Four years ago, the Atlanta Falcons made a mistake in giving coach Dan Quinn another year to patch the endless holes in a sinking ship.
Four years later, they need to give coach Arthur Smith another year to finally get his ship on the water.
You may point the finger right at Smith for the failures of 2023, blaming him for the regression of the offense and the whiffed decision to give Desmond Ridder the keys to the starting quarterback job without any meaningful competition. Sure, the ground game hasn’t been as potent as it was in 2022, and Ridder’s stating tenure didn’t yield a franchise player.
Visions of an easy NFC South title amid one of the NFL’s easiest schedules danced about in Falcony dreams, but the grand disappointment of Atlanta’s offense dashed those hopes.
After three years, Smith may well post yet another losing season if the team cannot win its final two games against the Chicago Bears and New Orleans Saints. He and general manager Terry Fontenot sold Arthur Blank on a three-year plan, and the close of that three years has left many feeling the same shrug of apathy they felt at the end of the Quinn years, if not outright anger.
It’s not to say Smith isn’t liable for 2023 not feeling too much different from the first two years of his tenure. While the first two years of his time with the Falcons came with miserable cap space issues and a lengthy reworking of the roster, you could always find pinpoints of offensive progress amid the misfortunes of situational mediocrity.
This season has not always (or even regularly) shown those points of growth for Smith’s offense, which is particularly confusing for a unit that looks as talented as it has in ages. While a good bit of that can be blamed on quarterback inconsistency and turnovers, there have been understandable schematic frustrations with the run game and passing concepts that raise questions about Smith’s viability as a head coach and play caller.
Games like Sunday against the Indianapolis Colts show how Smith’s scheme can work incredibly well, while games like the latest Carolina Panthers debacle shows what happens when it sputters and craps out in spectacular fashion.
If you’re sold on the idea that Smith’s time in Atlanta can be summed up by disasters in the Carolina rain, it makes sense to want a change. If you think Smith’s potential can be consistently playing like the team did against Indy, why not give him more time to find it?
The scheme can work
Smith’s positives can be easily identified. His scheme has worked with consistent quarterback play. In the games where Ridder didn’t turn the ball over and the run game got hot, you saw why his offenses can be a nightmare to plan against. While the red zone output has always been a bit mixed, there are players who can be red zone assets when interceptions are not being thrown and drives are getting inside the 20.
Smith’s most galaxy brain moments can be maddening, and he really should cleanse those Jonnu Smith-MyCole Pruitt touchdown passes and direct-snap-to-KhaDarel Hodge concepts and just stick to the good stuff. However, the production he got from depleted rosters in 2021 and 2022 just highlight why 2023 has been so disappointing. We’ve seen his offense work in the past with far less ammo. If the team can find a quality starter for 2024 and beyond, will Smith’s offense look like its best self more consistently? It’s possible!
Finding the right balance between creativity and situational common sense will be critical for Smith if he’s able to return to Atlanta next season. However, we’ve seen what he does work and work well while with the Falcons. It’s a compelling reason to keep him around if the team seriously commits to making a meaningful investment at quarterback.
He’s good at hiring assistants
Hiring defensive coordinator Ryan Nielsen might be enough to save Smith’s job on its own. The way that Nielsen has transformed this defense into one of the league’s friskiest units could earn him head coaching looks down the road, which is a huge testament to his work.
Smith did with Nielsen what Quinn failed to do after Kyle Shanahan left for the San Francisco 49ers: he made a smart coordinator hire that paid off in instant success.
Quinn’s ultimate failure as a coach was not being able to find the right person to run the offense after Shanahan’s departure, as that iteration team continued to live in the shadows of 2016 until it ran out of gas. Smith was tasked to replace retiring coach Dean Pees, and he (and likely Terry Fontenot, who knew him from New Orleans) hit a home run with Nielsen. The Falcons defense has been the highlight of the 2023 season, and that’s not something any of us thought would be possible a year ago.
Finding your supporting staff is one of the biggest parts of being a head coach, and Smith has shown plenty of savvy with hiring his assistant coaches. That matters, especially because he’ll likely be asked to add to his offensive staff in 2024.
He’s got the locker room’s support
One of the recurring trends of Smith’s tenure has been his players speaking highly of his leadership. Not dissimilar to the culture Quinn brought, Smith has seemingly built a drama-free locker room that has his back, even in the ugliest moments on the field.
It might not be enough of a reason to save Smith’s job alone, but it’s something you seriously have to consider when making a coaching change. Part of the reason Quinn stayed with the Falcons for so long was that culture, that ability to pull a team together to believe in what you’re doing and how you’re doing it.
At no point in this terribly inconsistent season have the Falcons ever hinted at a fracture in belief, and that has to point to Smith being the kind of coach that can help his team weather the storms of adversity. Now, it’s ideal in the NFL to create good weather for yourself, and Smith will have to find more sunny days if he’s to return in 2024.
However, the culture has to count for something.
Keeping Smith might not be popular, but it’s the right call
NFL insider Albert Breer recently told Rich Eisen that he felt Smith is going to a successful head coach, whether that’s here or elsewhere, while talking about his job security.
It’s hard to shake that notion, that patience with Smith could lead to sustained success once the team finds its quarterback of the future and continues to pad the roster.
Quinn’s firing came after multiple years of a downward spiral. The 2017 to 2020 seasons could be tracked with a sloping arrow, as it felt each season that the team was only getting worse and more reliant on its top-heavy roster to win games.
Smith’s tenure doesn’t feel like that. While the arrow has pointed down in 2023 after two years of zig-zagging all over the place with rebuilding to take care of, it really feels like Sunday’s game is a glimpse at a better future.
We know this team can do well when everything is going like it should, and at least to me, it’s hard to want to ignore that possibility. For that to happen, it would mean that Smith would swallow the bitter pill that Ridder isn’t meant to start next year and finding the right guy to replace him. Nothing short of that can be accepted, of course.
Blank is probably going to demand a quarterback change regardless, but he should lean on his patient streak with Smith. Through all the frustrations, Smith’s Falcons have remained competitive through some real wacky games. While they need to learn to consistently finish, we might not even be discussing Smith’s job if not for some late-game collapses.
Late-game collapses are a calling card for this franchise, so the coach who consistently fixes those will be the coach to make a home in Atlanta. Firing Smith may have its many champions, but there is a path where that’s a hasty mistake after a disappointing season.
Keeping Smith might not be a guaranteed slam dunk, but it’s an easier path to immediate success than another coaching staff, which could result in another roster retooling and additional time of transition.
If I’m Blank, I give Smith another year to figure this out. He’s shown in the past that he can be the guy, and with the right quarterback in place, I’m thinking he will be.