There's no avoiding it: The fate of the coaching staff, front office and Mike Smith in particular is the hot rumor right now among fans, and I've weighed in with what I now view as the inevitability of firings. I know there are fans who can't believe we're talking about this six weeks into the season, and others who can't believe we waited this long to acknowledge the issue in earnest. Pipe down, the lot of you.
Given that we're six weeks into the season, it's not a surprise that the long knives haven't come out just yet for Smith outside of the fanbase, with local columnists like Mark Bradley at the AJC alluding to the team's deep problems but not going so far as to call for Smith's head. Jeff Schultz's Q&A with Arthur Blank revealed an owner who was not willing to throw a strong guarantee behind his coaching staff and front office, but didn't appear particularly keen to make any moves in season before the team had a chance to right itself, either. It's worth noting that the interview in question happened before the Bears game, but I'm not sure how much that changes Blank's view. Smitty appears to be firmly in limbo.
Nonetheless, because the fanbase's questions about Falcons firings and the media's questions to Arthur Blank, I thought we'd tackle this particularly nebulous rumor.
Why this makes sense
The Falcons have been a competitive, productive football team for most of Mike Smith's tenure in Atlanta, coming quite close to a Super Bowl berth in 2012. Over the last 22 games, they've gone to hell.
The reasons for that are myriad, but in business and in football alike, no one really wants to tackle an abundance of problems at a time. To really fix this team's underlying issues, you have to acquire and develop pieces all over the field, but particularly in the pass rush, in the linebacking corps and on offense. The quickest fixes for teams tend to be firings in the coaching staff and front office, not because they necessarily immediately fix a moribund roster, but because they bring in a new presence and a new direction that is at least distracting from the current problems, and allows a team to pivot away from its current woes.
We all know Smith's problems, and most of them stem from a failure to adapt. There's a widespread perception that Smitty is out-coached in close games, that he'd rather play veterans and squat on a lead, and that he's incapable of recognizing his best players and ensuring that they get on the field. Not all of those are totally accurate, but the perception exists, and you only have to see Smith's "you don't know the calls" comments from his latest presser to feel the pressure he's under both internally and externally. No coach goes 6-16 over 22 games and gets a hearty slap on the back from ownership.
A move would make sense because Smitty's working on his second straight disappointing season, Arthur Blank's got a new stadium to open up in 2017 and some of the team's problems are achingly familiar, as they've persisted throughout Smith's tenure. The long-standing criticisms over not playing the right guys, not developing players and sitting on leads are as familiar today as they were during some of the trouble spots the Falcons hit back in 2009. If you think Smith can't squeeze the most out of this roster and that the current trajectory he and the team are on will continue into next year, then he's gone. Thomas Dimitroff deserves to share the blame for the team's current struggles and may find himself looking for work, as well, but Smith is the guy most likely to fall on a sword at the moment.
If the team continues to slide and slide badly, there's little question Blank will be tempted to pull the trigger and either clean house or let Dimitroff hire a new head coach. It comes down to business above all else. The team's season ticket sales are likely to suffer and suffer badly coming off a second straight lousy campaign, a problem that likely to be exacerbated if Smith sticks around given the way a large chunk of the fanbase has turned on him.
If Smitty goes, Mike Nolan and Dirk Koetter likely exit with him, to be replaced by a new coach's preferred staff. Them's the breaks.
Why it doesn't make sense
The short answer is that Mike Smith has been successful for five years, arguably as or more successful than any coach in the team's history. At least some of the team's issues are due to injuries and a dearth of talent at key positions, which is largely but not totally outside of his control. While Smith is the figurehead and obvious scapegoat for this team in his position, you would be hard-pressed to name him as the team's largest problem.
Really, Smith hasn't changed much, and certainly we can argue that inflexibility isn't a good thing. But it's worth remembering this has been an extremely competitive team under his watch. What has changed is the talent he's working with, with John Abraham, Brent Grimes, and others exiting, lots of young replacements who may not yet be ready and some borderline crippling injuries to the offensive line, in particular. Again, I'm not saying Smitty is blameless in that, but those who have suggested that Dimitroff hasn't given him much in the way of pass rushing personnel are correct, and the defensive talent has more or less declined across the board in recent years.
BVG had Abe, Babs, Grimes, Kroy, Nicholas, DeCoud & Spoon at their peaks. Who does Nolan have?— Aaron Freeman (@falcfans) October 15, 2014
While coaching contracts are hardly stone tablets, Smith is signed through next season, and Arthur Blank has avoided any public posturing that would indicate his job is truly in jeopardy, his noncommittal stance aside. We're also just six games into the 2014 season in arguably the weakest division in the NFL, so it's unlikely any decisions have been made, even if the direction the Falcons are cantering in is a bad one. Smith still has the opportunity to save his job, and despite the "Blank staring daggers at Smith" meme making the rounds, Blank does seem to genuinely like and respect his coach.
Basically, this doesn't make sense if you think Blank is deeply loyal to and impressed with Smith's tenure, and if you think this team will turn things around in the weeks ahead.
I'm not ruling out Mike Smith and this team staggering to their feet, going on a run and making this look silly in hindsight. After three ugly losses following an ugly 2013 and no immediate relief in sight, however, it's looking increasingly likely this will be Mike Smith's last year in Atlanta.
What say you?