Arthur Smith is the new head coach of the Atlanta Falcons, as you all know by now. That’s a move that has generally been met with tempered optimism from a fanbase that is used to being burnt, but I know we’re all curious to understand why Atlanta apparently locked in on Smith early in the process.
Every hire is under a microscope this offseason because teams have repeatedly chosen candidates other than Eric Bieniemy, the Chiefs offensive coordinator who has been passed over for something like a dozen openings despite being lauded as a chief architect of the best offense in football. As The Undefeated’s Jason Reid wrote, the league keeps passing over qualified Black candidates for head coaching jobs, making it more important than ever for teams to be able to clearly articulate why they made the hires they did.
Let’s dive into some of those potential whys. These are, of course, ultimately guesses, though today’s introductory press conference for Smith might give us more answers. I’d be eager to hear your takes, as well, but here are my best guesses.
1) They want to rejuvenate the offense
The past four years have been a story of mismanagement and woe on both sides of the ball, but the offense is more egregious because the offense is more talented. The switch from Kyle Shanahan to Steve Sarkisian in 2017 was a tough transition for the entire offense, but that side of the ball did make significant strides in 2018, even if it was ultimately still a deeply frustrating year. Dirk Koetter presided over an offense that basically forgot how to run the football and was reliant on a volume passing attack that was not efficient and did not score enough, a big piece of why Atlanta failed so badly the past two seasons.
Smith is a logical hire for this Falcons team for several reasons, then. The first is that he has been calling plays the past two years for Tennessee, and in that time the Titans have been the antithesis of Koetter’s offense, all crisp passing efficiency, effective running, and terrific red zone conversion capabiltiies. The second is that he prioritized a balanced attack, something the Falcons have been missing since Kyle Shanahan was in town, and despite the misgivings of fans he must think he can work with the personnel on hand, minus the lack of a featured back. The third is that he adapted his offense to a quarterback who has been thought of as a promising but ultimately disappointing player in Ryan Tannehill, and whether he has a brand new quarterback or a familiar face in Matt Ryan when the dust settles, maximizing that quarterback’s performance is going to matter a lot for the final
2) Terry Fontenot wanted him
It seems likely Brad Holmes did, as well. The Lions announced their new general manager on Thursday and were scheduled to get Arthur Smith in the building on Friday, but that plan was derailed when the Falcons locked Smith in a conference room in Flowery Branch and got him to agree to a contract. The speed with which the Lions then pivoted to Saints assistant head coach Dan Campbell tells you they at least had Smith as one of their top couple of candidates, and that perhaps Holmes missed out on his guy.
It also tells you Fontenot wanted him. The Falcons just agreed to a contract with their next general manager, the longtime personnel executive from New Orleans, and the fact that Atlanta was intent on matching general managers with coaches (something repeated in reports throughout the search) gives the strong sense that both of their top general manager candidates were pushing hard for Smith. It does not mean anything for his future success, but this (plus strong interest from the Eagles) suggests he was the hot candidate he was hyped up to be in league circles. That brings us to...
3) He had connections
The NFL, for all its high-minded rhetoric about level playing fields and merit, is just like any other business. If you have connections, especially at the top of an organization you’re interviewing with, you have a leg up on other candidates.
Smith is qualified, of course, especially when this team also appeared to be mulling a more inexperienced candidate in Joe Brady. But per Albert Breer, Smith was helped by former Titans general manager Ruston Webster’s experience working with him in Tennessee, and by longtime Falcons offensive coordinator and tight ends coach Mike Mularkey (also the head coach of the Titans at one point) having good things to say as well.
Ex-Titans GM Ruston Webster was with Smith for five years in Tennessee, seeing him go from defensive QC to offensive QC to an offensive line assistant to assistant tight ends coach, so that gave Atlanta a good starting point of reference. And what Webster told them matched feedback from Titans coach Mike Vrabel and Vrabel’s predecessor Mike Mularkey, and, as one person involved explained, it was easy to see recommendations coming were founded more in respect than about those guys liking Smith, which really validated his stock exploding this year.
Webster, if you’ll recall, has been a scout in this organization since 2016, and Mularkey had two stints with the team. These are men Blank and McKay know and like, and clearly their words had an impact. The fact that Smith was a top candidate for a long time, per multiple reports including Breer’s, tells you they had a positive outlook on him long before they had the chance to speak with him directly, something that
4) He has a great plan...hopefully
This comes from Arthur Blank:
“We are thrilled to welcome Arthur to Atlanta and introduce him to our city and fans as the Falcons new head coach,” said Arthur M. Blank, Falcons owner and chairman. “Throughout our research and interview process, Arthur stood out amongst a very deep and very talented candidate pool with an outstanding plan for our organization to return to the level of competition our fans deserve and expect. He has all the characteristics of a strong leader and while his achievements have primarily come on the offensive side of the ball, he has provided a plan that is comprehensive within all three phases of the game. With Arthur, I am very confident that our process and approach have led us to a dynamic leader for our team and I believe our players, staff, fans and community will be as well.”
You would absolutely expect Blank to say this about the head coach the team ultimately hired, but clearly Smith went through his interviews and knocked the owner’s socks off. File this one away for later in case we get more clarity as to what this plan is, but the hope is that regardless we’ll see it play out on the field in a way that makes it clear why he was the pick. As mentioned above, figuring out what Smith would like to do with this offense isn’t difficult. I’m more keen to understand his plan for the defense, where inconsistency and late game collapses have too often been the norm.
The importance of the plan is readily evident. Blank
5) Atlanta wants to maximize what they already have
Presumably, Smith discussed who he plans to bring in on defense to help push a stop-and-start unit into consistent excellence. Presumably, Smith talked about what he can do with the talent on hand on offense.
This is relevant because Arthur Blank and Rich McKay did not sound eager to sign up for a full-on teardown and rebuild in 2021. If Terry Fontenot and Arthur Smith told the duo that trading Matt Ryan or Julio Jones was for the best they might have said “okay” and kept it moving, or they might not have hired them at all. Those are moves you make, by and large, if you’re expecting at least a year or two of muddling around in the basement of the NFC before you get back to winning. Blank and McKay made it clear they think this team can and should contend in 2021, so part of the vision Smith sold was likely around what he can do with Ryan, Julio, Hayden Hurst, Grady Jarrett, and the rest of Atlanta’s brightest lights.
Ultimately, we’ve all been Falcons fans long enough to know there are no guarantees that Smith is going to work out. Heck, any NFL fan knows that most head coaches flame out, and the Falcons getting their winningest coach and a coach who came very close to winning a Super Bowl with the franchise back-to-back is better than most teams fare. Smith is walking into a situation that doesn’t look quite as dire as what Smitty had to deal with, but it’s not going to be an easy lift for he and presumptive general manager Terry Fontenot.
It’s fair to assume the Falcons must think Smith has a winning plan and that he can get them back to contention sooner than later with Fontenot driving the front office forward, and that Fontenot and Smith were interested in working together. Everything beyond that is an unknown and an educated guess, as I noted early on in this piece, but Smith sold the organization on a better way forward. Now he has to deliver on that promise as soon as possible for a fanbase and an owner eager to see the wins return.