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Beautiful Story on Falcons Possible Next GM: Rick Smith


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"𝑴𝒀   𝑯𝑬𝑨𝑹𝑻  𝑰𝑺  𝑵𝑶𝑾  𝑶𝑷𝑬𝑵: 𝑯𝑶𝑾  𝑮𝑹𝑰𝑬𝑭  𝑹𝑬𝑺𝑯𝑨𝑷𝑬𝑫  𝑴𝑬"

 

The entry for Jan. 31, 2019 in Rick Smith’s journal begins:

My wife took her last breath at 10:11 a.m. She is free.

Tiffany Smith, 49, was pronounced dead about two hours later. She had been unconscious for a couple of days. Her husband had been sitting by her side, waiting, praying, doing what he could to bring her comfort.

A little more than a year earlier, Rick was the executive vice president and general manager of the Houston Texans. He was a man who seemed to have it all, including a vibrant wife and three beautiful children, Rob, now 16, Avery, 12, and Christian, 8.

After becoming the youngest general manager in the NFL in 2006 at age 36, Rick drafted stars like Duane Brown, J.J. Watt, DeAndre Hopkins, Jadeveon Clowney and Deshaun Watson. He was widely respected in league circles even though his teams had mixed results. Rick’s Texans had made four playoff appearances but never advanced past the divisional round.

By 2017, Rick and Texans head coach Bill O’Brien, who had been hired three years earlier by owner Bob McNair with input from Rick, were having differences about how the organization was being run.

When Tiffany was diagnosed with breast cancer, Rick decided his wife and their children needed him more than the Texans, so at the end of the 2017 season, he took a leave of absence that was supposed to last a minimum of 12 months.

After Rick was out of the way, McNair gave most of Rick’s authority to O’Brien. Rick says McNair called him to his office six months later and told him he no longer saw a place for him in the organization. They agreed to revisit the situation after the season.

During his leave, Rick dedicated himself to his wife and her burdens. They opted mostly for alternative treatments, which seemed to be working. In February 2018, doctors told her the tumor was half the size it had been when it was discovered.

But in December 2018, things took a turn. Tiffany was coughing and experiencing pain and swelling in her abdomen.

As Rick’s wife was becoming gravely ill, the Texans officially fired him on December 31. “It created a tremendous amount of pressure on me, right when things were starting to go downhill,” he says. “My concern was about health insurance and having to transition everything to Cobra.”

He wasn’t happy about the way things ended, and he let it be known to Cal McNair, who succeeded his father after Bob died in November 2018.

A section of Rick’s journal entry on January 3 reads:

I emailed Cal. I feel better. I feel better. There was something therapeutic about expressing this and releasing it.

The entry for January 7 begins:

What a day. This has been Tiff’s toughest day. I explained to her that my concern is the progressive way in which she experiences new issues.

His entry for January 11, reads, in part:

I told my mom that I just had to put my hands up last night in worship and tell God I can no longer do this alone. I can no longer do this by myself.  I surrender. I surrender ALL. ALL.

On January 23, he wrote:

This situation, circumstance, this journey, whatever, or however it is best described, is the most challenging of my time here on the planet. I am calling on every experience and lesson I’ve learned for all 49 years. God is calling me deeper. I hear that. I see that. I am doing that. 

Still, neither he nor his wife grasped what was happening.

A little more than one month before her death, Rick and Tiffany danced at her friend’s wedding at the St. Regis Bahia Beach Resort in Puerto Rico. Two weeks before her death, Rick had never contemplated anything but a return to health for Tiffany. One week before her death, they didn’t even understand they needed to have a nurse come to their house to help tend to her.

Then, quickly, Tiffany was free.

Rick was anything but.

 

Rob Smith walked to the lectern at Wheeler Baptist Church, paused, and looked at the large photograph of his mother.  “God, she was beautiful, wasn’t she?” he said.

Then he began a eulogy that moved many in the standing room only congregation.

Cal McNair was there with a large Texans contingent that included Hopkins and many teammates. Among those in attendance were Cowboys vice president Stephen Jones, Giants owner John Mara, Falcons president Rich McKay, Ravens exec Ozzie Newsome, and former head coaches Marvin Lewis and Jeff Fisher, all of whom served with Smith on the NFL competition committee. Others in the crowd included Eagles general manager Howie Roseman, former Colts general manager Ryan Grigson, who played with Smith at Purdue, ESPN insider Adam Schefter, and Rob’s entire high school football team.

Rick asked that instead of flowers, donations be made to Bo’s Place, a bereavement center that offers grief support. Fifty thousand dollars was contributed.

“What I remember most is how I felt supported,” he says a year later as he pulls out a large box from under the couch in his office. In it are hundreds of letters with heartfelt notes. “I felt lifted up, loved. It was tangible.”

Still, the burden was heavy. The yoke Rick had shared with his wife now was all his.

Tiffany was Rick’s first love, and his first loss.

“Tiffany was a force, man,” Rick says. “She was a force. I don’t want to say she was everything. But she was everything. She was a partner. She was a friend. She was an advocate. She was fiercely loyal. She was smart as ****. She was funny.”

He pauses to gather himself. A tear streams down his right cheek and disappears beneath his upper lip. “Yeah, she was all of that. People loved her. If she didn’t like you, you knew it. There was no secret about it. And she was cool with you knowing that. In fact, she preferred it. She was clear. She taught me about boundaries, man. She taught me about loyalty. She taught me about what it is to love and how to love.  Yeah, she was just… that’s what she was.  I miss her, man.  I miss her.”

In the great room just off the front door in the Smith house in Houston is a large photograph of Tiffany over the fireplace. Beneath the picture is a lovely cream and caramel-colored urn with her remains. To the left, a large gong. Sometimes Rick finds peace in this room.

Down the hall through their bedroom, past the bed where she took her last breath and into their closet is another space he considers sacred.  In the back corner of the closet is a small shrine to Tiffany.  Her wedding ring is there. So is the candle that was burning when she died, and other mementos of significance from their relationship.

E3D768E7-8C56-4A7B-838C-EEF672634E53_1_1
Rick’s shrine to Tiffany. (Dan Pompei / The Athletic)

Another candle that belonged to Tiffany is nearby.  It has the word “Love” on it.  He hasn’t lit it, but there are times when its aroma — orchid with a hint of citrus — fills the room.  “When she’s here, she blows that scent to me,” he says. “I don’t smell it any other time except when she’s here.”

Rick can show you a Franklin Planner for each of the last 28 years. Planning was a part of who he was. But there could be no planning any of this.

His new reality?  Pancakes on the griddle in the morning and salmon on the grill in the evening. Registering for the kids’ classes and shopping for school supplies. Drop-offs and pickups. Making sure the water bowl was filled for Gracie the Goldendoodle.

There were those uncomfortable firsts to get through. Birthdays, their wedding anniversary, vacation, Mother’s Day, Thanksgiving, Christmas.

There was a period he barely could get out of bed, a “dark night of the soul,” he calls it.

Losing his wife was one thing. Losing his job was another. It was, he says, like “two deaths.”

He would not deal with loss passively.

When Tiffany was ill, Rick was prediabetic, dealing with regular flareups of gout. He eliminated sugar and flour and tried intermittent fasting.  He stopped taking all pharmaceutical drugs, even aspirin.  Now he’s 20 pounds lighter and has more energy and flexibility and less inflammation than he’s had since his college days.

Tiffany had seen an acupuncturist who recommended they visit the Shaolin Temple. Rick has made going there a habit, studying Chi Kong and Tai Chi from a 31st generation monk. He works with a yogi who opens up his centers.

He committed to one year of grief counseling and therapy.

He became consistent about journaling and started writing a book on his experiences. Reading helped — there was A New Earthby Eckhart Tolle, The Untethered Soul by Michael Allen Singer, and Becoming Supernatural by Joe Dispenza.

All of it has reshaped him.

“You don’t go through the experience I just went through and come out on the other side the same,” he says. “It’s a transformational experience. My thought process, my self-awareness, all is exponentially better. I have a new perspective on almost everything, and it enhances all the skills I had before. I have a more global perspective. I have a richer view of life that will enhance whatever I do.”

That includes how he parents, how he takes care of himself, and maybe, how he will run a football team.

January 31 was the first anniversary of Tiffany’s death. To commemorate it, the family dedicated a memorial bench to her near their house.

They released balloons and prayed, then went home with a few friends.  They cooked tacos, which Tiffany loved to do. Rick and the kids had written letters to Tiffany and placed them in a box. After nightfall, they started a fire in the firepit, and placed the box in it, releasing their sentiments to the skies.

It wasn’t closure. Grief like this has no closure. But it was graduation, one phase to the next.

Through his sadness, his glorious sadness, life began again for Rick. “The grief broke me open, wide open,” he says. “My heart is open now. My ability to connect with people is so much more enhanced. I’ve got more empathy, I’ve got more love. That has greatly enhanced my ability to see life for what it is and to know who I am.”

Death, as always, begetting life.


Around Thanksgiving 2019, Smith received a call from Cal McNair. Dan Snyder, the owner of the Redskins, had contacted McNair to see if Smith would be interested in getting back in the game. Smith grew up in Virginia as a fan of Joe Gibbs and the Hogs, and his parents still live there.

Snyder and Smith met twice in the Bahamas, but no offer was made.

Returning to the NFL would mean uprooting his children at a time Rob, Avery and Christian could be vulnerable.

The morning after Smith met with Snyder the second time, he found a letter on his desk from his daughter, telling him she and her brothers should not be the reason he turns down a job. “I want him to do something that he likes to do,” Avery says. “Even though he likes taking care of us, there is something else he can do that makes him happy.”

The family bonds have been strengthened. “Moving isn’t an issue for me,” Rob says. “I’ll follow him wherever he goes. Whatever he does, I’m doing.”

It is likely more interview requests will be coming. The 2019 Texans — a team he still refers to as “we” — reflected well on him.  The five captains who took the field for the coin toss in their playoff game against the Chiefs — Watson, Watt, Johnathan Joseph, Nick Martin and Bernardrick McKinney — had been acquired by Smith.

On the day of the draft in 2017, Smith was intent on drafting a franchise quarterback. He ranked Watson first, Patrick Mahomes second and Mitchell Trubisky a distant third, he says.  “I walked away from the national championship game convinced Deshaun could lead the franchise,” he says. “I thought he could be a top quarterback in this league for a long time.”

He knew Watson would not last until the Texans’ 25th pick in the draft. He thought he would have to trade up to the sixth pick, so he polled the others in the draft room to see if anyone was interested in making a move. Nobody else was. The price was prohibitive anyway.

Then the Chiefs traded up to the 10th spot to take Mahomes. Watson was still on the board, and a trade up with the Browns to the 12th spot was possible. Smith asked the others in the room if anyone would give up next year’s first-round pick to move up to 12 for Watson.

“Not one person said they would,” he says.

He typically values consensuses.  Not this time.

Smith leaned over and quietly spoke to O’Brien.

Smith: “If he’s there at 12, I’m gonna go get him.”

O’Brien: “If you have a feeling in your gut like that, do it. I’ll coach him up, and we’ll be good.”

And with that, Smith stood up and announced to the room, “Sometimes you just got to go with your gut.”

And so he did, trading up to the 12th spot and selecting Watson.

It took Smith awhile to get the quarterback he wanted. He inherited David Carr, traded for Matt Schaub, then signed three free agents over three years — Ryan Fitzpatrick, Brian Hoyer and Brock Osweiler.

The Osweiler signing was the most regrettable because the Texans gave him a contract worth $72 million over four years. Osweiler clashed with O’Brien, set the team record for interceptions and was benched late in the season. In what Schefter said may have been the most creative trade in NFL history, Smith then packaged Osweiler with a second-round pick and dumped him on the Browns.

“You are going to make mistakes in this business,” Smith says. “Either you admit them and find a solution, or sit in them.”

If Smith finds himself running a team again in the future, he will do some things differently, he says.

He believes football organizations aren’t as efficient as possible in player development. He would lead his team in a way NFL teams typically aren’t led, with an emphasis on the whole person and not just the player.

“We spend so much time, resources, energy, attention on draft evaluation,” he says. “We have huge dossiers on these players, where they are from, how they learn, personal lives, social skill set, scores, their history, everything. After the draft, all that information about that player we learned doesn’t get integrated into his onboarding. I think that’s a mistake. You can onboard players and utilize all that information to put a plan together that gives them a chance to give them a better chance to be a better man, better member of the organization, and a better football player. There is a holistic approach to player development we are missing.”

Smith isn’t interested in being a de facto personnel director who only is in charge of acquisitions and roster management. He wants to be the man who provides the vision for a franchise.

Leadership always has come naturally. Smith was class president in elementary school. In driver’s ed, he was the No. 1 driver in the No. 1 car. He was captain of his high school football team and his college team at Purdue, where he was a strong safety who energized his team with hits that could be heard all over the stadium and an infectious laugh.

“Rick Smith was a leader for the Texans in some of our most transformative years,” Cal McNair said in a statement from the team last month. “I respect the sacrifices he made during an extremely difficult time for his family and I’ve always thought he would go on to be a success in anything he chose to do.”

Leadership may be more of a strength than ever now.

In a league that currently has only two African American general managers, Smith is a candidate who every owner with a high-level front office opening has to consider.

With the Texans, Smith dedicated himself to filling the pipeline with qualified minorities. He increased the number of African Americans in football operations to 16 from six, not including coaches.  Of those 16, seven were in leadership positions, defined as assistant director or higher. With a new team, Smith would intend to do the same.

His grandfather, Frank Smith, was a sharecropper in Virginia who sweated away his days tending to cucumbers, tomatoes, strawberries and sweet potatoes. He was a dignified, reserved man, and he wore a suit to church every Sunday. Frank’s son and Rick’s father Franklin Sr. was the chief school officer in Washington, D.C.

On one wall in Smith’s office is a plaque with Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech.  Below it is a plaque with clippings from the June 4, 2008 edition of the Houston Chronicle announcing Smith signing a contract extension and Barack Obama clinching the Democratic presidential nomination.

“There’s obligation,” Smith says. “It’s right there [on the wall].  I understand it. I feel it. And I’ve got a legacy on the other side. I don’t know that it’s limited to the National Football League, but I know the National Football League gives me a platform and opportunity to really demonstrate that we are capable, that we should have a seat, and we need to have more representation.”

That being said, Smith doesn’t feel a need to return to the NFL to complete unfinished business, or to prove anything.  “What’s important to me is to be present every moment of every day, and to support these kids and to share the gifts God has given me,” he says. “If that means my vocation is back in the NFL, then that’s what I’ll be doing.  I know I have a lot to offer the NFL. If it’s another calling, that’s what I’ll do.  I will stay obedient to God’s guidance and direction.”

Smith’s perspective is rare in NFL front offices, where deep thought usually is limited to play dissection.

So the question becomes: is there a place in the NFL for a man like him?

“What I do know and what I can tell you is I am not changing,” he says. “I’m moving further and further into my practice and my awareness of who I am. I do believe there is a place in the NFL for light and love and joy and abundance and peace, grace, wisdom, intelligence, forgiveness, all those God qualities.  How that manifests itself in that environment, I’m not sure. But that’s what I’m expressing.”

The argument can be made that pro football needs him more than he needs pro football.

He may be running an NFL team in the near future again. He may not be.

What matters now is Rick Smith is free.

 

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I don't have time to read it right now, though I plan to get back to it.

But ... stories like this are likely part of a PR engine to start getting us to like someone who might become the new GM.

And I don't want to be sold a GM based on that.

We need to find the available GM who is most likely to turn us into a world class dynasty.

The only beauty that is directly relevant is beautiful stories about incredible trades, beautiful sustained drafting excellence, and creating and maintaining winning locker room cultures.

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1 hour ago, DriveHomeSafelyAtlantaWins said:

I don't have time to read it right now, though I plan to get back to it.

But ... stories like this are likely part of a PR engine to start getting us to like someone who might become the new GM.

And I don't want to be sold a GM based on that.

We need to find the available GM who is most likely to turn us into a world class dynasty.

The only beauty that is directly relevant is beautiful stories about incredible trades, beautiful sustained drafting excellence, and creating and maintaining winning locker room cultures.

Good point.

But Smith was a high quality front office exec.  He was incredible in the draft.  Of his 1st 8 round 1 picks, Clowney was the worst which tells you something.  
 

7 of 10 1st round picks have been voted All Pro’s.  That doesn’t even include Deshaun Watson.  He has drafted 12 pro bowl players.  He isn’t as good as TD in the mid rounds, though

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  • FalconsIn2012 changed the title to Beautiful Story on Falcons Possible Next GM: Rick Smith

Why not Smith. He knows the ins and outs of being a GM and sure seems to have a great feel for the people behind the players/coaches, which I'm sure helps in drafting the right type of players to build around. He has a good resume there. 

I'm on board. He seems like a great ressource for an organisation. Clashing with BOB is a major positive for me!

 

He wants to be the one who lays down the vision for the franchise, though. Not sure he will get that here, so i am unsure of how good a match he and ATL would be on that part. 

 

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7 hours ago, FalconsIn2012 said:

Good point.

But Smith was a high quality front office exec.  He was incredible in the draft.  Of his 1st 8 round 1 picks, Clowney was the worst which tells you something.  
 

7 of 10 1st round picks have been voted All Pro’s.  That doesn’t even include Deshaun Watson.  He has drafted 12 pro bowl players.  He isn’t as good as TD in the mid rounds, though

About those mid rounds, yeah... yesh look at this (link). Smith had some horrible horrible drafts where early day 2'er were getting cut even just a year later or were complete misses. 

Nice to hit so well on those 1st rounders. But football teams are made up of more than just your day 1 picks.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Houston_Texans_draft_history#Drafts_by_year

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Nice story and I feel for him.

BUT I don't want him within 10,000 miles of Flowery Branch. Look at the Texans drafts from 2006 when he became GM until he left for personal reasons. 

You think Dimitroff was bad at drafting you haven't seen anything. Smith hit on 1st round picks and a whole lot of nothing else. His drafts are HORRIBLE.

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14 hours ago, FalconsIn2012 said:

Good point.

But Smith was a high quality front office exec.  He was incredible in the draft.  Of his 1st 8 round 1 picks, Clowney was the worst which tells you something.  
 

7 of 10 1st round picks have been voted All Pro’s.  That doesn’t even include Deshaun Watson.  He has drafted 12 pro bowl players.  He isn’t as good as TD in the mid rounds, though

That sounds pretty outstanding.

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Im torn with him... he did get good talent... he run a winning oranization..  this piece got my attention...

“We spend so much time, resources, energy, attention on draft evaluation,” he says. “We have huge dossiers on these players, where they are from, how they learn, personal lives, social skill set, scores, their history, everything. After the draft, all that information about that player we learned doesn’t get integrated into his onboarding. I think that’s a mistake. You can onboard players and utilize all that information to put a plan together that gives them a chance to give them a better chance to be a better man, better member of the organization, and a better football player. There is a holistic approach to player development we are missing.”

 

 

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I'd be ok with him.  I have buddy thats from Houston and a big Texans fan.  He said his biggest problem with the Texans at that time was the clash between Smith and ownership.  They were not going to let him do his job and he wanted to be able to run fully do his job with out all the extra noise (aka Cowboys style)

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Man, what a great article. Thanks @FalconsIn2012 for sharing that. Not gonna lie, parts of that article hit too close to home. Y’all know about my wife’s battle with breast cancer over the past year. We were blessed with a different outcome though it was definitely a tough fight. I’ll be praying for Rick Smith and his family as they heal. 
 

On the football side, I like his thoughts on developing the players you draft. Sure hope they bring him in and listen to what he has to say. 

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