Falcons’ Arthur Smith plans to lay foundation for a winning culture

Credit: Curtis Compton / curtis.compton@ajc.com

Credit: Curtis Compton / curtis.compton@ajc.com

WATFORD, England – Just a little under the quarter mark of his first season, Falcons first-year coach Arthur Smith is being tested.

By Friday afternoon, it had been a hectic past 24 hours that included losing his top receiver for personal matters, putting the 1-3 team through a practice Thursday, then flying across the Atlantic Ocean to hold meetings and then get back on the practice field.

The players had Friday night off and will go through a walk-through Saturday before facing the New York Jets (1-3) at 9:30 a.m. EDT Sunday at Tottenham Hotspur Stadium in London.

“You have bigger ambitions than to start 1-3,” Smith told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution in an exclusive interview Friday. “That’s a reality now. … The reason why? You’re going to find out who you really are, what’s your leadership style and are you what you say you are when you get hired. I feel confident. I feel like we are making progress.”

The Falcons are coming off a game Sunday they lost with 33 seconds left. Smith stood behind his comments that the Falcons want to “win now,” but did add that they are a team in transition as he, and his staff, lay the foundation for a winning culture.

“I’ve got a great family,” Smith said. “My family has loved the transition so far. A lot of commitment and a lot of responsibility, but I always told my wife, this is what I always wanted. This is what I signed up for. You really don’t know about yourself until you do have some adversity. I feel strong about where our foundation is.”

Despite the losses, Smith believes the Falcons are heading in the right direction. Developing the back end of the roster is key.

“The thing that you can’t get caught with here is a lot of times, you look at it in the spring, post-free agency and you go, ‘we’ve got a really good team on paper,’” Smith said. “You ought to at that point. But the reality is that you better look at the bottom of that roster. That’s why we played so many of these young guys (in the exhibition season). This roster is significantly very different than it was a year ago.”

Smith and general manager Terry Fontenot have been charged with the turning about the franchise, which has not made a playoff appearance since after the 2017 season.

“We feel good about the guys that we brought in here,” Smith said. “You sacrifice a little bit of short-term success to develop these guys.”

Things have not gone smoothly for Smith. He’s set to face the Jets without four opening-day starters.

“The true sign of a coach is how you adapt when you don’t have your highest-paid guys, top guys,” Smith said. “Can you develop the bottom of the roster?”

Smith elected to stay with quarterback Matt Ryan, who told the AJC that he has no plans to leave.

“The way I look at it, Matt should play well,” Smith said. “We invested a lot in Matt. (Offensive tackle) Jake Matthews should play well. We’ve got to get the young guys, let’s see how we can bring them along. Do we get the best out of our players? Do we get the best out of Cordarrelle Patterson? Do we get the best out of Tajae Sharpe? Olamide Zaccheaus? That, to me in the measure of a coach.”

The Falcons plan to monitor the growth and development while still trying to win.

“If you inherit (Rams defensive tackle) Aaron Donald, he better play well,” Smith said. “If he goes to the Pro Bowl, I don’t think you’d be patting yourself on the back. So, that’s what we want to see, that growth and development. We feel we should be coming along and competitive. It’s two phases.”

The Falcons are counting on the rookie class being major contributors.

“I like our draft class,” Smith said. “I think they all will contribute and all be solid foundational pieces.”

Smith picked a staff that has a lot of NFL experience. He believes the camaraderie of the staff is just as important as the chemistry of the players in the locker room.

“Yeah, I’ve been on bad staffs where guys have issues,” Smith said. “You have frail egos … guys want to sit there. The easy thing to do when you come in there Year 1 and marginalized all of the players that were here, set the expectations so low so that if you have any success, you can say look, it was all me. That’s not the case because you’ve got to build a winning culture.”

Smith spent most of his NFL time with the Tennessee Titans, but he’s studied how other teams have built their winning cultures.

“Looking at what Andy Reid did in Kansas City, he built a winning culture,” Smith said. “When he decided that it was time to go make a change at quarterback, that roster was pretty damn good around him, and he had won. There are a lot of ways to do it.”

He’s also studied the winning culture that was established with the Falcons in 2008.

“I would argue that when Matt took over here, that wasn’t a bad roster,” Smith said. “That was a disaster of a year in ‘07. But that team he took over wasn’t a bad team, then they added Tony (Gonzalez) the next year. Matt always credits them, if I didn’t have Roddy (White) and Tony, I don’t know how my career would have started.”

Back to Kansas City, who has made it to the past two Super Bowls and Smith faced in the AFC title game after the 2019 season.

“(Quarterback Patrick) Mahomes is a special talent, but he’s also getting (tight end Travis) Kelce in his prime, you got Tyreek Hill and veteran linemen. You’re able to build a winning program. There are other ways to do it, there are always exceptions.”

Smith was in Tennessee when things didn’t work out with high draft picks in quarterbacks Jake Locker (eighth overall in 2011) and Marcus Mariota (second overall in 2015).

“You never know when it’s going to happen,” Smith said. “Jim Mora drafted Peyton Manning, and he struggled early on. He went on to become one of the best quarterbacks ever. It’s a challenge. There are a lot of ways to do it.

“You can argue that (Tom) Brady and (Ben) Roethlisberger early on in their careers had some really good defenses, and then they got to their prime and took off.”

The Falcons have a veteran quarterback in Ryan and are trying build around him.

“In some way, it’s how the pendulum swings,” Smith said. “If you get the right quarterback, (then) he better be able to you carry by the time you are paying that guy because that’s going to be the bulk of the salary cap. If you’re looking at it from a pure economic standpoint.

“I think you have to make all of those (issues) go into your decision-making, short-term and long-term.”

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Falcons’ 2021 schedule features trip to London, January trip to Buffalo

Atlanta Falcons Schedule

Eagles 32, Falcons 6

Buccaneers 48, Falcons 25

Falcons 17, Giants 14

Washington FT 34, Falcons 30

New York Jets vs. Falcons in London, Oct. 10 at 9:30 a.m.

Bye Week

Falcons at Miami Dolphins, Oct. 24 at 1 p.m.

Here’s the rest of full schedule