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For Arthur Smith’s Falcons, culture building comes alive in ugly win

The new ball coach got his first win, and that matters.

NFL: Atlanta Falcons at New York Giants Robert Deutsch-USA TODAY Sports

There isn’t a head coach in the world who would tell you a win doesn’t matter.

No, not even if it’s in a meaningless game at the end of December with a team that’s already been disqualified from the playoffs. In a business gauged solely by wins and losses, getting a win at any time, day or night, matters. Wins keep winners in jobs; losses send losers packing. It’s just how it works, as black-and-white can be.

Sunday’s win in the Meadowlands for new Atlanta Falcons head coach Arthur Smith will go in his scrapbook of major coaching memories, if only because it was his first. Not only for the sentiment of getting that burden off his back, but he can celebrate that, after months of hard work and likely late nights worrying if he’s got the intangibles to be a head coach that don’t show up in Xs and Os, his players gave him a tip of the cap. They played for him when it counted. Whatever culture Smith is trying to build got a big boost.

To get there, you had to wade through something truly dreadful, more of the worst Falcons offense we’ve seen in eons. Outside of the team actually converting in the red zone when they got there, they looked anemic and listless, unable to move the ball further than the halfway point in the field. As great as it is that Cameron Nizialek had such a rebound, he shouldn’t have had as many opportunities as he did to let his leg rip. The Falcons looked as bad on offense as we’ve ever seen in the Matt Ryan era, and that has to be exclaimed.

That all goes back to Smith, which is why Sunday’s win still comes with a pretty big loss for the immediate future of the franchise. The fanbase is slowly losing any hope that this is going to go as advertised, that the cruel, cruel marketing talk of avoiding a rebuild might not really hold much water. This is not a team that is ready to compete right now like an actual playoff contender. It is a team with a green head coach, a roster in need of continued retooling that won’t come for another offseason and an aging quarterback. There are a lot of things holding the Falcons back right now from being the team you want them to be.

Mr. Smith goes to head coaching

It sucks. It sucks a lot. There is plenty reason to be frustrated that Smith hasn’t hit the ground running. His play calling has been very hit-and-miss, and he’s not getting out of the offense’s top two weapons, Calvin Ridley and Kyle Pitts, what you’d normally expect. He’s saddled with a very young offensive line and a quarterback who has lost a little bit of his zip, but there’s still a fundamental disorganization and lack of creativity with the play calls right now. Don’t trust a soul who tells you this is just who Smith is as a coach, though — the fact that that man did what he did with Tennessee Titans last year what he did after Taylor Lewan went down was a minor miracle, Derrick Henry or not. Smith got hired for real reasons in Atlanta.

He’s also, for the first time in his career, balancing the weight of a franchise on his back. Before the 2019 season, he was just a tight ends coach. Now, he’s having to build a team culture, lead game day operations and call a likely tweaked offense for a new set of players, who themselves aren’t super familiar with what he wants to do. The growing pains for everyone getting on the same page and for Smith’s play calls to really coalesce are much, much more visible and painstaking than any of us could’ve imagined, but that’s just where the team is right now. It’s just going to take some time for that to work itself out.

If Smith never gets better than this, clearly, it wouldn’t be good. The odds of that happening, though, feel incredibly low. We often take for granted that first year of the Ryan era, and don’t talk about how rare that is. Dan Quinn’s first year as a head coach was much more typical for how things go in the first year of a new regime (sans the way the wins and losses fell). After going 5-0, people were ready to anoint Quinn the next great NFL head coach. At the end of the year, people weren’t hot on Quinn and wanted to fire the offensive coordinator who a year later would mount a historic NFL offense. Things change fast.

I don’t know what Smith’s ceiling is, and I know that’s already being debated in the otherworlds of Falcons Twitter. But I do think he can rebound. In fact, I’m pretty confident that’s exactly what he’ll do, given how he did in Tennessee. I don’t think he’s going to be one of those offensive coordinators who is just good at that on its face, if only because of how Sunday’s game finished.

Holding, not folding

Smith’s team didn’t fold. Staring down 0-3 and coming off one of the worst days of Falcons offensive football of the last decade, Ryan and company still delivered two pretty spectacular drives that showed an ocean’s worth of moxie.

Befuddling decisions aside, Smith got a big win for the culture he’s trying to build in Atlanta. Make it known: I don’t care if Smith winds up the smartest offensive mind in the NFL; if he can’t build culture, it won’t matter. Sunday’s game shows that, at least in that facet, his plan really might be starting to work.

The new Falcons head coach can get a lot better as a play caller, and it’s expected that he’ll grow and learn on the job. What matters right now is that there is a locker room of guys who are buying into what Smith is building, and that everyone is working together toward the same goal. If the Falcons suck this year and are all still bought into the system, it’s a lot easier to figure out the coaching side. I’ll challenge that it’s downright impossible for a coach to succeed who fails in culture building.

Eventually, Quinn, a master culture builder, failed to advance past that. We never questioned if Quinn’s guys would fight for him, it’s just that the other stuff began to fall to the wayside. Three games in, we know good and well what Smith is not doing the best at. With a victory. If you can play that poorly on offense all day and still muster enough juice to leave the game with a smile on your face, suggests you’re doing something right behind the scenes to get there.

The Falcons aren’t nearly ready to contend right now, and their rookie head coach still has a lot of learning to do. The great Younghoe Koo scored the final field goal to lift the Falcons to victory, but it was Smith’s culture building that in part guided this team to a win on a day it didn’t deserve it. We’ll know one day if Smith really lives up to the billing he had as a play caller, but we know today that the sparks of the stuff he wasn’t guaranteed in doing well — in bringing a team together — can glimmer. In this long journey, that’s the first step.