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Breaking down candidates for Arthur Smith’s Falcons coaching staff

Smith’s long tenure in Tennessee means he’s overlapped with some experienced coaches he may want on his staff.

NFL: Tennessee Titans-Minicamp Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

Now that Arthur Smith is the next head coach of the Atlanta Falcons, there are many questions swirling about what his offense is going to look like, who the team is going to be looking to add this offseason, and of course just how effective Smith will be in that role.

All of that is in the future, of course, particularly that last bit, which is the part that’s terrifying. One of the determining factors in his success will likely be the strength of the coaching staff he builds around him, because as we’ve seen having great coordinators can lift you up (as Kyle Shanahan did with Dan Quinn) and having lousy ones can hasten your doom (hello, Dirk Koetter and Mike Nolan circa 2013-2014 with Mike Smith). Especially as a first time head coach who has spent most of his career with a single organization, Smith has a lot to proven in terms of how he builds and runs his staff.

Because those hires are going to be so important, they’ll be a focal point for us between now and the beginning of free agency. Here’s a by-no-means-exhaustive but hopefully useful list of coaches Smith might consider, based on overlap in Tennessee, experience and acumen, or both.

Offensive Coordinator

It is worth noting that Smith will likely call plays in Atlanta—he hasn’t said that, but I think it’s a fair guess—and that will likely impact the direction he goes for his offensive coordinator/passing and run game coordinators.

Dave Ragone

Per Adam Caplan, Ragone will likely be the guy for either offensive coordinator or passing game coordinator. The rest of the list, then, will be candidates for run game coordinator or assistant roles if this report pans out. Hopefully it stills winds up being a useful and relevant list for those other roles.

Seriously, though, Ragone is an interesting candidate, and not just because he once quarterbacked a Falcons team to a Super Bowl for me in Madden 2006 after Michael Vick got hurt. Ragone overlapped with Smith in 2011-2012 when he was the Titans wide receivers coach, and he’s spent times as a quarterbacks coach and offensive quality control coach before becoming the passing game coordinator for the Bears in 2020. His work there was difficult to call superlative, but he was also dealing with one of the worst quarterback situations in football. Hopefully with a more capable passing attack, he can do good things in Atlanta.

Pat O’Hara

The current Titans quarterback coach could be in line for a promotion. His NFL experience is relatively light—he was an offensive assistant for three years with the Texans, and has been the Titans quarterback coach for the past three seasons—but you have to assume he deserves some of the credit for Ryan Tannehill’s big step forward in Tennessee. O’Hara also has a rich history coaching in the Arena Football League, having served as an offensive coordinator there for three seasons and a head coach for six seasons. As a coach on Smith’s current staff with that kind of experience, O’Hara is maybe the most logical candidate to follow him to Atlanta.

Ken Whisenhunt

When Whiz was the head coach of the Titans, Smith was an assistant tight ends coach, so there’s a connection here. If Smith is looking for an experienced offensive coordinator to take things off his plate as he transitions to head coach for the first time in his career, he won’t find a more established choice than Whisenhunt.

This is a coach with two stints running an NFL team (the Cardinals from 2007-2012 and the Titans from 2014-2015), and eight seasons as an offensive coordinator spread between the Steelers and Chargers. He presided over some good Chargers offense as recently as 2017 and 2018, and his experience would likely be welcome for a new head coach. I’d consider him a strong candidate for the gig if he has any interest.

Keith Carter

This move makes sense on a few different levels.

Carter is the offensive line coach who has done such fine work with the Titans the last couple of seasons, with his masterpiece being a 2020 where injuries stacked up and Tennessee remained a lethal offense that Derrick Henry was so terrific in. Carter also has direct experience with Jake Matthews and this Falcons team, having served as an assistant offensive line coach for the 2015-2016 Falcons under Kyle Shanahan. He’s very good at what he does, in other words, and having him come aboard to support Smith and take on a role overseeing the line would be both a good career move for him and something that would likely benefit Atlanta’s line.

At the very least, though it’s a lateral move, I’d expect Smith to want Carter to join him as an offensive line coach in Atlanta. I also can’t imagine the Titans would be keen to let him go for that kind of move, but we’ll see.

Mike Munchak

Munchak has never been an offensive coordinator, but perhaps he’s interested in making the leap. The former NFL offensive lineman and longtime offensive line coach spent three seasons as the head coach of the Titans, overlapping with Smith, and if Smith is hellbent on calling plays he might be looking for an experienced assistant to help with planning instead of play calling. Munchak would fit the bill, and Smith almost certainly knows him well.

If he’s not in play as an offensive coordinator, Munchak makes a ton of sense as an offensive line coach, given that he has 21 years of experience in that role and has done solid work for Denver the past two seasons. His experience as a head coach also is attractive for an assistant on a relatively inexperienced head coach’s staff.

Terry Robiskie

A familiar face in Atlanta, Robiskie was Atlanta’s wide receivers coach for eight seasons under Mike Smith and briefly Dan Quinn. He went directly from there to the offensive coordinator gig in Tennessee, where he (you guessed it) overlapped with Smith, the tights ends coach both of his years in Tennessee. Robiskie is an extremely experienced and well-traveled coach who likely won’t stick on Urban Meyer’s staff in Jacksonville, so he could be available soon. Like Munchak, he’d be a familiarity and experience hire.

Mike Sullivan

The Titans assistant offensive line coach, Sullivan has been the lead offensive line coach for three NFL teams. Like Carter, he’d tasked with planning help and getting the most out of this Falcons offensive line. I’d expect him to be a stronger candidate for offensive line coach than coordinator, but he belongs on the list.

Rob Moore

The former NFL receiver and longtime receivers coach could also be an option. He’s done nice work with A.J. Brown and others in Tennessee.

Tony Dews

Derrick Henry has had his three great years with Dews as his running backs coach, so you have to think Smith would be interested in taking him with him in some role, even if it’s not offensive coordinator. It’s worth noting that Dews has chiefly college experience, but has been an offensive line coach, defensive line coach, wide receivers coach, tight ends coach, and special teams coach, experience that could lead to him plugging into more than one role in Atlanta.

Defensive Coordinator

Jim Haslett

A young coach in his first head coaching gig should have experienced assistants where he can, especially on the side of the ball where he doesn’t focus. Given that, you should absolutely keep an eye on Haslett for Atlanta.

The current Titans inside linebackers coach, Haslett was the head coach for the Saints for six seasons and assembled a 45-51 record there from 2000-2005. He also was the interim head coach for a putrid Rams team back in 2008, going 2-10 there. He has 18 total years of experience as either a head coach or defensive coordinator, doing fine work with a dominant Pittsburgh team in the late 90s as a coordinator and less impressive work for Washington from 2011-2014, with only one good year in that bunch.

Haslett would not be the most inspiring candidate Smith could choose, perhaps, but he’s done the job for a long time, would know Smith because they’ve overlapped on the current staff, and would by dint of that long experience and his connections across the league be able to cast a wide net to build a staff.

Dean Pees

This is another Titans connection, but one fans might be more excited about. The 71-year-old has coached some terrific defenses in New England, Baltimore, and Tennessee, including a top ten unit in terms of both points and yardage in 2018 when Arthur Smith was the tight ends coach. Pees did not coach in 2020 but has said he’s open to doing so again.

There’s a lot to like with Pees, who has presided over dominant run defenses and dominant pass defenses alike. In 6 of his 12 years as a defensive coordinator, he’s presided over top ten defenses in terms of yardage, and in 8 of those 12 years he’s had a top ten scoring defense. There’s no question he’d be a strong hire and Smith will be at least familiar with his work due to the one year they shared with the Titans.

The Falcons would need to upgrade their talent base considerably to get those kinds of results with Pees again, but I’d favor Smith reaching out and asking him to come out of retirement.

Jerry Gray

Gray’s connections to Smith are a big deal, given the extent to which this league runs on connections. The current Packers defensive backs coach, longtime Vikings defensive backs coach, and defensive coordinator for the Titans and BIlls brings a ton of experience to a role like this and coached a pair of top ten defenses back in the early 2000s with the Bills. His time with the Titans was significantly less impressive—Tennessee was middle of the pack twice and downright awful once—but eight years as a coordinator, ties to Smith, and praiseworthy work with secondaries in Minnesota and Green Bay should be enough to earn him consideration for the role here.

Wade Phillips

Sort of a dream hire, but what’s wrong with dreaming?

Wade has had 18 top ten defenses in terms of yardage in a 37 year career as a defensive coordinator and head coach, as well as 12 top ten scoring defenses. The man simply knows how to coach a defense and is one of the greatest living defense coordinators, full stop. If he was willing to come out of retirement and come to Atlanta, the Falcons would be stupid not to pursue him.

Phillips would bring a legendary track record to Atlanta, with the Falcons likely retooling on the fly to get to his preferred 3-4 scheme. They need additions to run it, but Dante Fowler Jr. literally has experience as a 3-4 linebacker under Phillips and thrived there, and there’s no doubt in my mind that John Cominsky, Jacob Tuioti-Mariner, Marlon Davidson and Grady Jarrett can be effective as 3-4 ends at least in the short term. If the Falcons want a splash and Smith would like to set and forget the defense, this would be a call to make.

Ray Horton

Horton is not currently coaching in the NFL, but like Haslett is an experienced option. He overlapped with Smith when the latter was a Titans assistant and Horton was the defensive coordinator in 2014 and 2015. Horton presided over solid pass defenses both years but didn’t have a great run defense in 2014 and had an absolutely dismal one in his next stop as a DC with Cleveland in 2016. I’d view him as more of a longshot, but he’s a name worth monitoring nonetheless.

Anthony Midget

The current Titans defensive backs coach was actually briefly a Falcon, as the team drafted him in the fifth round back in 2000. He spent six seasons with the Texans as either the head or assistant secondary coach and has a single season as a defensive coordinator at Georgia State under his belt, making him an interesting if ultimately probably longshot candidate to join Smith as defensive coordinator. A promotion to a role like defensive passing game coordinator could be in the offing if someone like Haslett comes over from Tennessee if not.

Terrell Williams

Williams has never been more than a positional coach but may be an interesting candidate to take the leap. He’s spent the past three seasons as the Titans defensive line coach and has served in that role uninterrupted with college and NFL teams since 1998, meaning he has a wealth of experience, and his lines have tended to be good ones. Atlatna needs a focus on the line in the worst way.

Even if Williams doesn’t come into play for defensive coordinator, Smith should push to poach him for a similar defensive line coach role here in Atlanta if Mike Vrabel will allow it.

Special Teams Coordinator

Bernie Parmalee

It’s worth noting that Dan Quinn and company did not rock the boat when he came in with Keith Armstrong, recognizing the experienced special teams coordinator as a good coach who could do good work with the special teams unit. He was ultimately fired after the 2018 season.

Smith might do something similar with Parmalee, a less experienced coach but one who did fine work after taking over for Ben Kotwica. Parmalee also has experience as a running backs coach with Atlanta.

Craig Aukerman

This runs into multiple issues. The first is that the TItans special teams unit has been pretty dismal, especially over the past two years, and I’m not sure you can hang all of that on personnel. The second is that because this would be a true lateral move, Aukerman may not be granted permission by Vrabel and the Titans in the first place. Those two factors combine to make me think Aukerman is probably not leaving Tennessee, but obviously Smith will be familiar with him so you can’t rule it out.

Bobby April

The long special teams coordinator has been out of the league since 2017 but overlapped with Smith in 2016 in Tennessee and is easily the most experienced candidate just hanging out there waiting for a gig. The two-time special teams coach of the year (2004 and 2008) would obviously bring a rich NFL history to the job and hopefully help Smith acclimate to his head coaching gig, but the fact that he’s been out of a job entirely for years now means he may not be keen to jump back in.

Ryan Crow

The assistant specal teams coordinator in Tennessee, Crow has a single season under his belt in that role but was a defensive assistant prior to that with the Titans. Smith could look to poach him if he thinks he’s ready for that promotion, but obviously that feels like a bit of a stretch with some of the other candidates on the list.