There’s no denying that the Falcons underachieved in Arthur Smith’s third and final year. During his press conference with team CEO Rich McKay—and, notably, not general manager Terry Fontenot—Falcons owner Arthur Blank explained that while the playoffs may not have been a mandate, improvement was.
“It was more about getting to the next level, winning more games, etcetera, and playing at a competitive level that we didn’t come close to this year with the kind of consistency that, I think, that our roster really should have given us the ability to do,” Blank said.
Understandably, most of the criticism was levied at Smith. The former Titans coordinator sought to build an offense that was balanced, physical and unpredictable, but Smith’s unit struggled to embody any of those qualities for long stretches of time and averaged just 18.9 points per game, which ranked 26th. While fans and fantasy football players alike soured on Smith’s resistance to channeling his offense through his stars, his ultimate downfall came because of the quarterback position.
Smith inherited Matt Ryan, the winningest quarterback in franchise history. In his first year with Ryan, the Falcons averaged 18.4 points per game and ranked 29th in yards per game. That offseason, Atlanta pursued quarterback Deshaun Watson, which Blank called “a collaborative decision,” but missed out after the Cleveland Browns offered him a fully guaranteed contract. That pursuit ultimately cost them Ryan’s services, so the Falcons turned to Marcus Mariota, who had familiarity with Smith’s system from Tennessee.
They also drafted Desmond Ridder in the third round of the NFL Draft later in the offseason with the plan to develop him behind Mariota and potentially make him the starter.
“I think the idea with Desmond was they drafted Desmond third round. They had seen him. They liked what they saw,” McKay said. “They saw the progress through all of the practices through the  season. Played four games, and they made the decision that that was the best path to try to win this year. It didn’t work out for a number of reasons, but let’s not just say it was Desmond. I don’t think there was a disagreement over the position.”
Entering a pivotal third year for Smith, the Falcons chose not to pursue Lamar Jackson after the Baltimore Ravens placed a non-exclusive franchise tag on their star quarterback. With the non-exclusive tag in place, Jackson was free to negotiate with other teams but the Ravens would have five days to match any offer or receive two first-round picks as compensation if he signed elsewhere.
Quickly after Jackson received the tag, it was reported that the Falcons were not interested in pursuing him. That news threw cold water on fan excitement and led many to wonder if the Falcons were seriously considering entering the season with Ridder as the team’s starter. Even when Atlanta signed Taylor Heinicke to a two-year contract worth up to $20 million, the team quickly made it clear he was coming to the Falcons in a backup role.
“There was never any discussion about any other quarterback path other than the one that Coach Smith and Terry [chose], and we supported, but they chose to take,” Blank said Monday.
Blank’s comments suggest that the Falcons were all-in on Ridder as the quarterback for the 2023 season, but that logic may have had more to do with finances than ability. Atlanta is in a period of “cap-rehab” as McKay called it, and the team liked the financial flexibility that a quarterback on a rookie contract afforded.
“I think the result of that thinking was, Let’s stay the course,” Blank said. “Let’s continue to pursue the vision that we have now. Continue to build this roster. Build this foundation offensively and defensively and go from there.”
With that flexibility, the team overhauled and transformed their defense. The results were impressive on that side of the ball. Atlanta improved to the 11th-best defense in yards allowed last season after ranking 27th in the same metric in 2022. They allowed more than 30 points just twice all year—their final two games—and finished with 42 sacks, which were more than they had in the first two years under Smith combined and the franchise’s high point since the 2004 season.
However, the improvements on the defensive side of the ball weren’t enough to overcome the inconsistency on offense. Most notably, the high number of turnovers that prevented the Falcons from scoring more than 24 points in 13 of their 17 games.
But while the offensive struggles created a stark divide amongst fans seeking to pin blame on either the head coach or the quarterback, Blank viewed the two as inextricably linked.
“Quarterback play includes scheme, play-calling, other players – there’s a lot of things that go into whether a quarterback is successful or not, and how you transition a quarterback into the NFL with the level of complexity of plays you put in front of them and whether it matches where they are in their career path,” Blank said. “There’s a million things that go into it. All I’m going to suggest is that I’ve learned a lot in my 22 years, and that’s one of the things. It’s not just the player. It’s the coach, the coaching. Many of these young men today, at all positions, come into the NFL today, they are diamonds in the rough, but they need to be polished, and polished by a great coaching staff.”
Blank holds coaching, to some degree, responsible for the lack of improved consistency with Ridder, and it’s clear that he puts a lot of responsibility on the coaching staff for the development of young players. So, with the most important position in sports sitting squarely as the Falcons’ primary offseason need (aside from a head coach, of course), how will the organization proceed?
Blank is acutely aware of the need to upgrade the quarterback play, which he said was “clearly deficient’ in 2023. But he views that as an enticing proposition for a new coach, the chance to pick exactly what he wants through either the draft, free agency or via a trade. That’s different than the situation Smith walked into, inheriting Ryan at the end of his career with the tall task of rehabilitating the rest of the roster.
“So, I think to a new head coach, that’s an opportunity,” Blank said. “It’s an opportunity to kind of pick their own partner if you will or own spouse if you will who they can grow with, who they can select, however we acquire them. Wherever we acquire their rights, draft, free agency or whatever it may be.”
Although Smith never got the quarterback situation correct, he does leave the roster in a much better spot than it was when he first earned the job. That will make it easier to focus on getting the right quarterback, and it will undoubtedly help his successor hit the ground running.
“To me, this is a unique situation for me because in many of these, you hear the phrase ‘direction,’” McKay said. “‘Oh, we have to change direction.’ That’s a classic phrase in a situation like this. I think we like the direction of the team and the franchise, but I think we need results. And we need results sooner rather than later, and we felt like that’s what we needed to do right now to make that happen.”