Arthur Smith was perhaps the most sought after head coaching candidate the past few weeks, receiving interest from every team with an opening. This meant he had options, and after the Jaguars and Jets made their decision, he made his: the Atlanta Falcons.
Smith, 38, was an unknown commodity as late as 2019 when he was just beginning his tenure as the Tennessee Titans offensive coordinator. He had risen through the ranks in Tennessee since 2011, originally hired by head coach Mike Munchak, but retained by the next three head coaches of the team (Ken Whisenhunt, Mike Mularkey and Mike Vrabel). From his humble beginnings as a quality control coach, he became an OL and TE assistant in 2013, assistant TE coach in 2014, then TEs coach in 2016. Mike Vrabel kept him as TEs coach in 2018, and after Matt LaFleur was hired by the Green Bay Packers, he promoted Smith and made him offensive coordinator.
The Titans season started slow in 2019, but once the team benched Marcus Mariota in favor of veteran Ryan Tannehill, they took off. Tannehill suddenly looked like one of the best QBs in the NFL, and Derrick Henry was running like crazy, and the Titans offense thrived as a result.
The Titans made the playoffs after a late-season surge, then pulled off two upsets against the Patriots and Ravens. These wins began to put Smith in the national spotlight.
The 2020 season was more of the same, as Tannehill continued to look solid and Henry was the best RB in the NFL. The high-scoring Titans offense owed a lot of credit to the young offensive coordinator.
I’ve said it before and I’ll repeat it here, but Smith reminds me a lot of Kevin Stefanski.
Stefanski worked with the Vikings for 14 seasons before becoming the head coach of the Cleveland Browns. He began as an assistant specifically to head coach Brad Childress in 2006, became assistant QBs coach in 2009, then between 2014 and 2018 coached QBs, RBs and TEs at different points. He became the Vikings interim OC in 2018, then full-time OC in 2019.
He worked under Childress, Leslie Frazier and Mike Zimmer during his time in Minnesota, retained by the latter two coaches, clearly showing his worth each time.
Like Stefanski, Smith had to prove his worth to several different coaches, and rising under those circumstances is not easy. Many assistants that become head coaches rise up the ranks with the same head coach, or work with head coaches of a similar coaching tree before making the leap. Smith thriving through these circumstances is a strong indicator of his ability in this league.
Smith will help bring a new vision to a team that has been haunted by their Super Bowl loss to New England 5 years ago.
The Falcons were never able to recover, and now the organization stands at a crossroads.
Franchise QB Matt Ryan will be 36 next season, while star WR Julio Jones will be 32. Smith will need to decide whether the team should go all-in with these two moving forward, or begin to shape a rebuild. This could mean finding the next QB as early as the upcoming NFL Draft, and possibly trading Ryan. Would the team trade Jones if they traded Ryan? Perhaps.
The Falcons might not have the easiest path to success of the teams with head coaching vacancies this offseason, but they have things going for them.
Over the past two decades, Arthur Blank has proven to be one of the better owners in the NFL. The Falcons have faced adversity in the past, but stability has ruled the day. It may have hurt the team by keeping around Dan Quinn a bit too long, but it means Smith should have enough time and resources to instill his vision for the team.
The decisions made this offseason will define his entire tenure as head coach. With him will likely be Saints executive Terry Fontenot, who has been with New Orleans the past 16 seasons, and their director of player personnel since 2015.
It seems like a great pairing for this moment. The two have never worked together, so it is paramount their vision is unified from Day 1. The best teams in the NFL have the best synchrony between head coach and top executive.
I’m a fan of Arthur Smith, and his ability to rise to this point with one organization under multiple head coaches really stands out to me. Now he’ll be with an entirely new team, one looking to begin a new chapter. This will be the biggest jump of his career, but if his track record to this point has proven anything, it’s that he can thrive when circumstances change around him.
Credit to photo above: Robin Alam/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images
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