Who’s having fun at Falcons training camp? Arthur Smith

Atlanta Falcons coach Arthur Smith speaks to the media before the first day of 2023 AT&T Atlanta Falcons Training Camp at Atlanta Falcons Corporate Headquarters and Training Facility, Wednesday, July 26, 2023, in Flowery Branch. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)



Atlanta Falcons coach Arthur Smith speaks to the media before the first day of 2023 AT&T Atlanta Falcons Training Camp at Atlanta Falcons Corporate Headquarters and Training Facility, Wednesday, July 26, 2023, in Flowery Branch. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

FLOWERY BRANCH — The other day, Arthur Smith used a word that is not often associated with an NFL training camp.

No, it wasn’t boulangerie – because that would just be strange. The word was “fun.” The Falcons coach was answering a question about the competition that he was seeing as he presides over his third preseason with the team.

“We got some real dudes,” he said. “We go in there and we try to compete, try to get better, understand the main goal. This is the most fun I’ve had coaching, and that fires me up every day.”

Though not quite as much of a “Wait, what?” moment as wide receiver Mack Hollins revealing last week that his father had a pet lion as a child and that he believes using eating utensils makes people soft, it nevertheless was an attention-getting statement.

First off, “I’m having fun” isn’t the typical position for an NFL coach. But more to the point, it was a window into where the Falcons appear to be at the start of a critical season for the franchise.

Coaches usually don’t have fun when their roster is hamstrung by salary-cap limitations, as was the case last season. Coaches also don’t have fun when players aren’t doing what they’re supposed to do, whether it’s lacking effort, making mental errors, committing silly penalties or simply being incapable of meeting their standards.

What is fun for coaches in the NFL, who as a group are off the charts in terms of competitiveness and drive, is winning. Smith probably wouldn’t acknowledge what a good time he’s having if he felt like his team was headed toward its third consecutive 7-10 season. For that matter, if he did feel that way, he probably wouldn’t be having fun.

A follow-up question indicated as much. He explained that it was the good feeling that he had about not only the players on the roster, but the people in the entire organization.

“That’s what you feel,” he said. “If you want to be really blunt going into Year 3, it feels like a real team around here in Flowery Branch. From every single department. Everybody’s going in the same direction, so it allows you to be open and honest. It’s in a good place. Now, we’ve got to go out there and make it happen on the field, but that’s what’s so fun about coming to work every day.”

Grand proclamations do not become Smith. He’s smart enough to avoid making a public proclamation that he believes the Falcons are bound for the playoffs for the first time since 2017, also the last year that the club had a winning record. But practically everything coming out of camp speaks to a different energy level, more depth, a raised competitiveness and a better roster.

Now, a couple of caveats – virtually every NFL player and coach expects winning at this time of year. You don’t reach this level as a coach or as a player by not believing in yourself.

As defensive tackle Grady Jarrett put it Friday, “I’m always optimistic. To me, I feel like the last couple years, we should have been in the playoffs, but short here, short there.”

Also, Smith dropped the F word (fun, that is) in August last year in describing the players on that team.

“We’ve got a fun group,” he said. “These guys want to be coached, and they’re out here working hard, and we’ll see where it goes.”

So going off the deep end over one or two statements from the mustachioed, fun-having coach is perhaps a trip best left for only the most devoted Falcons supporters.

There’s plenty that could prevent Arthur Blank’s team from reaching the playoffs yet again. For starters – injuries, the schedule proving more rigorous than expected, free-agent acquisitions coming up short and quarterback Desmond Ridder turning out to be something less than the quarterback of the future that the franchise is banking on him to be.

The impermanence of an NFL depth chart was underscored yet again Friday when cornerback Jeff Okudah, expected to be a starter opposite A.J. Terrell, was carted off the practice field with an ankle injury. Smith didn’t have an update when he spoke after practice, but it was at the least a reminder that counting on your preseason starting 22 to hold up through 17 games (or even training camp) is ill-advised.

But back to Smith. Him having the most fun he’s ever had as a coach may not mean everything, but it means something. And it isn’t just Smith’s statement that is noteworthy. Others have testified to a different air.

Smith’s high demands haven’t changed, Jarrett said, “But at the same time, it’s no secret that the vibe’s a little different. Also, with some of the (new) guys we got in, it’ll get you fired up.”

New defensive coordinator Ryan Nielsen brings energy that has prodded his unit and the defensive line in particular. Jarrett gave his approval to the team’s defensive free-agent acquisitions such as safety Jessie Bates, defensive tackle David Onyemata, defensive end Calais Campbell and linebackers Bud Dupree and Kaden Elliss.

“I definitely enjoy guys not being scared to put in work,” said Jarrett, who has seen a lot of teammates come and go in his eight seasons with the team.

The energy that has bubbled through the first two weeks of training camp was on exhibit Friday during an 11-on-11 red-zone period. On one play, after backup quarterback Taylor Heinicke found receiver Josh Ali in the back of the end zone for a touchdown, what seemed the entirety of the offense rushed off the sideline to celebrate with Ali. In the same period, Ridder could be seen and heard jawing at the defense, fueling the competition and livening the full-pads practice.

It was a visible display of what also appears to be happening in less obvious ways.

“I know every team’s super optimistic right now, but there’s a real energy here that you can feel that’s not fake,” Smith said. “But we’ve got to go out and do it. We have to go out and do it.”

Sounds like fun.