The hiring of Arthur Smith represents new territory for the Arthur Blank-owned Atlanta Falcons. For the first time in the billionaire’s tenure, the Falcons will be hiring a head coach from an offensive coordinator role, embracing the trend that the league has set in recent history. And Arthur Smith is as good a candidate to continue that success as any hiring, league-wide, in recent history.
With Smith in place, interest in what the long time Titan can bring to the Falcons is rife. Breaking down what he has achieved in Tennessee can offer us a glimpse of what he is capable of recreating in Atlanta.
The first thing that strikes you, when scouting Smith’s work history, is the man’s staying power. Joining the Titans in 2011, initially as the “defensive quality control coach”, Smith has stayed with the franchise through four separate coaching regimes, of whom enjoyed varying levels of success. Between 2011 and 2019, Smith held the roles of: defensive quality control coach, offensive quality control coach, O-Line and tight ends assistant, assistant tight ends coach, tight ends coach, and offensive coordinator. It’s fair to say that the Titans, as an organisation, held Smith in high regard from an early point in his development.
Smith’s time in Tennessee saw him work under several offensive coordinators, all of which offered differing coaching styles. Chris Palmer, Dowell Loggins, Jason Michael, Terry Robiskie, and Matt LaFleur all represent varying philosophies. Arguably, the last of those names, Matt LaFleur, has had the biggest influence on how Smith operated his Titans offense.
The LaFleur Factor
Matt LaFleur is a name you should be familiar with, at this stage. The current Green Bay Packers Head Coach spent 2 years in Atlanta, serving as the team’s quarterbacks coach in the Kyle Shanahan glory days. He moved onto the Rams for a season, before taking on play calling duties with the Titans.
Being a product of Shanahan, and McVay, LaFleur implemented an outside zone scheme, akin to what Atlanta thrived under in 2016. While the Titan’s didn’t necessarily enjoy the same levels of productivity as Atlanta, signs of progress could be found. A lack of dynasicsm at quarterback and receiver couldn’t compliment a burgeoning run game (Derrick Henry enjoyed his first 1000+ yard season under LaFleur). With a few tweaks, the Titans were poised to be a far better outfit in 2019 and beyond. Smith made those tweaks.
So, who are the Titans?
I’m not going to lie to you and say that Derrick Henry hasn’t played a major role in the Titans’ recent successes. He has. The man is far too quick, and strong, and talented, to NOT succeed in the NFL. What I will say, however, is that, under Arthur Smith, the TItans have played to Henry’s strengths, and have complimented his skills greatly with an exciting air attack. To put it bluntly; the Titans are one of the leagues more balanced offenses.
Let’s look, first, at the man under centre. Ryan Tannehill has been the Titans starting quarterback for a season and a half. In that time, he won 18 regular season games, and lost 8. In 2020, he finished the season with 3819 passing yards, 33 passing touchdowns and 7 interceptions. Over a season and a half, 55 touchdowns and 13 interceptions. You look at Matt Ryan put up more yards, with fewer touchdowns, and it’s exciting to imagine what Smith will be able to do with an undeniably superior signal caller.
Play to play, however, Smith’s Titan’s are just efficient. In both 2019 and 2020, Tennessee ranked 4th in terms of average yards per play, with 6.1 and 6.2 yards per play respectively. The ability to consistently maximise each play is something that should be incredibly attractive for a team that managed 5.5 yards per play in both 2019 and 2020.
Smith’s offenses have been founded on a solid ground game, that is undeniable. But the role he’s played in building those foundations that are most interesting. Over the past two regular seasons, Derrick Henry has managed a total of 3567 rushing yards, of which 2027 came last season. When you have someone capable of that production, you’re always going to be in a position to succeed on the ground. Prior to Smith taking over play calling duties, however, Henry’s best return was 1056 rushing yards. That is a very good return, no question. But to almost double that figure suggests he flourished under Smith’s watch.
More importantly, when it comes to the run game: scheme is king. We’ve watched Dirk Koetter fail to get the best from any of his 4 separate lead backs (Michael Turner, Steven Jackson, Devonta Freeman, Todd Gurley) over two stints in Atlanta. That, more than anything, lends to the offense he employs. With Smith employing a LaFleur-style scheme, it’s not impossible to imagine success being found in a previously unfancied back. After all, Devonta Freeman and Aaron Jones weren’t particularly successful prior to the implementation of that scheme.
More than anything, Smith’s Titan’s have been among the league’s best in the red zone, and this is an area the Falcons have struggled for almost half a decade. No one was more efficient than the Titans in 2019, scoring a touchdown on 77.36% of their trips into the red zone. In 2020, that number took a slight hit to 74.24%, though still good for 2nd in the league (Green Bay ranked first with 80% of trips resulting in a score). For context, Atlanta ranked 25th and 26th in 2019 and 2020, with 51.67% and 53.45% of trips resulting in a touchdown respectively.
Again, it’s easy to point to Derrick Henry and say “well there you go”. However, Henry was Tennessee’s lead back in 2018, and the Titans ranked 23rd, with 53.19% of red zone trips resulting in a touchdown.
Most excitingly, for Falcons fans starved of the joys that a modern offense brings, Smith subscribes to the same creative tendencies as the pioneering creatives. As Warren Sharp points out, the Titans used play action on 46% of “early down” passes over the past two seasons. That’s the most in the NFL. For context, the Falcons attempted play action on 30% of early down passes over the same period. 24th in the NFL.
What should we expect?
What needs to be stressed, here, is that Smith isn’t going to elevate the Falcons back to the heady heights of 2016 and 2017 immediately. The Falcons are, arguably, a more talented offensive group than the Titans, with some caveats. I don’t expect Ito Smith, Brian Hill, or Quadree Ollison to be considered the main guy heading into 2021, and you can probably expect the Falcons will draft someone, likely on day two, to assume that role. The offensive line will also need some tweaking to get up to the level required to flourish.
And then there’s the small matter of the defense. It’s worth remembering that Smith does have some defensive experience. A lot will depend on who he opts to hire around him, but the Falcons should be expecting someone who is able to properly coach the entire team, rather than focus on just one side of the ball.With the correct player acquisitions (over to you, TBC General Manager), and coaching team around him, the Falcons future is as bright as it’s been in a long time. Smith’s history has shown he is capable of putting this side back in the position it wants to be. Roll on September.