The Falcons have hired first-time head coaches in the NFL every single time out since Arthur Blank bought the team. Jim Mora Jr., Bobby Petrino, Mike Smith and Dan Quinn had never held the position before coming to Atlanta, and one of them flamed out, one flamed out spectacularly, one is the winngest coach in franchise history, and one is a coach who took the team to the Super Bowl before everything fell apart.
Only two general managers have been hired by Blank and company, and one was a seasoned executive (Rich McKay) who served as the general manager of the Buccaneers for a decade and the other was a first-time general manager from the Patriots (Thomas Dimitroff). McKay brought aboard Roddy White, Jonathan Babineaux, Justin Blalock and Stephen Nicholas but fell short and was shuffled out of the role heading into 2008, while Dimitroff brought aboard Matt Ryan, Julio Jones, Jake Matthews, Calvin Ridley, Grady Jarrett, Deion Jones and others and piloted the team to their lone Super Bowl before the major holes on the team ultimately doomed him.
With that history, the Falcons came into their current GM and head coach search with a choice to make. Would they let their track record of decent success mixed with spectacular failure push them toward more experienced candidates, or would they conclude they just didn’t quite hit the mark before and seek the next great but unproven HC/GM combo?
Looking at the interviews to this point, a clear pattern emerges.
On the head coaching side, Todd Bowles embodies this. Bowles literally began his career as a defensive coordinator for Morehouse back in 1997 and has either been a secondary coach, defensive coordinator or head coach continuously since then. He served as the interim head coach for Miami in 2011 and the ill-fated (as they all are) head coach of the Jets from 2015-2018, where he started things off with a 10-6 record and then saw his fortunes crater.
Bowles and Quinn were both strong contenders for the Falcons job back in 2015, it appeared, because of their strong defensive backgrounds. Bowles is surfacing again now because he’s once again done good work for the Buccaneers, creating a blitz-happy bunch that have been able to do good things despite a fairly lousy group of cornerbacks, and because of that experience. He’s not the guy I expect Atlanta to hire, but the appeal for a team that’s been accused of having a “let’s sit back and see what happens” defense and not enough direction is obvious, even if Bowles has had the dread retread label slapped on him. Morris, who has a similar career arc as a failed head coach with one good season under his belt, a history of positional work and defensive coordinator gigs, is another example, albeit one that has already sort of been the head coach of the Falcons.
As far as general managers go, the only candidate who meets this criteria just happens to be one of the strongest candidates for the job. Rick Smith ran the Texans front office for a decade and is said to know Rich McKay well, and he is easily the most seasoned executive who is a hot name in the current hiring pool unless you count John Dorsey, who has gotten more buzz than actual interviews. Smith would be a hire like McKay, who came to Atlanta with a mixed but mostly successful track record that included drafting Hall of Famers Warren Sapp and Derrick Brooks as well as legends like Ronde Barber and Warrick Dunn, but had a long drought of unproductive classes and mixed in.
In some cases, these are fresh faces in the sense that they have little experience but a reputation as a mastermind, as is the case with Panthers offensive coordinator Joe Brady. In other cases, they’re fresh faces in the sense that they haven’t been head coaches or general managers before, but have a wealth of experience.
We’ll start with Brady, who is the Sean McVay in a bottle of the current hiring cycle. Brady is significantly less experienced than McVay—the latter had three years as a tight ends coach and three years as an offensive coordinator for Washington before the Rams scooped him up—but the same kind of reputation as an offensive whiz. Brady’s work with LSU as their passing game coordinator in 2019 was a major factor in getting Joe Burrow the Heisman and heading to the Bengals with the #1 pick, and that led to him getting hired as the offensive coordinator for Carolina, where he had an up-and-down year fueled in part by injuries and a lack of talent. Hiring him to run a team with such limited experience would be a major risk for the Falcons, but one they may be tempted to take on with the offense falling into mediocrity under Dirk Koetter.
Eric Bieniemy, Arthur Smith, and Robert Saleh are more experienced sides of this coin. All have now spent multiple years as coordinators for some of the league’s elite units, with Bieniemy working hand-in-glove with Andy Reid on the souped-up Chiefs offense, Smith running the potent Titans offense and its potent ground game, and Saleh presiding over one of the league’s most consistently impressive defenses in San Francisco. All of them are similar to Dan Quinn the last go-around in that they have impressive coaching resumes, have stellar units they’ve coordinated, but have not been NFL head coaches. It’s always the case that some of those guys have the ability to succeed in an expanded role, at least for a while, and others wash out quickly. The risk with any of them is as readily apparent as it is with Brady, but there are more NFL references and tangible work in the highest level of professional football to point to.
On the general manager side of the house. this is the majority of the candidates Atlanta has assembled outside of Smith. From in-house candidate Anthony Robinson to guys like Terry Fontenot, Morocco Brown, and Brad Holmes, these are seasoned personnel men who have spent years with their respective organizations, most of them in college scouting-oriented roles. As is the case with the head coaching candidates on the list above, they can share in the credit for impressive draft classes and acquisitions from some of the league’s better teams, but they have not run front offices themselves yet.
Judging from the list of candidates the Falcons have actively interviewed, their focus is on a number of candidates who have never held head coaching or general manager gigs before but appear ready to take them on. I’d put my money behind a first time head coach, but I’m less certain with general manager given the strength of Rick Smith’s candidacy and his ties to Rich McKay.
The key takeaway here is that Atlanta understands that Thomas Dimitroff, Mike Smith, and Dan Quinn did not fall short of the franchise’s ultimate goal because they were a first-time general manager and newly minted head coaches, but because they had shortcomings in philosophy and flaws in decision-making (as well as genuine bad luck) that doomed them in the end. How the Falcons plan to avoid that this go-around is anyone’s guess from outside Flowery Branch, but their candidate list makes it clear they’re not going to be scared of taking a chance on coaches and executives stepping into top roles for the first time.