1. The no-spin zone: The NFL coaching business is ruthless.
But Arthur Smith repeatedly said he knew what he was signing up for.
He overachieved his first two seasons as Falcons coach playing with a semi-pro roster against fully stocked NFL teams. (For my college football folks, think of a Mid-American Conference team trying to survive against an SEC schedule. They wouldn’t fair too well, and I love the MAC!)
How the Falcons went 7-10 was a football miracle in 2021. The roster was a little better in 2022, but the Falcons took on $88 million in dead salary-cap space. There was no depth, and quarterback Marcus Mariota bolted after getting benched. The rushing attack went from 31st in the league to third.
Last season was set up for the Falcons to take off against a meek schedule. There’s a lot of finger-pointing to go around, but eventually 7-10 wasn’t good enough for Smith to keep his job. After making it through two seasons without an NFL-caliber roster, it would have reasonable to conclude that Smith should have received more time to build out the roster and find a quarterback.
Whoever made the decision to go after Deshaun Watson should have been fired. That cost Smith the chance to have Matt Ryan mentor Desmond Ridder or whomever would have been the transition quarterback.
The Falcons admitted that it was salary-cap mismanagement (finally absolving the former regime). The Falcons believed they had a championship-level team and financially “leaned into” keeping them together. When that didn’t work out in 2018 and 2019, the Falcons had to start moving on after the 0-5 start in 2020.
Seems like the Falcons gave Smith a quick hook.
Bill Belichick, who the Falcons chased down for the opening, was 6-10, 7-9 and 7-9 in his first three seasons in the NFL. He went two more seasons with the Browns before he was fired.
The great Chuck Noll would be fired in today’s NFL. We never would have had The Steel Curtain.
Noll went 1-13 in 1969, 5-9 in 1970 and 6-8 in 1971. He was 12-30 and would have been dumped today.
The Steelers drafted running back Franco Harris with the 13th overall pick in 1972 and went 11-3.
In 1974, the Steelers had perhaps the best draft ever. They drafted four future Hall of Famers in wide receiver Lynn Swann (first round), linebacker Jack Lambert (second round), wide receiver John Stallworth (fourth round) and center Mike Webster (fourth round). On top of the draft class, former South Carolina State safety Donnie Shell, who was undrafted in 1974, also made the Hall of Fame.
The Falcons apparently don’t have the patience of the Rooney family, or that was just another era before all of the big television money and free agency.
In 2021, Smith had his pick of jobs. Smith, who also interviewed that year for the head-coaching jobs with the Jets, Eagles and Lions, was hired to replace Dan Quinn.
He selected the Falcons and was signed to a six-year, $45 million deal. But when he got here and looked under the hood, he discovered he had less talent than he thought and some of the holdover veterans were slow to buy-in.
Smith did not stay unemployed long.
He agreed to become the offensive coordinator for the Pittsburgh Steelers on Tuesday, according to a person familiar with the search.
Smith wanted to weigh his options after he was terminated by the Falcons on Jan. 8, just hours after a 48-17 loss to the Saints in the regular-season finale.
Smith got away from the game for a couple of weeks before deciding to interview with the Steelers last week. The Steelers also interviewed former Carolina offensive coordinator Thomas Brown, of Tucker High and a former Georgia Bulldogs running back, for their vacancy.
Smith was replaced by Raheem Morris, who was the Rams’ defensive coordinator. Morris has a 21-38 record as a head coach including his 4-7 stint with the Falcons as their interim head coach in 2020.
He accepted the job Thursday, but will not be introduced by the team until Monday, some 11 days after the hiring.
To Smith’s credit, he didn’t run and hide when his job status was brought up.
“You work in pro football, you know the market that you’re in,” Smith said before facing the Saints in what would be his last game with the Falcons. “You know the industry that you’re in.
“If you don’t like it or you’re looking for comfort, go do something else. I’m very confident and grateful. This is what I love to do. You’re not looking for comfort when you take these jobs. If you are, you’re delusional.”
Farewell coach Smith! Good luck in the Steel City. Have an Iron City beer for us. See ya when the Steelers face the Falcons at Mercedes-Benz Stadium next season.
2. Willie Jeffries movie: The life of legendary College Hall of Fame coach Willie Jeffries will be chronicled in a movie coming out soon.
“Success Has No Zip Code: The Story of Coach Willie Jeffries” will premiere at 6 p.m. Feb. 12 at the Nickelodeon Theater, 1607 Main Street, Erksine, SC 29201.
Jeffries coached future Pro Football Hall of Famers Shell and Harry Carson at South Carolina State and became the first Black coach at a predominantly white school when he was named the coach at Wichita State in 1979. He went to Howard (1984-88) before returning to South Carolina State.
3. Falcons’ 2024 opponents: The Falcons, who finished at 7-10 and in third place in the NFC South, are set to play the NFC East and AFC West during the 2024 season.
The home games include: Tampa Bay, New Orleans, Carolina, Dallas, New York Giants, Los Angles Chargers, Kansas City, Seattle and Pittsburgh.
The away games include: Tampa Bay, New Orleans, Carolina, Philadelphia, Washington, Las Vegas, Denver and Minnesota.
4. 2024 draft order: The Falcons are set to draft eighth overall for the third consecutive year. If they want one of the top quarterbacks, they’ll have to trade up.
The draft will be held in Detroit on April 27-29.
Here are the teams in front of the Falcons: 1. Chicago Bears (from Carolina); 2. Washington, 3. New England, 4. Arizona, 5. Los Angeles Chargers, 6. New York Giants, 7. Titans.
6. Coordinators: Zac Robinson (offense), Jimmy Lake (defense) and Marquice Williams (special teams) will serve as coordinators for new Falcons coach Morris.
7. Arthur Blank’s history with diversity: The Falcons owner has been on the league’s diversity, equity and inclusion committee since the start in 2003. In all of the coaching searches, the Falcons have complied with or gone beyond the minimum requirements of the Rooney Rule, but the franchise had never hired a Black or minority full-time head coach until Raheem Morris.
In 2004, Jim Mora was selected over Black candidates Lovie Smith, Tim Lewis and Romeo Crennel.
When the Falcons hired Petrino in 2007, they passed on Jim Caldwell, who is Black.
Also in 2007, Emmitt Thomas, who is Black, served as interim coach after Petrino resigned after 13 games.
When Mike Smith was hired in 2008, he beat out Leslie Frazier, who is Black and played at Alcorn State.
When Quinn was hired in 2015, Black coaches Keith Armstrong and Todd Bowles were interviewed.
In 2020, Morris was interviewed for the head-coach position after Dan Quinn was fired.
When Arthur Smith was hired in 2021, the Falcons also interviewed minority candidates Morris, Eric Bieniemy, Robert Saleh and Bowles. Saleh landed the Jets job and Bowles, who started his coaching career at Morehouse, currently is the coach at Tampa Bay and has guided them to back-to-back NFC South titles.
In the 2023-24 coaching search, and under an enhanced Rooney Rule, the Falcons had two in-person interviews with minority candidates: Morris and Carolina defensive coordinator Ejiro Evero. They also interviewed Black coaches Steve Wilks, Anthony Weaver and Aaron Glenn virtually.
8. Blank’s history with coaches: After buying the team in 2002 and inheriting coach Dan Reeves, Blank eventually wanted to pick his own coach. After firing Reeves in 2003, Blank hired San Francisco defensive coordinator Mora after they arrived “at a consensus,” according to media reports. Mora received a five-year, $7.5 million contract from the Falcons.
In addition to Mora, the Falcons interviewed five candidates: defensive coordinators Lovie Smith (St. Louis), Crennel (New England) and Lewis (Pittsburgh), interim coach Wade Phillips and Pittsburgh offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey.
Mora took the Falcons to the NFC title game after the 2004 season, but a string of bumbling mistakes, bad people skills and a horrible radio interview cost him his job after the 2006 season.
In 2007, looking to maximize the immense talents of quarterback Michael Vick, the Falcons lured Petrino from Louisville with a five-year, $24 million contract. The Falcons swooped in quickly and hired Petrino a week after Mora was fired.
Vick was picking up the offense quickly. Roddy White and others would later confirm how well the installation was working out. However, Vick was arrested on federal dogfighting charges and was incarcerated. Petrino resigned after 13 games and took the head-coaching job at Arkansas.
After Petrino, the Falcons in 2008 hired Thomas Dimitroff as general manager and Mike Smith as the head coach in a forced collaboration. Smith received a four-year, $8-to-$10 million deal and would go on to become the winningest coach in franchise history.
Smith became the first coach in franchise history to post back-to-back winning seasons and took the Falcons to a NFC title game, coming up six yards short of reaching the Super Bowl in a 28-24 loss to Jim Harbaugh, Colin Kaepernick and the San Francisco 49ers on Jan. 20, 2013. However, despite trips to the playoffs in four of his first five seasons, Smith was fired after two consecutive losing seasons.
In 2015, Quinn was hired and signed a five-year contract. In 2018, he received a three-year, $13.5 million extension.
Quinn, with Kyle Shanahan as his offensive coordinator, took the Falcons to Super Bowl LI. They famously got out to a 28-3 lead before collapsing. The Falcons lost 34-28 to Belichick, quarterback Tom Brady and the Patriots.
Quinn made it back to the playoffs in 2017, but lost in the divisional round to backup quarterback Nick Foles and the Eagles. After back-to-back 7-9 seasons, Quinn and Dimitroff were fired after starting the 2020 season 0-5. Morris closed the season as the interim coach.
In 2021, Terry Fontenot was hired as the general manager and Arthur Smith as the head coach in another forced collaboration. Fontenot and Smith had never met. Smith received a six-year contract, reportedly worth $45 million.
After three seasons, a 21-30 record and zero playoff appearances, and not 24 hours after the 2023 regular-season finale against the Saints, Smith was fired.
9. Falcons’ position-by-position analysis: Check out the stories in the series.
D. Orlando Ledbetter, Esq is the award-winning Atlanta Falcons beat writer for the newspaper, has been on the staff since 2003. Every day D. Orlando strives to provide inside in the Falcons and the NFL. He finds the most joy in providing insight into the team, the coaching moves, the offseason business moves, the draft and the games.