There’s one final week in the 2023 NFL season, and it may be tempting to position Atlanta Falcons vs. New Orleans Saints as a do-or-die moment for Arthur Smith. The embattled head coach heads into that game with an outside chance of pushing his team into the playoffs with a win, as well as finishing above 7-10 for the first time in his three-year career as a head coach. There are stakes here for the franchise, but let’s be honest: They are not stakes for Smith.
Because here's the thing with Smith: A decision should already have been made, and I believe it has been. The final game should not change Arthur Blank's mind one way or the other, and it will not. With nearly three full seasons overall and 16 largely underwhelming games this year to evaluate, Blank has seen everything he needs to in order to get the ball rolling, whether he’s (in my opinion, mistakenly) keeping Smith or looking to make a major change. The fact that the Falcons might make the playoffs almost by accident shouldn’t factor into his decision in the slightest, given that the team has played poorly enough this year to miss the postseason in any other division and in almost any other season.
I don’t have any ill will toward Smith beyond what has been ginned up by the way his tenure has unfolded, but I do believe the way this year has spun apart makes a strong case for Blank to move on. Despite this team building the roster painstakingly for the past three years and Smith having quite a bit of staff continuity and time to consider what this offense might look like, that side of the ball has been one the primary reasons the Falcons have struggled so mightily. The team has been unable or unwilling to get the most out of its considerable talent, and Blank would have to believe in both Smith’s ability to drastically improve the offense and that quarterback is a far larger problem than coaching. Perhaps he does, but that would be a level of faith that this year makes difficult to justify.
The reporting out there is decidedly mixed in terms of what the final outcome will be. The recently retired Jeff Schultz at The Athletic, who has a good relationship with Arthur Blank, was joined by Ian Rapoport and Tom Pelissero in reporting that Smith was probably going to be retained barring a really embarrassing end to the season. ESPN insider Jeremy Fowler backed that reporting up this week, saying league sources have indicated the team would prefer not to fire Smith. NFL insider Jason La Canfora, who has a more mixed track record with Falcons news, is among those who believe Smith is gone at season’s end, while NFL Network insider Mike Garafolo told Steve Wyche Wednesday backed that up by saying he thinks Smith may be in trouble.
On the latest episode of #TheNFLReport @mikegarafolo gave @wyche89 and I some insight into the job security of the head coaches in the NFC South. "I believe Arthur Smith is on the shakiest of grounds."— James Palmer (@JamesPalmerTV) January 3, 2024
Catch a replay of the full show on @youtube:https://t.co/AzSNJsxpuQ pic.twitter.com/1fZMQyL4ux
The only certainty is that while we don’t know which way Blank is leaning, he does. The horse race nature of the reporting doesn’t change the fact that the Falcons’ owner has all the information and has had all the time he needs to make that decision.
As Carl Dukes from 92.9 The Game put it, Blank has leaned toward giving coaches and executives additional chances in the past, and that track record and Blank’s non-commital statements are all we really have to go on right now. Blank moved Rich McKay into a team president role rather than letting him go after McKay’s 2003-2007 stint as general manager, gave Thomas Dimitroff a second go-around after firing Mike Smith, and kept Dan Quinn and Dimitroff after two straight losing seasons from 2018-2019. His evident fondness for Arthur Smith and that history, plus reporting throughout the season, has led me to suspect the Falcons will run it back in 2024 with mandated coaching staff changes and a mandate to find a new quarterback.
What complicates that picture, obviously, is the team’s fortunes. Blank has never allowed a coach to survive three straight losing seasons, something Smith locked up last week, and the heightened expectations this team generated with their big offseason spending and rhetoric versus the actual results has a downstream effect on the franchise reputation and revenue. If Blank believes Smith is the right guy to win with next year, he may be tempted to buck those trends, but it’s hard to overstate how disappointing this year has been and how much of it lands at the feet of the coach who stood by these quarterbacks, put together this anemic offense, and hasn’t been able to gin up any consistency over the past three seasons. Blank risks something worse than a fan revolt, which is a new level of disinterest in a team that already struggles to get butts in seats on gameday.
Either way, to really drive the point home, I truly believe the decision has been made. I have been concerned that Blank would put an outsized amount of stock in the final three games of the season, but with an impressive win and another ugly loss over the past two weeks, the results shouldn’t be tipping the decision in either direction. Blank will want to prepare the organization to either go out and hire a new head coach or hit the ground running on an offseason that will bring major changes to the roster and perhaps the coaching staff under Smith, and that work isn’t going to begin on January 8. That’s just when we’ll find out about it, assuming nothing leaks on Sunday immediately after the game.
Arthur Smith shouldn’t be coaching for his job on Sunday, in other words, regardless of the outcome. Blank has to have seen enough to make his decision, and hopefully the one he makes proves to be a smart one for a Falcons team that has spent too many years wandering the wilderness.