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‘Sometimes different is better’: How the 2011 lockout helped Arthur Smith build his Falcons staff - The Athletic


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by Tori McElhaney

 

When Arthur Smith put his coaching staff together as a first-time head coach in Atlanta, some trends started to emerge with every name announced. One of the most obvious trends was Smith wanting people he trusted but not people who would bow to his every whim. He wanted connection, not devotion.

To find that, he looked to connections he made over the years, which is how the Falcons came to hire individuals like offensive coordinator Dave Ragone, quarterbacks coach Charles London and linebackers coach Frank Bush. This trio was with Smith when he was a defensive quality control coach for the Tennessee Titans in 2011.

If you know anything about the 2011 offseason, you know it played out like a story on the stage. There was a conflict and resolution, humor and butting heads, uncertainty and a great deal of patience. But through it, Smith found a handful of coaches he could connect with, and later, hire. In many ways, that 2011 season is a foundation of what Smith is building with the Falcons a full decade later.

The starring roles 

Arthur Smith: Defensive assistant/quality control | Dave Ragone: Wide receivers coach | Charles London: Offensive assistant/quality control | Frank Bush: Linebackers coach

Ragone always knew he wanted to be a part of a coaching staff with Smith again. Even in 2011, when the two were coaching on different sides of the ball and Smith was merely a quality control specialist, Ragone could see a future he hoped one day would connect the two. London and Bush believed the same. So, this is where these three future Atlanta assistants would meet the future Falcons head coach, and each other, too.

“In this profession, there are people you gravitate towards and you want to work with,” Ragone said. “If you’ve worked with them previously, you want to work with them again, in any capacity. … It started with being somewhere, working with someone that you have an admiration for on a professional and personal level.”

That “somewhere” was Nashville. That “someone” for Ragone, was Smith.

The setting 

A closet in Tennessee

It’s hard to call Smith and London’s office in Tennessee an office. London said it was a glorified broom closet. The two assistants sat back-to-back. And for nine months in that tiny space, they planned, they chatted and they argued.

“He’s a UNC grad,” London said of Smith. 

“I am a Duke grad,” he said of himself. 

Their discussions became quite heated at times.

“Gosh, that was 10 years ago,” London said with a laugh. 

Both graduated from the broom closet just as quickly as they entered it, but they cherished that time, even if they never could quite get away from each other. And even if they didn’t know how long they would be there …

The conflict

The NFL lockout

Bush remembers the anticipation of 2011 the most. Head coach Mike Munchak had spent the offseason putting together his staff at Tennessee. And just as Bush and the rest of the assistants were getting their feet under them in Nashville, things came to a boiling point in the collective bargaining discussions with owners and players across the league.

Bush said this Tennessee staff was ramped up, ready to dive headfirst into new roles with a new team.

“And then, all of a sudden, there was nothing,” Bush recalled.

Team owners and the National Football League Players Association could not come to a consensus regarding the new collective bargaining agreement. So, the owners locked out the players from team facilities. The league’s operation came to a screeching halt. For 18 weeks and four days, there was — as Bush put it — “nothing to do.”

There was no free agency, no OTAs, no training camp. Players couldn’t work out or even enter the team facilities. They could not communicate with coaches. This was a new staff’s worst nightmare, not unlike the pandemic’s effects on the league in 2020.

“At that point, I was probably our best linebacker on the team,” Bush joked, “because we just didn’t get a chance to see those kids.”

The resolution

Lasting connection

The lockout didn’t end until the first week of August, when players finally reported to their respected team facilities. Before then, all coaches could do was sit and wait for negotiations to cease and a new CBA to be put in place. For Ragone, he said not knowing how any of this would shake out and having no knowledge of when players would arrive actually allowed the Tennessee staff to become really close in ways some staffs can’t.

“We were going out after work,” Ragone said, “and getting to know each other on a personal level.”

He and London used the same turn of phrase when thinking back to that time: That this staff went deeper in their relationships, “more than the Xs and Os,” both said.

“I think that is what that year provided for us because there were no players around until the first week in August,” London noted. “So, it really was just football (talk), but it was also getting to know each other.”

Even though this staff would part ways not long after the 2011 season — Munchak was dismissed after the 2013 season — there are discussions and memories Bush still carries with him from the lockout period.

“We learned a lot of football,” Bush said, “because everything I thought I knew, somebody knew something different. Sometimes different is better.”

This is a philosophy Smith has carried with him to this day. In his first press conference as Falcons head coach in January, Smith said he didn’t want to be surrounded by “yes men.” He wanted heated discussions and different ideas. He didn’t want to agree. He wanted contention. Looking back, it’s something these assistants can see started in the uncertainty of the lockout.

Ragone said they challenged each other during this time. It wasn’t always beers after work. Or late-night dinners. Football philosophies clashed and came back together. Challenges were discussed and worked through. A new, deeper degree of collaboration was born out of this time because this staff had the time and “mutual respect” to allow it to flourish.

“Not just always agreeing with what each other thought but asking thought-provoking questions,” Ragone continued. 

And through it all…

“There were a lot of relationships and bonds formed there during that 2011 season that still carry forth to today,” London said.

 

 

 

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1 hour ago, ATLFalcon36 said:

AS is the anti-DQ... Everything he says is does is the ****-well antitheses of what DQ would say/do. 

Could not agree more.  Finally, a coach.  Not a friend, not a salesman, not a Citizen Bro-Meister.  A freaking teacher and a man who will challenge our team.  We already feel more organized.  The front office seems to be on the same page.  Font is in charge.  I like where we are heading.  I know we say this every 4 to 5 years, but this genuinely feels different to me.  

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