Falcons coach Arthur Smith moving on from tumultuous offseason

Falcons coach Arthur Smith talks with quarterback Marcus Mariota (1) during OTA at the Falcons Practice Facility, May 26, 2022, in Flowery Branch, Ga. (Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com)

Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com

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Falcons coach Arthur Smith talks with quarterback Marcus Mariota (1) during OTA at the Falcons Practice Facility, May 26, 2022, in Flowery Branch, Ga. (Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com)

Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com

FLOWERY BRANCH – It has been a tumultuous offseason for the Falcons that guaranteed a different direction in 2022 under second-year coach Arthur Smith.

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After the team’s failed pursuit of Deshaun Watson, they found themselves in a posture where they essentially had to trade quarterback Matt Ryan, who’d started the past 14 seasons and taken the franchise to its second Super Bowl appearance.

“Talk about another transitioning shift. ... You’ve got a guy that I was glad I got to coach for a season,” Smith said of Ryan to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “I’ve got the utmost respect for, but he’d been here a long time as a franchise staple.”

The Falcons did not want to haggle over compensation and wanted to do right by Ryan, according to general manager Terry Fontenot. The Falcons accepted only a third-round pick from the Colts. It was used to select outside linebacker DeAngelo Malone from Western Kentucky and Cedar Grove High.

“It’s going to be a completely new look in there with Marcus Mariota and Desmond Ridder,” Smith said of his quarterback meeting room. “Feleipe (Franks) will have to compete for some sort of role.”

Mariota and Smith worked together with the Tennessee Titans from 2015-19. Mariota was the No. 2 overall pick in the 2015 draft. He was 29-32 as a starter before being benched in the 2019 season.

He’s been a backup for the Raiders over the past two seasons.

“It’s been a lot of fun,” Mariota said of the offseason program. “I enjoy being out here with the staff. I enjoy being out here with these guys.”

One of the issues in Tennessee revolved around how much shotgun and under-center formations to run with Mariota, who had issues early with calling full NFL plays after using only simple signals in college.

Smith, who was tight ends coach and then offensive coordinator for the Titans, knows in great detail Mariota’s skill set and limitations.

“We have to make sure that we bring Marcus along, at the same time giving Des a fair shot,” Smith said. “But we’re not going to rush something for some agenda. The best player will play.”

Colts owner Jim Irsay’s eyes lit up when asked about his new quarterback at the league meetings in Buckhead.

“Oh man, I tell you it’s been great,” Irsay said. “It’s been really exciting having him in and his leadership.”

The trade for Ryan, who holds most of the Falcons’ passing records, has been well-received by the Colts.

“We’re really excited about Matt, and we feel he just turned 37,” Irsay said. “He’s excited about playing and excited about finishing his legacy over the next three, four or five years or whatever it is.

“I know with the same ideas that we have, with a world championship. It’s been great having him.”

Smith was with the Titans when they rejuvenated the career of Ryan Tannehill, who’d been traded by the Dolphins. He also saw players drafted much higher than Ridder stumble in Tennessee.

The Falcons officially are in the quarterback development business and plan to stay there.

“It’s the premier position,” Smith said. “It’s why the guys get paid what they get paid. It’s a hard position. We’re going to look to develop in that spot.”

Smith pointed to Hall of Fame general manager Ron Wolf, who made it a point of drafting and developing quarterbacks even when he had Brett Favre as the starter with the Green Bay Packers.

“You break training camp and you look over there and you’ve got Brett Favre, Mark Brunell. One of the Detmer brothers (Ty) was there at some point. You had Matt Hasselbeck there at some point. You had Aaron Brooks from (Virginia) at some point, and you had Kurt Warner, who couldn’t get through camp.”

Developing quarterbacks required some patience. Brunell, Brooks and Hasselbeck later were traded for valuable draft picks. With coaches being fired faster and teams rushing to play quarterbacks before they are ready, the Falcons could be trailblazers.

“Why not, take shots and try to develop (a quarterback), especially with these longer seasons,” Smith said. “When you get so thin. Yeah, it’s great when you have your franchise quarterback and everybody is looking for that, but when you’re also thin at that position and the guy can’t play.

“Unfortunately, if he gets injured, even if he’s out a week or two, that could cost you a trip to the postseason. As long as I’m here, we’ll continue to try to develop that (meeting) room.”

The Falcons, who are in Phase 3 of the offseason, have started OTAs and have their mandatory minicamp set for June 12-14.

Falcons owner Arthur Blank was pleased with the team’s recent draft.

“As an owner, you always feel good about the draft,” Blank said. “I would say, quite honestly this year, as a fan and as somebody who follows the business of the NFL closely, particularly the Atlanta Falcons, I think that (general manager) Terry (Fontenot), his staff and coach Smith and his staff, I think just did a great job.”

The Falcons’ exhibition schedule is set, with rookies set to report for training camp July 19. The veterans will report later.

“I’m looking forward to training camp,” Blank said. “I’m looking forward to the season, pretty anxiously. In a positive, anxious way.”

The Falcons believe they have enough competition to fix their offensive and defensive lines.

The Falcons expect free agents Germain Ifedi and Elijah Wilkinson to raise the level of competition on the O-line. They plan to continue to develop second-year players Jalen Mayfield and Drew Dalman and will see if rookie Justin Shaffer can help.

“Philosophically, I don’t think you need five first-rounders up there,” Smith said. “That’s just not the history of this league. It’s a development position, and you find guys anyway you can.”

The Falcons are looking for players to step up on the defensive line. The most obvious candidates are Marlon Davidson and Taquon Graham.

“Somebody needs to step up,” Smith said. “Nick Thurman has a shot. We’ve got to get some more interior pass rush.”

Moving on from Ryan and losing linebacker Foye Oluokun, wide receiver Russell Gage and Pro Bowl long snapper Josh Harris in free agency left holes in the roster.

“It’s about building a winning culture,” Smith said. “We’ve got a lot of guys that have brought into this program the last two years and some veterans that we extended. We want to continue to build a winning culture.

“It’s a competitive league, year to year. No matter what your expectations are, at the end of the day, that ball is kicked off and the expectation is to win. And that will never change.”

Smith guided the Falcons to a surprising 7-10 record in the 2021 season. Without Ryan, the projections are not optimistic for 2022.

“So, the short-term game ... the objective is to get this team ready to go compete and win football games,” Smith said. “Long-term, I don’t think you ever stop developing your roster. You never stop looking for ways to improve it. And you never stop learning the ways to improve as a coach either.”

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