Arthur Smith won’t arrive in Atlanta as a household name like new Jacksonville Jaguars head coach Urban Meyer. He doesn’t come to the Falcons with the experience of winning a Super Bowl and coordinating the Kansas City Chiefs like Eric Bieniemy.
But after a more careful review of the hot NFL coaching candidates this hiring cycle, Smith is arguably the best fit for the Falcons. That is particularly the case for quarterback Matt Ryan.
Smith only had two years of coordinator experience with the Tennessee Titans, but he made the most of those two seasons. Derrick Henry has won back-to-back rushing titles with Smith as his playcaller. Midway through 2019, Mike Vrabel benched Marcus Mariota for Ryan Tannehill, and then the Titans offense really began to take off. Tannehill leads the NFL with a 8.5 yards per attempt average since Week 7 of the 2019 season.
Tennessee finished second in yards (396.4) and fourth in points per game (30.7) in 2020.
True to form as a descendant of former Falcons offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan, Smith is dedicated to the running attack and offensive balance. The Titans were second only to the Baltimore Ravens in rushing attempts this season. Counting just handoffs (excluding carries from quarterbacks), Tennessee led the NFL in running plays.
While the Falcons don’t have Henry or anyone close to his level of talent in the backfield, a change in philosophy is needed if this team wants to stop blowing leads and win with key pieces aging on offense. During the first half of the season against Dallas, Chicago, Detroit, the Falcons had opportunities to run more clock while leading in the fourth quarter. Instead, they elected to continue passing, and we know how that ended.
That’s an oversimplification of why they lost those games, but playcalling definitely played a major role. Maybe the Falcons still begin January on the golf course even with three more wins in September and October. Still, an offensive coordinator more dedicated to the ground could have given the Falcons a .500 record at their bye.
The Falcons finished this season 20th in rushing attempts. They were 28th in the category in 2019. The Falcons haven’t been ranked in the top 12 in rushing attempts at the end of a season since Shanahan’s final campaign as offensive coordinator in 2016.
With Ryan turning 36 this year, a shift away from the passing game must happen. Otherwise, the Falcons might as well move on from the future Hall of Fame quarterback. Ryan can still be a serviceable quarterback, but he isn’t a candidate to win MVP. He can’t carry an offense with 45-plus passing attempts per week anymore. Ben Roethlisberger displayed on Wild Card weekend what happens when even a good roster relies too much on the arm of a quarterback in his late thirties.
Moving on from Ryan could still be forthcoming. The Falcons selected him third overall in 2008 and will be picking fourth this spring. That high of a selection will cause any team with an aging signal caller to pause and consider a fresh face behind center.
But the hiring of Smith indicates that’s far from a foregone conclusion. Smith retooled the Titans offense on the fly with Tannehill and a power run game he rarely underused. With a full offseason, he could do the same with Ryan.
That’s if the Falcons can finally find a ground game and offensive balance once again. Smith is just the coach to do that.