Falcons’ Charles London set for ‘good challenge’ as first-time QBs coach

Charles London (center) has been the Bears’ running backs coach the past three seasons. He also was the Texans running backs coach from 2014-17. Elsa, Getty

Charles London (center) has been the Bears’ running backs coach the past three seasons. He also was the Texans running backs coach from 2014-17. Elsa, Getty

Ten years ago, Charles London and Arthur Smith sat back-to-back in a small office they shared that could otherwise be described as a windowless closet. In quality-control roles for the Tennessee Titans in 2011, the two young up-and-comers spent time in the tiny space doing the typical grunt work reserved for those on the bottom step of the NFL’s coaching ladder.

They broke down a ton of film and made coffee when asked to do so. Smith assisted the defense, and London worked with the offense, specifically the Titans’ receivers. Over time in that cramped office, Smith and London became fast friends and shared coaching ideas over the course of that particular season.

A decade later, neither coach is confined to a tiny room anymore. Smith was named the Falcons’ coach in January. Shortly after, Smith tabbed London to coach the quarterbacks, arguably the most important position on any team’s roster. Notably, Smith made this hire even though the vast majority of London’s career has been spent coaching running backs.

While he hasn’t coached quarterbacks, London is confident he will be able to teach the concepts. And Smith obviously is a believer that London’s coaching methods and philosophy will translate to the new position group.

“I think really being a good teacher, being able to communicate the message and convey what the head coach is trying to spread through the team is really what a good coach can do, whether you played the position or not,” London said. “I’ve got a lot of experience with blitz pickups. I’ve got a lot of experience with the passing game with some work I’ve done as an assistant receivers coach. I’m very comfortable in the role. I look forward to working with Matt (Ryan) and the other quarterbacks we bring onto the roster. It’s going to be a good challenge.”

After his only year in Tennessee, London was hired to coach running backs under Bill O’Brien at Penn State. He then followed O’Brien to the Houston Texans to coach running backs in 2014 before joining the Chicago Bears under the same title in 2018.

Falcons offensive coordinator Dave Ragone was the receivers coach on that 2011 Titans staff, with London working as his assistant. One of London’s offseason responsibilities was to draw the plays that were going into the new playbook, which was built from scratch since a new staff under Mike Munchak had been hired.

In this role, he communicated often with Ragone, who said he could tell London’s days as a quality-control coach in Tennessee would be short-lived.

“Just talking to him through the course of those couple of months to get the playbook done, you could tell obviously he was a smart individual with how he saw the game with the different experiences he had,” Ragone said. “The reality is you could always tell he was only going to be in that role for just a certain amount of time before he was going to take off and do something else. You appreciated his football intellect during those conversations.”

London’s transition to becoming a quarterbacks coach has been on his mind at least since the middle of 2020.

Last summer, London attended the virtual version of the third annual NFL Quarterback Coaching Summit, spearheaded by former NFL quarterbacks Doug Williams and James “Shack” Harris. The event is to help minority coaches advance their careers on offense en route to leading a team of their own.

One of the summit’s presentations focused on how to interview for a quarterbacks coach position. London sat through that one and learned what coaches and front-office personnel expect in those meetings. He said the presentation helped prepare him for the Falcons’ opening when it came available.

But at the same time, London said coaching often is transferable from one position group to another as long as you’re a sound teacher. For London, he asks himself what his “teaching progression” will be on any given topic before going over it with his players. He also knows that not every player will grasp certain concepts the same way.

Often, he’ll tailor information to each individual after presenting it in a meeting.

“There are guys who I’ve been around who you tell it to them once, they’ve got it and they can go execute it in practice and in the game,” London said. “Some guys need to hear it and then see it on the video and then they can execute it. Some guys need to see it, hear it and walk through it. It’s your job as a coach, regardless of what position you’re coaching, to figure out which way your guys learn. Everybody is going to learn differently.”

London’s ability to relate to his players while individualizing the process certainly was attractive to Smith. Smith also felt this was a good opportunity for London to further his growth as a coach.

Although numerous paths exist to becoming an NFL coach, a common one starts with a quarterbacks coach becoming an offensive coordinator. With London coaching quarterbacks, the chances of becoming an offensive coordinator, at either the collegiate or professional level, should improve if the Falcons offense is able to perform well over the next couple of seasons.

But Smith also noted he is sensitive to the lack of opportunities Black coaches have experienced in the NFL. Entering the 2021 season, Pittsburgh’s Mike Tomlin, Miami’s Brian Flores and Houston’s David Culley, who was hired during this year’s coaching carousel, are the league’s only Black coaches.

The Super Bowl featured two Black offensive coordinators -- Kansas City’s Eric Bieniemy and Tampa Bay’s Byron Leftwich -- with neither being hired to lead a franchise.

“Charles is a phenomenal coach,” Smith said. “I think the biggest requirement for being a good coach is being a good teacher. Charles is a heck of a teacher. Looking at Charles in that role, it’s a role he wanted to expand and grow. … You want to expand people. You never want to stifle people’s growth. You’ve got to give somebody a shot. It’s a perfect situation with Charles, and I couldn’t be more excited he’s here with us.”

In addition to the 2011 season with the Titans, Ragone worked with London over the past three years with the Bears. In 2018 and 2019, Ragone coached quarterbacks before becoming the pass-game coordinator in 2020. As a former NFL quarterback who coached the position, Ragone noted one of the best position coaches he ever had was Greg Roman, who led his group when the two were with the Texans in the early 2000s.

Roman, now the Baltimore Ravens’ offensive coordinator, was a defensive lineman at Division III school John Carroll. However, Roman has spent the bulk of his coaching career on offense, which included coaching quarterbacks and tight ends during his four-stint with Houston.

Ragone believes London could follow a similar path.

“The way he sees the game, the way he sees protections -- I’ve worked with Charles in the last couple of years with the protection stuff,” Ragone said. “He’s got a really good eye for understanding the patterns. In terms of overall teaching, I’ve been with him where I’ve experienced him in front of rooms, in front of his players teaching concepts. Teaching the playbook, the intricacies, the details of it, I think he’s going to do a fantastic job.”

A long way from the tiny space he shared with his new boss, London is more than ready for the opportunity to show he can excel at coaching another position group, especially one that brings a brighter spotlight.

“I always wanted to try to be open to different things and learn different spots,” London said. “Once coach Smith took the job here he interviewed me for the position. We talked about it, and it was something I was interested in doing. It’s an opportunity I’m looking forward to. We’ve got a good quarterback here who can still play at a high level. It’s just something that was an opportunity that was presented to me, and I plan to take full advantage of it.”