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Arthur Smith to the Falcons: What does he bring to Atlanta, how good is the fit? - The Athletic


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by Tori McElhaney and Joe Rexrode for The Athletic 

 

The Falcons have their man in Arthur Smith to take over as their coach. Smith comes to the Falcons from Tennessee where he was the Titans’ offensive coordinator. To break down the move, Falcons beat writer Tori McElhaney and Nashville columnist Joe Rexrode share their thoughts:

McElhaney: First things first, the Falcons’ fans need a little background on Smith. So, if you were told to give a few sentence synopsis of who Arthur Smith is, what would you say?

Rexrode: While Arthur Smith may not start this way, it’s important to mention up front that he’s the son of FedEx founder Fred Smith in telling the story of how he got here. He doesn’t have to do this work. And I believe that’s part of what has driven him to this, the desire to earn a career on his own, to put in those years as a quality control coach making peanuts and working ridiculous hours. My view of Smith in his years with the Titans, as an assistant and then as OC, is that of a down-to-Earth, at-times-fiery leader who had the respect of everyone in the building. And then as we found out the past couple of seasons, a coach with a terrific feel for designing an offensive system.

McElhaney: You talk about Smith’s journey to this point, and I absolutely agree that it is a really interesting one. It’s one I am very much looking forward to diving into. With that journey in mind, is there a point maybe over the past few years that you felt as though he could land a head coaching job?

Rexrode: I’ll be honest, I was still a bit surprised when he got the OC gig two years ago. But hey, I was stunned that the Packers hired Titans OC Matt LaFleur to be their head coach after one so-so season as a play-caller, and look at how that has turned out. By the end of Smith’s first season as the Titans’ OC, which ended with a loss at Kansas City in the AFC championship game, I figured he was probably looking at one more good year and then a real shot to be a head coach. More than LaFleur — who, again, clearly knows what he’s doing — Smith has demonstrated the demeanor to be a head coach and some schematic excellence. You won’t find anyone in the Titans’ building who questions whether Smith is ready for this opportunity.

McElhaney: He has been with the Titans’ organization for what? A full decade at this point? And the organization itself has seen a number of changes throughout that time, what is it about Smith that allowed him to stay with the organization for that long and to grow and thrive even in changing circumstances?

Rexrode: Great question, and I haven’t heard the answers from every regime that included Smith. But yes, he came from Ole Miss to be a defensive quality control coach under Mike Munchak in 2011, switched to offense, bumped up to assistant tight ends, was retained by Ken Whisenhunt, was retained by Mike Mularkey and bumped to tight ends coach and was retained by Mike Vrabel, as well. Vrabel mentioned that several coaches gave him high recommendations on keeping Smith when he got the Titans’ job in January of 2018. And then after one year with Smith on his staff, Vrabel gave him the keys to the offense. Two things are obvious, that Smith has done excellent work in whatever role he has filled and that he has managed to get along with just about everyone. But he still had to raise his hand and go after the OC job when LaFleur left, so he’s clearly effective at advocating for himself, as well. It’s an interesting story of someone paying dues, biding time, year after year and then, boom. A dramatic ascent.

McElhaney: I guess we should now get lost a bit in the football weeds for a minute. Everyone is talking about the success the Titans have seen the past two years with Smith as the offensive coordinator. In your opinion, what’s the most impressive thing he has done for this offense in that time?

Rexrode: That’s a hard question because so much of it has been impressive. The skill players across the board have benefited from having Smith as their OC. Ryan Tannehill is playing the best football of his career. Same with Derrick Henry. Same with Corey Davis. Same with Jonnu Smith. A.J. Brown has been great from the jump. This is the best offense, by far, in Titans history, and of course, that has a ton to do with the talent I just mentioned. But this has been an inventive offense, a lot of creativity in there like direct pitches to tight ends, jump passes at the goal line from Henry and ways to take advantage of Tannehill’s athleticism. Great plans and adjustments on a regular basis. Everything looks the same when it comes to the bread-and-butter outside zone rushing attack and the deadly play-action game. But if I had to pick one thing, I’d say the ability to keep that offense scoring more than 30 points per game in 2020 after losing Pro Bowl left tackle Taylor Lewan and then his backup, Ty Sambrailo. Arthur Smith had to change some things there, including reducing Jonnu Smith’s role in the passing game. You saw a steady dose of one- and two-man routes. Still, the Titans produced and scored at a high rate, the playoff loss to Baltimore notwithstanding. I will say, that was not a great day for Arthur Smith, too much first-down running with Henry and not enough answers for the physicality of a terrific defense.

McElhaney: I am glad you brought up Henry because that is what sticks out to me: Henry’s emergence and what the Titans have been able to do in the running game. Let’s be honest, the Falcons need a lot of help in that area. I know someone like Henry is difficult, nearly impossible, to replicate, but what is it that Smith has brought to the Titans’ running game that he could bring to the Falcons?

Rexrode: This is where it’s harder to project Smith moving forward because, yeah, Henry is a different kind of deal. Just an incredible, durable player who can dominate games as we saw last postseason and during this 2,027-yard season of 2020. Also, the Titans’ offense was built to support Henry when Smith took control of it. That offensive line had mashers like Rodger Saffold, Jack Conklin and Nate Davis. Brown and Corey Davis are outstanding blockers at wide receiver. It’s an offense built to run the ball. The right thing to do as a coach is to take advantage of the personnel at hand. Does that mean Smith is devoted to finding his own Henry and running the Atlanta offense the same way? I wouldn’t think so, not necessarily. I think he values balance. And the good thing is, he didn’t fall apart when Henry wasn’t a factor. In the one game Henry sat last season, with a tight hamstring, the Titans still scored 28 points and nearly won. When the Titans have been behind by multiple scores, they’ve been able to operate and produce as a dropback attack. That was tested several times in 2020 because the Titans were terrible defensively.

McElhaney: Getting into the nitty-gritty of the coaching search, reports were flying that it was the Falcons and the Philadelphia Eagles who were in contention for Smith. When you look at those two teams, was choosing the Falcons a good choice for Smith?

Rexrode: I think so, because the Eagles’ cap situation is horrific (not that the Falcons’ is good), and I’d have more comfort in Matt Ryan right now than in the Carson Wentz/Jalen Hurts combo. Plus, maybe Smith’s quarterback of the future is on the way with that No. 4 pick. Another thing about the Falcons’ job that made it more appealing than several others in this cycle, in my opinion, is the ownership situation. Smith is leaving a good one, Amy Adams Strunk making that building a good place to work since she took over as controlling owner in 2016. Smith has also worked in this league under bad ownership situations (cough, Daniel Snyder, cough), so he knows the difference.

McElhaney: To wrap up, the Falcons are a challenge: Between the salary cap situation (that you pointed out, too) and the players they need, it’s going to be quite the puzzle. The Falcons do have the offensive talent to be very good but who knows how long Smith will have with that talent (i.e. Ryan, Julio Jones). There’s also the fact that the Falcons didn’t come close to reaching their full potential offensively in 2020, even without Jones for much of the year. What makes you think that Smith is ready for this challenge?

Rexrode: I certainly wouldn’t make any proclamations on the quickness or depth of his success in Atlanta, but I’d buy him as a coaching stock right now. This is still fundamentally about working well with other humans, and Smith’s time in Nashville alone is quite a testament to his ability there. The concepts, creativity and feel for calling plays he showed the past two seasons speak to his potential to give Atlanta a schematic boost. He’s smart and he has a good balance of being demanding on the practice field while building good relationships with players. Across the board, the players and coaches in Nashville would buy his stock too. I think it’s going to be a lot of fun to see what he can do with the Falcons, and Falcons fans should be excited.
 

 

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1 hour ago, Goober Pyle said:

Rexrode: That’s a hard question because so much of it has been impressive. The skill players across the board have benefited from having Smith as their OC. Ryan Tannehill is playing the best football of his career. Same with Derrick Henry. Same with Corey Davis. Same with Jonnu Smith. A.J. Brown has been great from the jump. This is the best offense, by far, in Titans history, and of course, that has a ton to do with the talent I just mentioned. But this has been an inventive offense, a lot of creativity in there like direct pitches to tight ends, jump passes at the goal line from Henry and ways to take advantage of Tannehill’s athleticism. Great plans and adjustments on a regular basis. Everything looks the same when it comes to the bread-and-butter outside zone rushing attack and the deadly play-action game. But if I had to pick one thing, I’d say the ability to keep that offense scoring more than 30 points per game in 2020 after losing Pro Bowl left tackle Taylor Lewan and then his backup, Ty Sambrailo. Arthur Smith had to change some things there, including reducing Jonnu Smith’s role in the passing game. You saw a steady dose of one- and two-man routes. Still, the Titans produced and scored at a high rate, the playoff loss to Baltimore notwithstanding. I will say, that was not a great day for Arthur Smith, too much first-down running with Henry and not enough answers for the physicality of a terrific defense.

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