefs and finishing with 58 career interceptions. He is up for induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame as a seniors committee nomination this February.
Thomas said he does not look at these three games as an audition for the head-coaching job. He said he had his opportunity in Philadelphia in 1998 when he was the Eagles' defensive coordinator, and Jon Gruden was the Eagles' offensive coordinator.
Thomas did not get the job. The Eagles hired Andy Reid. Thomas moved on to coordinate the defense in Green Bay in 1999 and Minnesota in 2000-01 before joining the Falcons.
"I'll be 65 in June," Thomas said. "I had my chance several years ago in Philadelphia when I was coaching with (Jon) and it didn't happen for me," Thomas said.
But Thomas' overall experience in the NFL was a factor in his elevation to head coach. The Falcons desired to keep offensive coordinator Hue Jackson and defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer in their roles. So they made Thomas, the most experienced coach on the team, the head coach.
Thomas didn't get into specifics about how he might game plan for Sunday but implied that continuity was key.
"I don't think there's going to be any difference," Thomas said.
Thomas is considered a coaching pioneer in the African-American community. Both Indianapolis head coach Tony Dungy and Chicago coach Lovie Smith mentioned during the last Super Bowl that they felt Thomas was one of the coaches that paved the way for their opportunities to be a head coach.
Gruden's respect for Thomas was obvious when asked about Thomas's elevation to head coach on Wednesday.
"I think he's outstanding," Gruden said. "He's a great guy. He's a heck of a man and he's an NFL Hall-of-Fame caliber player and coach."
Thomas' role now appears to be that of caretaker of a franchise so shaken by bad vibrations that it's impossible to get a fix on their emotional state entering Sunday's game.
Running back Warrick Dunn said Wednesday that Thomas was the right person to keep the team going the rest of this season.
"He's played in this league and he's coached in this league and we respect him," Dunn said.
Thomas' biggest task on Sunday isn't the playbook, he said. It's getting his beleaguered team to believe that good things can still happen.
"The way they can show me and Mr. (Falcons owner Arthur) Blank their heart is to play well the next three weeks," Thomas said. "We're pros and they pay us good money and we need to play well and get our fans back in our corner."
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Matthew Postins covers the Buccaneers for Bucsblitz.com and the Charlotte (Fla.) Sun-Herald. He is a member of the Pro Football Writers Association, and his coverage of the Buccaneers has won numerous state and national awards.