I’ll be honest: this review feels a bit like stepping into the middle of a war. Spending time on social media has shown me that Arthur Smith is already a polarizing figure within the Falcons fanbase, but then, who isn’t?
I have no idea what the breakdown is for his supporters versus his detractors, but there are some very vocal people out there. The reactions range from “he’s going to be great once he has talent” to “Atlanta messed up and should fire him right now.”
This review is likely not going to satisfy either camp, but particularly not the second one.
Despite the revisionist history his detractors want to tell, Arthur Smith was one of the top coaching candidates in 2021. He had two very strong years with the Titans and his strong tenure through a head coaching change indicated he was very highly thought of inside the coaching community. He was credited with reviving Ryan Tannehill’s career and maximizing the incredible talents of Derrick Henry. His play calling was largely excellent, particularly in the red zone, where the Titans were one of the best in the league under his watch.
Falcons fans saw all of that and had dreams of instant success. The team would finally pair a good offensive mind with guys like Matt Ryan, Julio Jones, Calvin Ridley and the exciting young rookie tight end Kyle Pitts. This offense could be one of the best in the league!
You can all see where this is going.
The Falcons salary cap woes were easily some of the worst in the league. Signing any kind of quality player was off the table and Atlanta shocked everyone when they traded future Hall of Fame receiver Julio Jones to the Titans. Some fan optimism remained as the clear successor to Jones was already on the roster in Calvin Ridley. That was, until the team placed him on the NFI list so that he could focus on his mental health.
Arthur Smith was now down two top receivers and his third best receiver - Russell Gage - also spent some time injured during the season before he finally bounced back and finished the year strong.
The lack of receiving talent was paired with an offensive line that featured two new starters in the middle. Matt Hennessy was not a rookie, but he had never started an NFL game before. Jalen Mayfield was playing a position he had never played before, having spent his entire career at right tackle in college.
The results were...bad. Atlanta’s offense struggled against any team that had a decent defensive front and Matt Ryan was hit more than any QB in the league. Again.
The Falcons roster is not as bad as some fans make it out to be. This is not the worst roster in the NFL. However, they are bad in the worst possible spots. Having a liability in the middle of the offensive line is hard to compensate for, and Atlanta had two liabilities in Jaylen Mayfield and Matt Hennessy. Having a terrible pass rush is equally hard to compensate for, as frequent blitzing can leave your secondary exposed. So, while this roster has a lot of promising pieces, they had major issues at some of the most important positions.
Where does this all lead us with Arthur Smith? As a head coach, he had ups and downs. He made some puzzling decisions late in games and his game management was spotty at times, and it did not miraculously improve late in the year. However, he did get this team to seven wins with a dysfunctional defense and a struggling offense. For the first time in years, the Falcons beat the teams they should have instead of playing down to them, even if there were some very close calls. That counts for something. You could argue that Atlanta was the best of the “bad” teams in 2021.
As an offensive coordinator, the jury is still out. The issues on the offensive and the lack of talent at wide receiver make it hard to really evaluate what he wants to do in Atlanta. There were some positive signs during the season but also some frustrating play calling to go with it. The emergence of Cordarelle Patterson was surprising and his utilization of Kyle Pitts shows incredible promise for the future, but everything else was often shaky.
Ultimately, I think Arthur Smith gave you enough ammunition to believe what you want. If you think he’s going to be a great head coach and play caller, there’s plenty of evidence to point to. If you think he is going to flame out and Atlanta made a mistake hiring him, there’s evidence for that too.
In my opinion, Smith did what he could given the roster and the schedule. Had he done better at the end of the Washington game, this would be an eight win team. He won games the previous regime would have lost, but he also made some head scratching moves during the season. What he does from here matters most, but you can count me in the group of people who are generally optimistic about the future now, with a little bit of tempering.