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Arthur Smith seems to be betting on coaching, culture and competence making the Falcons contenders in 2021

It’s early, but the indications we’ve received are that Smith believes he can win with a makeshift roster.

NFL: NOV 18 Titans at Colts Photo by Robin Alam/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

If Arthur Smith didn’t believe he could fix the Falcons, he probably would not have been hired to coach the Falcons in the first place. Arthur Blank and Rich McKay may well be more sanguine about this team’s fortunes behind the scenes than they are publicly, but both made it clear they’re not expecting Atlanta to be terrible again in 2021, and certainly not beyond that.

It’s going to be up to Terry Fontenot to pinch the pennies, have a clear-eyed look at building this roster over the long haul, and look at this team with the most critical eye possible. That’s not to suggest that Smith doesn’t have significant input into that or that he has to be a cheerleader for players on shaky ground in Atlanta; quite the contrary. But the coach cannot simply throw his hands up and say he can’t win with the roster on hand, and Smith is not the kind of guy who appears ready to ever even consider that in the first place.

For my part, I believe Smith took this job with a very clear, very straightforward outlook: That the Falcons were doomed not just by or even primarily by a lack of talent, but by coaching and culture gone awry. That is my opinion, I’d like to stress, but it’s one I believe is backed up if you do a little reading between the lines with all the comments Smith has made since he was hired.

From Jeff Schultz’s recent film session with Smith:

“The thing you can say is this, because I don’t want to be critical of people who were here,” Smith said. “You’re going to learn a lot about someone in tight football games. When you call plays in a tight football game, your personality is going to show.”

...

“For whatever reason, doubt crept in, like they were waiting for something bad to happen,” he said. “I’ve been on bad football teams that were not confident. But (at Tennessee) when we got into one-score games, we thought we were going to win. We did. That was our mentality. It comes down to guys being confident situationally and trusting each other. It’s just a mentality.”

From his introductory presser:

There’s more, but I think you get the gist. The Falcons need, as Smith has all but said, a changed culture.

Smith did not sign on for this job thinking this team was going to be garbage for the foreseeable future, and he clearly believes he’s identified the ways this team lacked confidence and lacked good coaching that might’ve lifted them in those one-score losses and throughout their missed red zone opportunities. The Falcons were not a good football team in 2020, to be clear. They did lose 8 games by a single score, frequently due to cartoonishly bad plays like the Cowboys onside kick fiasco, stalled, stale and predictable must-score drives from this beyond frustrating offense, and a too-lax defense that couldn’t come up with a big play at the right time. It’s logical to think that Smith, having binge-watched the 2020 season and after presumably throwing up in a trash can somewhere, would see a hand-picked staff and a philosophical bent for aggressiveness on both sides of the ball as a way to at least mitigate late game wobbliness.

If Atlanta’s going to be competitive in 2021, it will have to be. The Falcons still have the draft ahead and a summer where they can add more talent if they free up more cash, but they’re going to be rolling with stopgap starters and young players in critical spots because they simply do not have the cap space to make more sweeping changes. In a conversation on the Bussin’ With the Boys podcast, Smith admitted the team does not have cash and will be reliant on undrafted free agents this summer to a significant degree, and that alone is a significant obstacle to 2021 contention. The fact that Atlanta has most of the ingredients they’ll need for a high-powered offense is the best reason to believe in this team, but defensively their path to decency depends very heavily on who they get in the draft and Dean Pees’ acumen as the defensive coordinator. Today, you could not credibly claim that this team has more than one proven starter in the secondary and, besides Grady Jarrett and maybe Dante Fowler if he bounces back, any of the ingredients necessary for a quality pass rush. Realistically, it’s going to take more than one offseason for them to get all the pieces they need to overhaul that, but we do know that a great offense and even semi-competent defense can get you places in today’s NFL.

In summary, Smith has a level of self-belief and belief in his coaching staff that is not atypical for an NFL head coach, and fierce belief alone isn’t going to lift this team out of the awful rut they’ve found themselves in over the past three years. What’s clear enough, though, is that Arthur Smith thinks he can work with the talent on hand, especially on offense, and get much, much more out of the 2021 Atlanta Falcons. That belief may butt up against harsh reality soon enough, but I’m not willing to bet against Smith getting the Falcons adjacent to contention just by getting more out of the talent on hand. Neither, it’s obvious enough, is Arthur Smith.