Why the Atlanta Falcons fired coach Arthur Smith, and what’s next

Why the Atlanta Falcons fired coach Arthur Smith, and what’s next

ATLANTA — In August, Atlanta Falcons owner Arthur Blank said he would be disappointed if his team wasn’t more competitive in 2023 and didn’t show improvement. What Blank saw all season was too much.

So Blank decided to make a change, firing coach Arthur Smith after three seasons late Sunday night following a 48-17 loss to the New Orleans Saints with a playoff berth on the line.

It was a fairly quick turnaround for the usually ailing Blank, who gave Jim Mora Jr. three seasons, Mike Smith seven years, and Dan Quinn more than five years. The difference is that all three of these coaches made the playoffs in their first or second year as a head coach.

While Arthur Smith’s situation was different from his three predecessors when he took over due to salary cap restrictions, he also did not finish the season with a winning record or reach the postseason. So Atlanta now embarks on an internship search.

Why was Smith fired?

One thing the Falcons have been bad at during Smith’s tenure is inconsistency. Atlanta never won more than two games in a row under Smith, and each of his final two seasons featured at least three straight losses.

After the Falcons snapped a three-game losing streak in December with a win over the New Orleans Saints, Smith was asked how he maintains energy. In some ways, he summed up his tenure in the process.

“Consistency, right,” Smith said. “This is the biggest challenge from week to week. For us to take the next step, we have to do that. Be consistent and play with the same focus and energy as last week.”

A lot of it has to do with playing in the middle. Smith has had four starters in his three seasons: Matt Ryan in 2021, Marcus Mariota and Desmond Rader in 2022, and then Rader and Taylor Heinicke this season. Perhaps it was the decision to go with Ryder — and then Ryder’s penchant for turnovers and blunders — that ultimately drove Smith.

Smith and general manager Terry Fontenot were placed in an unenviable position, and they spent two offseasons cleaning it up. This was the first season that Smith had a roster mostly of players he and Fontenot sought out. The improvement was not seen in the log or in the mean.

Smith’s playing style and decision-making were also questionable at times. Against the Carolina Panthers in Week 15, he went with a game plan that was too conservative against a one-win Panthers team. It was this decision that played a role in Atlanta’s 9-7 loss to the Panthers and put their playoff hopes in jeopardy.

Atlanta had one of the easiest schedules in the NFL and was unable to capitalize on it. The Falcons lost to the Panthers, Arizona Cardinals, Washington Commanders and Tennessee Titans – all teams that finished in the bottom 10.

“When you go out there, there were instances in games where we obviously looked good,” offensive coordinator Dave Ragone said. “And there were times when we had problems.”

On offense, eliminating turnovers and improving third-down conversion rates were areas Ragone pointed out as inconsistent; The Falcons are tied for 24th with 28 turnovers and 13th with a 40% success rate on third down.

What is the pulse of the locker room?

The Falcons players seemed to really enjoy playing with Smith and were very supportive of him when questions about his job arose late in the season. There was a consensus that they appreciated how he treated them as players and how he handled accountability as well.

“I believe in what he stands for and what we’re trying to do here,” left tackle Jake Matthews said Dec. 17. “I’m completely convinced of that.”

After the devastating loss to the Saints at the end of the season, they still support their coach. Many players expressed that they had no issues with the coaching staff and how they hoped the staff would return in 2024.

The concept of shared accountability — which Smith frequently preached to his team and publicly — weighed heavily with the players. The locker room stayed together until the final days. Smith even joined the players for a short basketball hoop shootout in the locker room after the final day of practice.

“Coach Smith is the best coach I’ve ever had,” right guard Chris Lindstrom told ESPN on Sunday. “I definitely love him, and I think this group and this team love him too.”

While money also helps attract free agents, Atlanta was able to acquire coveted players, such as safety Jesse Betts III and defensive lineman Calais Campbell, in part because they believed in what Smith was trying to build.

Why didn’t it work?

It starts with the quarterback.

Reider became the starter in 2023 after spending four games at the end of the 2022 season. He showed flashes of potential that were marred by fumble tackles and ill-timed interceptions, which ultimately led to an back-and-forth between Reeder and Heinicke, who had both starting experience in Washington.

While the quarterback was the main issue — along with the defensive woes of Smith’s first two seasons that were largely remedied by the hiring of defensive coordinator Ryan Nielsen and a personnel upgrade last season — there were other factors on offense.

For example, on every well-designed and innovative play Smith planned, there was a decision to run in a third-and-long situation or give the ball to someone other than one of his stars in critical situations.

But Smith’s failed tenure is due to the issues the quarterback is facing.

What’s next in the middle?

The new coach will dictate that, but it seems clear that Ryder and Heinicke are not the answer.

While Reeder has shown flashes of success, he has turned the ball over too often to be an effective starter, including at the end of the season when he was reinserted as the starter after an ankle injury to Heinicke and made two turnovers in the second half — an interception and a lost fumble. His decisions were, at times, scratching his head. Rader threw an interception in the end zone against Washington, a fumble crossing the goal line against Tampa Bay and a red zone interception against Carolina; Two of those three matches ended in losses.

Rader finished the season completing 64.2% of his passes for 2,836 yards, 12 touchdowns, 12 interceptions, and 12 pass breakups. Heinicke had a 54.4% completion rate for 890 yards, five touchdowns and four interceptions.

The question for the new coach is whether Ryder and/or Heinicke should stay with the team as reserves. Heinicke has one more season on his deal and a $9 million cap hit in 2024. Ridder has two years remaining on his rookie contract. But it would be hard to see any coach sticking with Ridder as the starter.

Whether Atlanta pursues a veteran or takes a rookie in the upcoming draft may depend on the next head coach and offensive coordinator. The rookie may need to be traded in the draft, but the Falcons have a lot of room to spend. The problem may be who is available. Kirk Cousins, Baker Mayfield and Ryan Tannehill are some of the top quarterbacks who are set to become free agents.

Who might Atlanta target as their next coach?

Teams are often the opposite of what they were before, so a candidate with prior coaching experience may be what Blank and Fontenot are looking at. But this may not be the most attractive year for that, especially since former Detroit Lions and Indianapolis Colts coach Jim Caldwell said last year that he was done pursuing head coaching opportunities (he would have been a reasonable choice).

Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh would be an obvious call, as he has won everywhere he has coached in college and the NFL. While Bill Belichick is 71 years old and has had losing seasons in three of his past four years, he is still one of the best coaches of all time and would be worth a call if he and the New England Patriots part ways.

Detroit offensive coordinator Ben Johnson could make a lot of sense in how similar Atlanta’s offensive playmakers are to the Lions at No. 1 receiver (Detroit’s Amon Ra St. Brown vs. Drake London from Atlanta), No. 1 (Sam LaPorta) vs. Kyle Pitts) and running backs (David Montgomery and Jahmir Gibbs vs. Tyler Allgaier and Bijan Robinson).

If the Las Vegas Raiders choose not to retain interim coach Antonio Pierce, he will be someone worth interviewing and taking a long look at due to his performance this season.

No matter who Atlanta targets, the head coaching position should be an attractive one due to the team’s offensive talent, reasonable playing surface and young playmakers on defense. Additionally, the new coach will not be associated with any current midfielder.

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