EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — Congratulations Arthur Smith, you just won your first game as an NFL head coach. What are you going to do now?
“I’m going to Denny’s!”
OK, that wasn’t exactly the first thing the Falcons new guy uttered Sunday here after slogging through a 17-14 victory over the New York Giants. But it’s close. The message was just as modest and homey as that. Striding to the makeshift podium in the lower GI tract of MetLife Stadium to stage his first-ever victory post-game press conference, Smith uttered these words for posterity:
“Before I forget I just want to say happy birthday to my mother. Hopefully I gave her a pretty good birthday present — or the Falcons did.”
What a good boy. While she wasn’t at the game, surely Diane Smith was pleased as punch.
And what a timely and fortifying kind of victory for a coach who needed something good to happen before his words about belief and slow, steady improvement started to fray around the edges. Good lord, it may have been an afternoon as unartistic as a finger painting, a matchup of two teams that had come honestly by their 0-2 records entering the fray. But Smith’s Falcons picked up the game that nobody seemed to want for three quarters and stuffed it into their fanny pack in the fourth.
For much of Sunday, it was more of the same offensive somnambulism that the Falcons had displayed in the season’s first two games while scoring fewer points than only two other teams in the league. For a half, third-string quarterback (Feleipe Franks) had touched the ball more than the team’s high-value first-round draft pick (tight end Kyle Pitts). And that was only to hand it off on a failed third-down conversion carry.
And given a chance to tack on points at the end of the half after cornerback Isaiah Oliver forced and recovered a fumble, quarterback Matt Ryan fumbled it back three plays later on a strip sack.
“The easy thing to do (is think) here we go again,” recalled Smith.
Instead of doing the easy thing, the Falcons opted to win this time. They had fallen behind 14-7 with 12:53 to play after the Giants had put together their lone touchdown drive and New York quarterback Daniel Jones had somehow stepped through a Grady Jarrett tackle to run in a two-point conversion. Yes, indeed, here we go again.
But the Falcons defense allowed no further foolishness like that. And suddenly a Falcons offense that had failed to score in the fourth quarter of its previous two games found its heart and its rhythm. With its next two possessions, it drove 67 yards for the tying touchdown and 58 yards for the winning Younghoe Koo 40-yard field goal as time expired.
And Ryan — remember him, the old quarterback who was aging before our eyes these first two games — was 11-for-12 passing, for 117 yards, on those last two drives. The Ryan game-winning drive was back in fashion.
Also, a coach who came to Atlanta with the reputation of being an offense artist — the one who resembled Michelangelo working with Play-Do at the outset — had a message-affirming afternoon.
“That’s who we want to be,” Smith said afterward. “It’s not going to be perfect. (But) the last two drives, guys stepped up.”
Credit: D. Orlando Ledbette/AJC
Smith slapped another couple coats of encouragement upon his 1-2 team: “That’s what we’re preaching – growth and improvement. Hope to see that again this week. We got the right mindset. Says more about our character and it’s something to build off of.
“Hopefully this is a step that can get us going in the right direction. To win a game like this and play good situational football at the end as a team in all three phrases, hopefully we can build off this.”
Smith was the one awarding game balls in a jubilant locker room afterward, several to support staff like operations and equipment people. Then it was up to Ryan to hand one to the rookie head coach who had his first W.
“I just think having been around a long time and knowing it’s tough to win in this league — there’s no doubt about it — his first time (winning) as a head coach, that’s a special moment,” Ryan said. “Hopefully that’s something he’ll always remember: This game up here, the way we won and how we did it.”
In keeping with his nature, the public Smith seemed mostly unimpressed with his breakthrough victory. “Hopefully we’ll have a lot more wins than just one, that’s kind of how I look at it,” he said. But, honestly, can he really assume many more Ws this year with this team? Eli Manning was here Sunday, but only to get his number retired. It’s not like the Falcons just beat his two-Super Bowl Giants.
Don’t be fooled. This one meant a lot. After Koo’s kick, the coach squeezed Ryan so tightly the quarterback reflexively punched back. The beard Smith began growing this week at his wife’s suggestion now will live a while longer — not a playoff beard certainly, but, as the coach called it, “a just-get-a-win beard.” And while Smith didn’t join in the dancing in the postgame locker room, he showed a new side to all in there.
“He was fired up. It was cool to see,” Ryan said.
“That’s the first time we won together, that’s the first time I’ve seen that. I’ve seen him animated — definitely seen that — but it’s the first time I’ve seen it in a winning environment,” Ryan added.