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The Falcons don’t need Derrick Henry to succeed with Arthur Smith’s offense

While Arthur Smith certainly benefitted from having the NFL’s best RB in Derrick Henry at his disposal in Tennessee, the Falcons don’t need Henry to succeed with Smith’s offense.

Wild Card Round - Baltimore Ravens v Tennessee Titans Photo by Wesley Hitt/Getty Images

It’s been an exciting week for Falcons fans, as the team is now under the control of a new regime captained by former Saints executive Terry Fontenot at GM and former Titans OC Arthur Smith at head coach. Heading into 2021, we’re likely to see significant changes to both the offensive scheme and personnel—which would be welcome after a second-straight season of underachievement with Dirk Koetter.

Arthur Smith was arguably the hottest offensive coaching candidate on the market this year, and it’s easy to see why he was so coveted by NFL teams. Smith turned a Titans offense that was amongst the dregs of the league in 2018 into a fringe top-10 unit in 2019 and one of the league’s best in 2020. Tennessee improved offensively every single year under Smith:

2018 (Matt LaFleur): 27th in scoring, 25th in yardage
2019 (Arthur Smith): 10th in scoring, 12th in yardage
2020 (Arthur Smith): 4th in scoring, 2nd in yardage

Smith’s offenses in Tennessee were known for their potent wide-zone rushing attack, an efficient play-action heavy passing game, and dominance in the red zone. Indeed, the most impressive stat from Arthur Smith’s tenure might be his red zone efficiency in both 2019 and 2020. In 2019, the Titans led the league with an incredible 75.6% RZ efficiency. Most assumed that was an aberration and would be nearly impossible to replicate, but they did: Tennessee finished with a nearly-identical 75.0% RZ efficiency in 2020 (2nd in the NFL).

That’s obviously the most striking change from Dirk Koetter’s offense, which was among the league’s worst in the red zone from 2019-2020. Koetter’s offenses managed a paltry 51.7% (25th) and 53.4% (26th) RZ efficiency in 2019 and 2020, respectively. To illustrate how big of a difference a better RZ efficiency could have made in the 2020 season, I took a look at how many more points the Falcons would have scored if you just changed their RZ efficiency from 53.4% to 75.0% and left everything else the same.

The answer: around 60 more points, give or take (depending on FGs, 2-pt conversions, etc). That would have been enough to improve Atlanta to 9th in scoring offense (they were 16th), and would almost certainly have resulted in several more wins. In case you forgot, the Falcons went 0-7 in games decided by 6 or fewer points.

All of these numbers are exciting, but a common refrain from fans—particularly Titans fans—is that Arthur Smith wasn’t actually responsible for this success. They claim it was RB Derrick Henry, who undoubtedly had two incredible seasons with Smith in 2019 and 2020, who was responsible for the incredible offensive efficiency.

I have no doubt that Derrick Henry’s presence contributed to those excellent seasons. He was clearly the NFL’s best RB in 2020 and had a dominant year. However, Henry didn’t start this tremendous breakout into the top echelons of NFL RBs until Arthur Smith took over the offense.

Henry was clearly underutilized in his first 2 seasons with the Titans, so we can mostly disregard those years. But what about 2018, with future Green Bay Packers head coach Matt LaFleur at the helm?

Henry managed a solid 1059 yards on 215 carries (at an impressive 4.9 YPC), but was forced to split time with Dion Lewis (who managed just 3.3 YPC on 155 touches). LaFleur clearly knows how to call a run game, as he’s led RB Aaron Jones and Jamaal Williams to two strong seasons in Green Bay. So why didn’t Henry take off under his tutelage in 2018, if he was always this dominant RB?

We will never know the real answer to that question, but it’s pretty clear that Arthur Smith decided to make Henry the focal point of his offense in 2019 and 2020 and Henry responded with the best seasons of his career—and in 2020, one of the best seasons ever for an NFL RB. 2021 will give us an indication as to if Henry benefitted more from Smith, or Smith benefitted more from Henry. Most likely, it was a symbiotic relationship between a great player and great coach.

One thing is certain about Smith’s offense, however: it doesn’t need Derrick Henry—or even a player similar to him—to be successful. Smith made this clear during his introductory press conference.

That’s because Smith’s rushing attack is, at its core, a wide-zone scheme. If that sounds familiar to you, it should be: the Falcons ran it from 2015-2018 under both Kyle Shanahan and Steve Sarkisian, and it’s one of the most common schemes in the NFL. The reason it is so popular is precisely because a variety of RBs can be successful in it. Wide zone demands vision and patience from the RB, but doesn’t necessarily require high-end size or athleticism.

Take the Falcons under Kyle Shanahan, for example. The team ran the run game through Devonta Freeman, a fourth-round pick with average size (5’8, 206) and athleticism—none of Freeman’s athletic testing was better than the 55th percentile. What set Freeman apart and made him special in the wide zone was his vision, patience, and elusiveness. He took those traits to two-straight 1,000+ yard seasons in 2015 and 2016, and would have had a third in 2017 if not for injury.

Speaking of Kyle Shanahan, his super power seems to be turning UDFAs into capable starting RBs. Look at the 49ers, for example. Shanahan turned Matt Breida (5.0 YPC over 3 years in SF), Raheem Mostert (5.6 YPC over 4 years in SF), and Jeff Wilson (4.4 YPC over 3 years in SF) into quality starters who could carry the load on offense. While we shouldn’t necessarily expect Smith to be able to replicate Shanahan’s success with UDFAs, this is a good example of how a wide variety of RBs can thrive in this offense.

You can also look at Green Bay under former Titans OC Matt LaFleur. While the Packers tend to run more inside zone, the offense still relies on similar concepts and incorporates wide zone plays. Leading the backfield there is former fifth-round pick Aaron Jones, who has been exceptional when healthy in 2019 and 2020. Behind him is former fourth-rounder Jamaal Williams, a bigger, more physical back who also took on a major role in 2020.

I could list examples all day, but the fact is that the Falcons under Arthur Smith don’t need Derrick Henry, or Najee Harris, or any other “premium” RB talent to succeed on offense. Those types of players certainly help, and I wouldn’t be shocked if Atlanta decides to target a player like Harris or Javonte Williams on Day 2. But it also wouldn’t shock me to see the Falcons wait for a player like Chuba Hubbard, Kenneth Gainwell, or Trey Sermon on Day 3.

This team has a lot of needs, and RB is certainly one of them. I urge you not to get too locked in to a single “prototype” or pay too much attention to Smith’s offense in Tennessee. In his press conference, Smith preached adaptability and flexibility more than anything else. The Falcons will find their RB of the future, but it might not be the player you’d expect—and that’s just fine for 2021 and beyond.