The Atlanta Falcons hired Arthur Smith because they believed he could revitalize an aging offense, bring a franchise that had endured three straight losing seasons back to relevance, and partner with Terry Fontenot to rebuild a roster that had gotten expensive and thin. Three years later, they’re firing Arthur Smith because very little of that happened, and the team’s string of losing seasons has now reached an impossibly depressing six years.
Falcons have fired Arthur Smith, per source.— Adam Schefter (@AdamSchefter) January 8, 2024
Smith’s Falcons overachieved, at least record-wise, during his first season and put together an impressively sturdy ground game in year two. That led to optimism that a team finally out of the woods cap-wise would be able to take a major step forward and become a contender, optimism buoyed by the team’s quality offseason and easy schedule. Instead, the 2023 season proved to be a nightmare, with Desmond Ridder literally throwing and fumbling away games, the ground game regressing mightily, and the offense generally cratering despite that being Smith’s specialty. The big strides from the defense just underscored how disappointing an offense loaded with top ten picks and big contracts actually was, and as the team’s losses mounted, Smith struggled to come up with answers.
The culmination of these bad times was unquestionably the two benchings of Desmond Ridder, the second after the Falcons somehow lost to the lowly (at the time) 1-12 Panthers by a score of 9-7 in the rain, but maybe Smith could have hung in if the final few games had gone well. An impressive win over the Colts might have saved Smith if any game could save him, but a 20 point road loss to the Bears followed, one that again saw the offense misfiring and the defense struggling mightily. Then Smith’s Falcons put up the stinker of all stinkers to cap off the season, managing to hang around for a half before the Saints scored 24 unanswered point to run up a 41-17 lead on Atlanta, essentially sealing the head coach’s fate. Smith finished the 2023 with a losing record again, with zero winning streaks of more than two games, and only four double digit victories in his entire 51 game tenure in Atlanta. His career record of 21-30 is eighth all-time among full-time Falcons coaches, behind every coach in the past 15 years and behind some lesser lights, as well.
You can fairly argue that Smith was undone by the putrid play and heavy dose of turnovers we saw at quarterback this year, but from the outside, it seemed as though he was a major advocate for Marcus Mariota in 2022 and the Desmond Ridder/Taylor Heinicke duo in 2023. Despite being handed three top ten picks on offense, Smith was hounded throughout his tenure for an inability to get Kyle Pitts the ball effectively, Drake London’s up-an-down production, and Bijan Robinson’s sometimes questionable usage. The stark (if uneven) improvement on the defensive side of the ball while the offense stagnated was a big problem for Smith, given that he is very obviously the architect of the offense and its play caller. Add in the fact that Smith was hired before Terry Fontenot and appeared to have significant say in personnel and there’s no real way to spin any of this going wrong in a way that absolves Smith. The late collapse from the defense, the offense’s full-season troubles, and the toll losing has taken on owner and fanbase conspired to push him out, and it’s hard to argue that was anything but the right outcome.
I still thought the Falcons might keep him, because it seems evident that Arthur Blank likes Smith personally and badly wanted this to work out. It is also clear that many of his players genuinely both like and respect him. Still, the hideous nature of the Panthers, Bears, and Saints losses on top of the existing disappointment of the 2023 season overall made it impossible to justify keeping him. Smith should have little trouble landing on his feet with an offensive coordinator role somewhere and a chance to work his way back into a head coaching gig, even after the bottom fell out of this Falcons offense. If Mike Vrabel is still in Tennessee, that feels like a borderline lock, given the messy state of that offense.
Now what matters is getting the next hire right. The Falcons may try to keep Ryan Nielsen around for the next, presumably offensive-minded head coach, but there’s no guarantee that will happen. The focus should be on landing someone who can get much, much more out of the roster the Falcons currently have and the quarterback they’re going to have to acquire, because patience ran out a long time ago and there’s enough talent here to be far more competitive than we’ve seen this team be over the past three seasons.
The Falcons have to break their current cycle of mediocrity and ineptitude, one that has dragged on to the point of exhaustion for everyone who cares about this football team. We have to hope that starts with the next coaching hire.