"You can find that young guy in your locker room that you're developing or you can get a veteran safety to come in and be the commander in the secondary," Maxie said. "But you go out and pay for it."
Maxie, a seven-year NFL assistant entering his second season with the Atlanta Falcons, should know. As a former defensive back who spent his entire 13-year career in the old NFC West, Maxie entered the league when
New Orleans signed him as an undrafted free agent from Texas Southern.
No player survives that long in professional football without considerable physical skills, and Maxie was no exception, but his longevity was due primarily to smarts and savvy.
"I learned from a guy like Dave Waymer," Maxie said of the late cornerback who had 15 interceptions for the Saints in 1987-88. "I learned from them things like study habits _ how to watch film, what to look for, how to help your corners out, how to look for the hashmark, down and distance, personnel, formation tendencies."
Following the Falcons' bone-chilling loss at Philadelphia, many critics pointed to the safety position as the weakest link in the Atlanta defense. The Eagles won 27-10, in part because their Pro Bowl safeties, Brian Dawkins and Michael Lewis, were so dominant.
Bryan Scott and Cory Hall suited up for Atlanta, but both seemed to lack tenacity following concussions they sustained in the regular season. As Dawkins and Lewis combined for six tackles, one interception, one pass defensed and a forced fumble, Hall recorded no stats and Scott allowed Brian Westbrook to bounce off his shoulder pads en route to a 36-yard run that set up the Eagles' first touchdown.
Seven months later, Hall is out of football and Scott is coming off shoulder surgery that kept him out of the first two preseason games. Scott will make his debut at free safety against the Titans as the Falcons give Keion Carpenter, who missed all of last season with a torn knee ligament, his second straight start at strong safety.
Maxie considers Carpenter, a six-year veteran, as the secondary's coach on the field. Though he couldn't play last year, Carpenter attended every practice, lecture and film session.
With fellow secondary coach Emmitt Thomas watching the game from the coaches' box above the field, Maxie leaned on Carpenter during games to make sure the safeties understood how opponents intended to attack.
"I think his presence in the classroom helped me not only understand his value as a player but during a game I could count on him to help Bryan Scott, to help Cory Hall," Maxie said. "When I was handling personnel or looking at tendencies, he was watching. When they came in, he would go right over and tell them what needed to be done."
Head coach Jim Mora, who broke into the NFL as a secondary coach before Steve Mariucci promoted him to defensive coordinator six years ago in San Francisco, doesn't care that many in the media believe Carpenter's better days ended when he underwent spinal fusion surgery following the 2002 playoffs.
"I think one of the things that Keion does, and I know that Brett (Maxie) is great at it, is teaching young guys how to watch film and what to look for," Mora said. "I think what you are seeing with Bryan Scott and (cornerback) DeAngelo Hall is that they are learning how to look at film, and learning how to read tactical clues that they see on film and translate that to the field."
Carpenter is battling Ronnie Heard, who signed as an unrestricted free agent from the 49ers, for a starting job. Either way, both veterans are likely to make the final cut in three weeks, but Carpenter wants to erase all doubts.
At 205, he is 10 pounds lighter than the weight he carried in 2003. Tearing an anterior cruciate ligament caused Carpenter to work hard on improving his upper-body strength.
"I'm a lot stronger than I've ever been," Carpenter said. "For about three to four months, all I could do was upper-body work because I couldn't run. The thing is, I've got more muscle mass. I'm moving around a lot quicker."
Kevin McCadam, Rich Coady and Etric Pruitt are competing for the No. 4 spot, but McCadam has a considerable edge given the important roles he has on special teams.
Mora believes Carpenter will help Scott immeasurably. He compares to situation to one he had in San Francisco with Tony Parrish and Zach Bronson.
"Tony Parrish told me that when he was in Chicago _ if you recall, he wasn't a productive player _ he used to make the calls," Mora said. "When he came to San Francisco he became a very productive player. He had like 15 interceptions his first two years. He said a lot of it was because Zach Bronson handled everything and let him just play. It left the burden on him to just listen, react, and play.
"With a guy like Keion or Ronnie, it gives a guy like Bryan Scott, who has playmaking ability. More of green light to just kind of go. That's something that you need in the secondary. (Coordinator) Ed (Donatell) calls him the connector, because he is the guy that connects everything together for you."