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Reflecting on Arthur Smith’s downfall in Atlanta

A season of expected progression turned into total offensive regression for the Falcons, pushing Arthur Blank to make a decision nobody could have anticipated last August.

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NFL: Houston Texans at Atlanta Falcons Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

When a decision is made to make a head coaching change, the writing is normally on the wall within the organization. For all the reports about how much Arthur Blank wanted to remain committed to Arthur Smith’s vision, the path to sustainable success was shattered following Atlanta’s embarrassing loss in Carolina. It became clear he wasn’t suited to take this team to the next level as a credible contender. One-sided losses to Chicago and New Orleans confirmed the team had to go in a new direction.

Adaptability is one of the pivotal traits a team must possess to win in the NFL. For the Falcons to lose seven of their nine games on the road is the first of many indicators of how they couldn’t make adjustments and implement a balanced attack. They averaged 14 points per game away homfrom e despite having one of the most favorable schedules a team could ever ask for. In an offense supposedly built around versatility, the unit became static, with no semblance of a dropback passing game.

Smith’s rise as one of the more aggressive, forward-thinking playcallers with the Titans made him an exciting hire. An offensive-minded coach who helped revive a lackadaisical Tennessee offense and played an integral part in the franchise’s rise to being a legitimate AFC contender made everyone intrigued about the long-term fit in Atlanta.

He worked numerous positional roles and made sacrifices for a Titans’ organization that underwent several regime changes. Regardless of his highly fortunate background, his resilience to work his way up to his place as a head coach made him someone fans were largely ready to get behind. The way Tennessee offenses were so punishingly efficient created hope in Atlanta for an organization in dire need of a new identity.

After two seasons of mostly decent progress in strenuous circumstances, given the cap restrictions, everything began to align for a hugely positive 2023 following an off-season filled with exciting additions on both sides of the ball. In a wide-open division with a schedule facing teams from the AFC South and NFC North, which were considered two of the weakest divisions outside of the NFC South, this was meant to be the season the Falcons won at least nine games.

Having a winning record would have been hugely uplifting for a team that hadn’t come close to a winning season since 2017. Despite the lingering concerns at quarterback, the enthusiasm was there for the Falcons to get back to the playoffs behind a head coach who wants his offense to impose its will on the ground and play positionless football with three top-ten picks at the forefront of their dynamic unit. That plan never came to fruition.

Personnel Usage Complications

The missed evaluation at quarterback will be emphasized in every breakdown of why Smith was fired. It’s the biggest reason why he failed in Atlanta. As important as that is, there are other primary reasons behind his philosophy not materializing into what it was supposed to be as one of the more imaginative, unorthodox offenses in the league. The lack of a strong understanding of how to utilize his playmakers effectively starts off the list of where things went wrong for him.

Managing Bijan Robinson’s workload was going to be something to monitor during the season. Despite taking him with the eighth overall pick, there would be games he wouldn’t receive 18 to 20 touches. Some games would be better suited for Tyler Allgeier and Cordarrelle Patterson to brutalize defenses. What was alarming was that those games rarely happened.

Many of the Falcons’ games were one-score affairs where they needed their best players on the field. There were various stages where Robinson wasn’t on the field or used as a decoy. It took until late November for him to be featured regularly in the red zone. Smith was too fixated on designing plays for a backup tight end in Jonnu Smith over using their most electrifying playmaker in the most critical part of the offense in those important situations.

They struggled to get him active in the passing game, though in Smith’s defense, the rookie running back did make a fair share of individual errors due to lack of concentration. The coaching staff ultimately struggled to get Robinson consistently involved in large portions of the season, which must fall on Smith in multiple costly narrow defeats to Minnesota and Carolina. Continuously calling outside zone and not trust Robinson to run in-between tackles to wear down opposing fronts proved to be costly when the offense was stumbling.

They became predictable and one-dimensional when using a multi-dimensional playmaker. One play can inject hope into a languishing offense. The predictability and stubbornness to not make Robinson more of the centerpiece in the offense in certain games had to be infuriating for ownership, who made the significant investment to pick a running back after selecting a tight end and wide receiver in the previous two drafts in the first round.

Failing to best utilize Robinson can be applied to what has happened with Kyle Pitts. After a remarkable rookie season, he has been an afterthought in countless games. Smith’s offense made a unique talent into a glorified slot receiver. According to Pro Football Focus, nearly 60% of his snaps came within the slot on pass attempts. His reps on the outside were diminished despite the lack of capable wide receivers on the roster. Considering how fragmented the passing game was, it was perplexing that Pitts wasn’t more used on the outside to create more explosive plays.

The former fourth-overall pick’s season resembled a big standard tight end who can keep the chains moving, not someone who can thrive like a wide receiver and stretch the field. It’s an agonizing label to put on the first player selected in the Arthur Smith era, who was producing historic numbers as a rookie tight end. Unfortunately, the once-emerging star has stagnated within a passing game that struggles to create positive plays in empty five receiver sets and poses no vertical threat to opposing defenses. His recovery from injury may have played a role in his usage, but the fact that Atlanta struggled to get him involved last year too is not positive.

The list can go on across the board. Drake London only had six games of eight targets or more. A player of his caliber should have had more plays designed for him. As much of a spark as he provided at times, Jonnu Smith was the primary weapon too often in crucial moments that ultimately backfired. Mack Hollins became suddenly ostracized after the organization believed he would be an ideal number two receiver in the offense.

Abysmal quarterback play played a substantial role in not getting much production out of Van Jefferson and Scotty Miller. They could have at least been used as decoys downfield to create openings in the short and intermediate areas of the field. Outside of Smith, there isn’t a skill position player who showed notable improvement this season. That’s one of the main reasons why Smith was justifiably fired.

Can’t Function Without Competent Quarterback Play

From watching the Falcons’ offense during the season, it’s evident how the performances at the most valuable position in sports doomed them. Smith delivered his fair share of crafty play designs to create high-percentage looks and big play opportunities for the starting quarterback. More times than not, the play wasn’t executed because Desmond Ridder or Taylor Heinicke either threw behind, high, wide or didn’t throw the ball because of their inability to read coverage looks.

Both quarterbacks did plenty to ruin game plans with self-inflicted errors, panicking when the first read wasn’t open, and committing mind-numbing turnovers. The decision to believe in these quarterbacks starts with the larger organization. They committed to Ridder despite little evidence suggesting he should be the definitive starter. A four-game sample size in 2022 facing two ferocious defenses on the road in New Orleans and Baltimore, followed by a woeful Arizona team that was done playing for Kliff Kingsbury, and then a second-string Tampa Bay defense who were playing Dallas in the playoffs the next week, was nowhere near enough to believe he should start in 2024 without competition. This is after Smith stayed committed to Marcus Mariota for an absurd number of games because they were trying to compete for the playoffs. Meanwhile, Mariota had become a total liability by November and didn’t offer anything to help them win games.

The failure to properly assess Ridder in game action falls squarely on Smith. The decision to only play him in one drive during the preseason is another baffling move that didn’t help. His belief in Heinicke as a capable backup proved disastrous when he was called upon, outside of a good second half showing against Tennessee. Besides that, the veteran quarterback played like someone who shouldn’t be starting in the NFL with the amount of turnover-worthy throws and misreads he was making, particularly in a massive game against Chicago.

Amidst the chaos of this quarterback debacle, it does have to be mentioned the franchise publicly stated they weren’t interested in Lamar Jackson. Arthur Blank was vocal about not wanting to trade for him, which makes him culpable for the public humiliation of being against attempting to acquire the imminent 2023 NFL MVP. Smith does have to be put in there as well for being resistant to pursuing a franchise-changing player, as Blank seemingly made clear Monday that Smith and Fontenot were committed to Ridder.

This is a year after aggressively sending offers to trade for Deshaun Watson, who was one of the worst quarterbacks in the NFL this season, to go along with being a disgraced figure. It’s mistake after mistake from someone considered to know the position well after reviving Ryan Tannehill’s career. The amount of calamitous mistakes shows Smith needs serious improvement in evaluating quarterbacks if he’s going to have a head coaching job in the future.

No matter the exciting young talent added to the offense, they weren’t going to come close to being a potent unit due to the catastrophically poor quarterback play. It also didn’t help how predictable and stale the offense became, while Smith’s public-facing persona because a problem as well.

Schematic Failures and Character Flaws

Similar to how appalling quarterback play derailed certain plays, there were several moments when play designs were ruined by skill position errors. Whether it was an incorrect route or a missed blocking assignment, players made frequent mistakes and lacked attention to detail.

When a team doesn’t play with attention to detail, it raises questions about how the coaching staff is working with players to improve their overall games. It should also make you ponder the type of play designs the team was running. On many occasions, there was minimal spacing on passing concepts when they were either using bunch sets or going empty with five wide. It forced Ridder or Heinicke to bail from the pocket and make plays with their legs, knowing they wouldn’t find a possible throwing window due to all the congestion.

Running empty sets with five wide should create mismatches and opportunities to build scoring drives. For the Falcons, it produced more mistakes and turnovers than solid gains and explosive plays. They would sometimes use more running backs and tight ends than actual wide receivers, with Robinson, Patterson, Pitts, Smith, and London. That made it much easier for defenses to lock in on the short and intermediate areas of the field, knowing they weren’t at much risk of getting beat vertically downfield. The passing designs looked slow every week, even though the team preached about being dynamic all off-season.

What’s even more alarming was how Smith’s bread and butter became burnt and tasteless. The running game was largely underwhelming for most of the season. Outside of a few stellar performances against Green Bay, New Orleans, and Indianapolis, they failed to overwhelm opposing defensive fronts as they did in 2022. That’s not purely because of injuries or regression on the offensive line. Sam Hoppen recently posted an eye-opening chart on rushing scheme predictability. Unsurprisingly, the Falcons fell in the worst category of a predictable rushing scheme and bad rushing offense.

A team that drafted the biggest running back prospect since Saquon Barkley, a 1,000-yard rusher who broke the franchise rookie record last season and still has one of the most physically imposing unique weapons in Patterson, somehow rolled out a predictable, listless rushing attack.

Smith’s insistence on using primarily inside zone with Allgeier and outside zone with Robinson gave defenses a solid indicator of how to prevent them from gaining chunk plays. Outside of an occasional clever counter design, the embattled head coach never offered many solutions. The lack of adjustments was felt during the entire season. The protection for an overwhelmed quarterback was lacking. When Smith was pressed about certain shortcomings in the offense, his responses were mostly overly defensive and obnoxious.

It started with Kurt Warner’s objective assessment of the offense’s struggles after the loss to Tennessee. Instead of taking the high road or briefly addressing it, Smith went on a diatribe insulting the legendary quarterback. This is a former player turned analyst who puts in hours of tape study and represents himself incredibly well. It proved to be a sign of things to come. Smith was clearly well-liked by his players and was said to be far more thoughtful and personable in private settings than he was in his public remarks, but those public remarks were too often grating and later backfired.

He referred to the criticism of Ridder’s concerning performances as “toxic groupthink” in late October. Within two weeks, his defense of Ridder was no longer there after he benched the second-year quarterback for Heinicke. Unless he was speaking to media members outside of press conferences or being coddled by Pat McAfee, his public remarks started showing a man who simply couldn’t take criticism without resorting to immature responses.

While ownership has moved on from talking about the former head coach, you have to think they were getting turned off by someone who was supposed to be the leader of the franchise. As much disappointment and drama the Falcons have faced over the last 15 years, they were led by two leaders who took pride in coaching with integrity. Mike Smith and Dan Quinn couldn’t have been more professional in how they operated. When adversity arose, they stood there and acted professionally. They didn’t mock media members or take shots at the fantasy football community. It was about remaining composed and assured they would be able to move forward even as things collapsed.

There is no denying Smith had a positive influence in the locker room. Chris Lindstrom and Kaleb McGary expressed enormous admiration for their former head coach. Calais Campbell spoke glowingly about Smith when talking about his decision to join Atlanta. Many of the team’s key players were grateful to have played for him. The respect he commands does have to be acknowledged, and media members were largely complimentary of his responses in other settings.

Smith didn’t lose the locker room, but he did lose his way as a coach on the field and as a representative for the franchise off the field. His offenses were often overmatched, and unable to score even 20 points. His behavior, at times, showcased someone who didn’t appear ready to represent a franchise in such a significant role. As popular as he was in the locker room, he was anything but popular outside of the organization. It’s one thing to come across as arrogant and defensive if your team is winning games. When your team is frequently turning the ball over and not maximizing the skill set of exciting young talent, you have to look at how to address these issues and improve as a group, not turn up the heat on your critics.

That never happened for a head coach who proved to be too stubborn to build on the promise he showed in his first two seasons in Atlanta. It ultimately came crashing down for someone who will have to evolve as a play caller and coach before his next head coaching opportunity comes along.