The Falcons’ membership in the NFC South is at once a blessing and a curse.
At 4-6 going into their open week, the Falcons can look at the standings, one game behind the first-place Saints, and assert that they’re in the playoff chase. But that reality might also be a distraction to the facts that they’re 4-6, on a three-game losing streak and that if they were in any other division, they would need binoculars to see first place.
And playoff talk might hinder consideration of the Falcons in the bigger picture, which is to wonder where things are headed with coach Arthur Smith.
If the Falcons were to win the NFC South and go to the playoffs at 9-8 (or, worse, 8-9) with the benefit of a weak schedule, what would that really demonstrate about Smith’s tenure? Would that be proof that he was the right coach for the team and that the franchise was headed in the right direction?
Ultimately, the standard that owner Arthur Blank needs to judge him by (and presumably will) is whether he’s the coach to take the Falcons to the Super Bowl. Anything else — like winning the NFC South — is not worth much consideration.
Smith hasn’t offered much in the “yes” category during the first 10 games of a year that was expected to be a breakthrough season. The team has been done in by mistakes on both sides of the ball and lost games that it absolutely shouldn’t have.
Coming up short in consecutive weeks against a rookie quarterback making his starting debut (Tennessee’s Will Levis), a quarterback who joined the team that week and didn’t take any practice snaps with the first-team offense (Minnesota’s Joshua Dobbs) and a quarterback playing in his first game in almost a year (Arizona’s Kyler Murray) is a truly astounding hat trick.
If Smith is to show that he’s more than that, he must do it it over the next seven games.
Consider this. From 1998 to 2022, there were 62 coaches hired who did one or more of the following: win 12 games in a season, lead his team to a conference championship game or have back-to-back playoff seasons. They’re somewhat arbitrary standards of a coach’s capacity, but regardless, they are benchmarks that indicate the coach in place is either the right hire or has done enough to warrant more time to prove it.
Of those 62, 53, or 85%, reached them within their first three years. Of the other nine, seven made the playoffs within their first three years (six of them won at least 10 games) to at least offer some results.
Of the coaches in the past 20 Super Bowls — a cohort of 27 coaches, counting Andy Reid and John Fox twice (because they both took two different teams) — 24 accomplished one or more of the three standards in their first three seasons on the job.
In his third season, the only one of those markers Smith can still hit this season is to take the Falcons to the NFC title game, which most assuredly would earn him a fourth season.
If he doesn’t prove himself somehow this season, 25 years of coaching history suggest that Smith isn’t the guy to get the Falcons to a Super Bowl.
Some caveats are worth mentioning. It may have been that some of the coaches who didn’t make any of the three benchmarks in their first three years or who didn’t even make it to their third season could have gotten their team to a Super Bowl with more time, but they weren’t granted it.
Credit: D. Orlando Ledbetter
And Smith, as has been noted often, dealt with significant salary-cap restrictions in his second season and also the transition from quarterback Matt Ryan after Smith’s first season, which led to the bridge season last year with Marcus Mariota.
And, also, while the achievements (or lack of them) are tied to the coach, they also reflect the competence of the front offices and ownerships that support them. Between 1998 and 2022, for instance, Washington and Detroit did not hire a single coach who won 12 games, took his team to the NFC title game or recorded back-to-back playoff seasons. That couldn’t have been due solely to bad coaching hires. (Three of Blank’s four hires prior to Smith accomplished one of the three within his first three seasons. Jim Mora made the NFC title game in his first season, Mike Smith won 13 games in his third season and Dan Quinn took the Falcons to the Super Bowl in his second year on the job. You may recall the Bobby Petrino tenure not going quite as well.)
And, not least, coming into a situation with a quarterback in place is of immense help.
But, ultimately, the data strongly suggest that if a coach is going to get the job done, his work will reveal itself by the third season, if not sooner. Yes, Smith has faced roadblocks, but it doesn’t make him unusual. Generally, coaches are hired because something went wrong with the last coach, meaning the new guy has some mess to clean up.
Smith and GM Terry Fontenot could have chosen to take the hit prior to the first season and let go of Ryan. It probably would not have been received well, but it would have been understood and cleared the decks for the Falcons to be more competitive in Smith’s second season as opposed to this year (not that this year has been fireworks and balloons thus far).
And should the Desmond Ridder experiment fall short, Smith can contend that the Falcons can win in 2024 by drafting a quarterback or acquiring a veteran. They could, but the counterargument to that is that if Smith put his money on Ridder — who had been on the team under Smith’s supervision for a year — why should he be entrusted to pick the next quarterback?
In an ideal world for Smith, the Falcons catch fire in the final seven games, finish 9-8 with Ridder showing that he’s past the turnover problems and is a consistent playmaker, and win a playoff game. The “positionless offense” that Smith has schemed up becomes the entertaining and productive force that he had envisioned. The defense looks more like the version from the first seven games and less like the flawed model that has lapsed its way through the past three games (without injured defensive tackle Grady Jarrett, it should be noted).
With an open date, the Falcons have two weeks before playing the first of two remaining games against the first-place Saints. Smith undoubtedly will use the extra time to delve deeply into how he, his staff and his team can solve the problems that have undone them to this point.
To his credit, Smith understands the scrunity and expectations that come with the job.
“It doesn’t matter if you win 10 Super Bowls, or you don’t win anything,” he said Monday. “That’s what it is. If you don’t like that, don’t sign up for it.”
At this point, winning something would certainly help.
Ken Sugiura is a sports columnist at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Formerly the Georgia Tech beat reporter, Sugiura started at the AJC in 1998 and has covered a variety of beats, mostly within sports.