What reason was there for Falcons to retain Arthur Smith?

NEW ORLEANS – A riser in a cramped news-conference room is no place for an 81-year-old billionaire, but there Arthur Blank was, sitting among media Sunday afternoon.

With a mistake-filled defeat to the Saints, the Falcons franchise that he has owned since 2002 had officially eliminated itself from playoff contention and extended for one more year the wait for the Super Bowl trophy that has been Blank’s elusive mission.

Dressed in a gray three-piece suit, Blank squeezed in between media members as Falcons coach Arthur Smith answered questions about the 48-17 defeat to the Saints and his job security. A customary observer at the post-game news conference, Blank scarcely looked up at Smith, mostly looking at the floor or studying his hands, his digits still waiting to be adorned with a Super Bowl ring.

He might have been contemplating the decision to dismiss Smith after three seasons and a cumulative record of 21-30 or, perhaps having already made the decision to move on from Smith, feeling the weariness of starting over with his seventh full-time head coach.

Blank passed on the opportunity to share his state of mind. After Smith’s session ended, Blank declined to speak with media, including The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. He said “See you, guys” as he climbed into a golf cart in the bowels of the Caesars Superdome. “Take care.”

The Falcons made the move to fire Smith hours later in an announcment at 12:03 a.m.

The crux of the matter is this. Blank may well really want to keep Smith for a fourth season. Smith’s players apparently do.

“For one, coach Smith is the best coach I’ve ever had,” Pro Bowl guard Chris Lindstrom said. “I absolutely (freaking) love him. I think this group and this team does, as well.”

Their effort – if not their performance – has been unflagging throughout the season. The environment around the team is positive. Smith seems like an entirely likable person and leader.

“Great person, first,” tight end Kyle Pitts said. “He cares about you as a person and then, obviously, coaching, he wants to develop you and get you to the best ability you can.”

And the prospect of going through another coaching transition may seem draining to Blank.

But even if Blank still believed in Smith and wanted to retain him, Smith has made it really, really hard, and Sunday’s loss reiterated the case against him. The Falcons did enough to demonstrate their capacity to win and give themselves a chance at winning the NFC South – the Panthers’ 9-0 defeat to the Buccaneers rendered it moot – but did themselves in with turnovers and other mistakes, no shortage of them the responsibility of Desmond Ridder, Smith’s hand-picked quarterback.

After scoring touchdowns on their first two possessions – boosted by passes of 56 yards to wide receiver Scotty Miller and 71 yards to running back Bijan Robinson (the latter for a touchdown) – the Falcons scored once, a field goal, in their remaining11 drives.

On the first possession of the third quarter with the score tied at 17, Ridder threw an interception that was as confounding as it was costly, forcing a third-down pass in the Falcons’ end. Starting from the Falcons’ 25-yard line, the Saints needed only two plays to get in the end zone. Cornerback Clark Phillips III was in position to make a play on quarterback David Carr’s throw into the end zone to receiver Chris Olave but failed to break it up.

After the Falcons’ ensuing three-and-out possession, a stop was absolutely needed, but the Saints rifled through the Falcons defense, speeding 80 yards in five plays for a 31-17 lead with 8:54 to play in the third quarter.

Ridder responded by leading a hope-giving drive that reached the Saints 1-yard line, but then threw off target to Robinson on fourth-and-goal from the 2, turning a would-be touchdown into an incompletion and change of downs. Ridder has the talent for breathtaking throws but has continuously failed his team with ill-advised or poorly executed passes like this one.

On the sideline, Smith shook his lowered head in seeming disbelief, his head resting on his left hand. It was a bookend to another Smith image – his panicked, hands-on-head reaction prior to an ultimately successful fourth-down conversion against the Packers in the second game of the season. It helped lift the Falcons to a 2-0 record back when the promise of the Smith regime seemed so real.

Gifted an extremely weak schedule, the Falcons lost six games to teams with a combined record of 30-72 by failing to play complete games. Penalties, defensive lapses and a bundle of turnovers contributed to the plummet from a team harboring Super Bowl aspirations to one that lost its final two games by a combined 85-34.

“Without a doubt,” defensive end and team leader Calais Campbell said, asked if the team had underachieved. “I don’t think that’s a secret by any means. There were a lot of games that we could have won that we didn’t.”

Which asks the question, what reason was there to keep Smith?

The team’s two biggest weaknesses were its inconsistency and its ineffective play at quarterback.

If a team can’t play consistently or avoid mistakes, who is accountable for it but the head coach? An oft-cited coaching point of Smith’s is the middle 8, the last four minutes of the first half and first four of the second. It’s considered a highly pivotal sequence of the game, the opportunity to take charge of the game going into and coming out of halftime.

In the first half of the middle 8 Sunday, the Falcons missed a block that could have sprung Ridder for a first-down run, mishit a punt for 27 yards and committed two neutral-zone infractions on defense (though they did limit the Saints to a field goal and answered it with a half-ending field goal by Younghoe Koo).

Coming out of halftime, they threw an interception in their own end, gave up a 26-yard touchdown pass and went three-and-out, a drive that led to another Saints touchdown.

With the season and perhaps their coach’s future on the line, that’s how the Falcons responded in the part of the game their coach prioritizes.

Smith could also sell Blank on the idea that he just needs a better quarterback. But Smith is the one who (along with general manager Terry Fontenot) decided Ridder was capable of being the No. 1 after drafting him, having him on the roster for a season and starting him for four games last season.

So why, after swinging and missing despite immeasurably more data than they would get with a draft pick, should either be trusted to pick the next quarterback, when the process is a crapshoot anyway? And, moreover, having seen how Smith and his coaching staff handled Ridder, is there any reason to entrust them with the development of a new quarterback?

Who knows – Blank may well yet decide to retain Smith. There may be reasons that he has not articulated that lead him to stick with his coach. It would please the players, it would appear.

“I feel like if the coaching staff comes back, then this would be a great place to play football again,” said Campbell, considering retirement after 16 seasons.

But Blank would do so with the knowledge that the response from the fans who buy tickets, watch games and invest their time, money emotions will be all too familiar.

Shaking their heads in disbelief.