Regarding the new stewards of football operations in Flowery Branch, I have to say – and here I take a deep breath, yours truly having gone a while since saying much nice about the Falcons – that I’m encouraged. Arthur Smith, lately of the Titans, has agreed to become head coach. Reports hold that Terry Fontenot, a longtime Saints employee, will become general manager.
This isn’t an Urban-Meyer-to-the-Jaguars splash, but that’s OK. The pairing of Fontenot/Smith indicates that the local NFL franchise has identified its flaws and moved to correct them. Which is, you must admit, pretty much the idea.
For the second time (in five tries) under Arthur Blank, the Falcons are opting for a head coach whose background is offense. No knock on defense – I’m old enough to recall when defense really did win championships – but football has swung so heavily to the team with the ball that it makes little sense to keep making defensive coordinators your HC.
Smith’s Titans finished third among NFL teams in total offense. The caveat is that they were second in rushing, 23rd in passing. They relied on Derrick Henry, the league’s leading rusher each of the past two seasons. The Falcons don’t have a Derrick Henry. (Nobody else has a Derrick Henry.) But we’ve seen that making a running game work in different places with different backs is a skill that travels. Kyle Shananan got two 1,000-yard seasons from Alfred Morris in Washington and two more from Devonta Freeman here; as head coach in San Francisco, Shanahan turned the undrafted journeyman Raheem Mostert into a feature back on a Super Bowl team.
(Yes, Shanahan also is the guy who blew two Super Bowl leads by NOT running the ball with a lead. What can I say? Life’s weird.)
The best offenses are those that can do as they please. The Packers and Saints, the NFC’s top two seeds in these playoffs, have Hall of Fame quarterbacks, but both ranked higher among the NFL’s 32 teams in yards rushing than in yards passing. The greatest weapon at any offense’s disposal is the play-action pass, and that’s largely a function of a robust running game. Chris Chandler was a pretty ordinary quarterback without Jamal Anderson; in 1998/99, the two carried the Falcons to a Super Bowl.
The strike against Smith – besides being named “Arthur” in a city where there’s only one Arthur and being the second Falcons head coach named “Smith” – is that he hasn’t been a head coach. (He has been Tennessee’s OC only two years.) Neither had Mike Smith – the Falcons’ Smitty 1.0 – and his first five seasons yielded five winning records and four playoff berths. For the record, A. Smith would mark the fourth HC of five hired by A. Blank without previous HC experience. The exception: Bobby Petrino, who lasted 13 fun-filled games.
Unless the New Falcons choose to do a teardown, offensive players will again constitute the bulk of their payroll. For A. Smith to get more from Matt Ryan than Shanahan did is impossible; for Smith to help restore Ryan – who finished 21st in passer rating, one spot behind Mitchell Trubisky – to some level of eminence is not unthinkable. A year ago, Smith helped turned Ryan Tannehill in the NFL’s comeback player of the year.
A Smith/Ryan mesh wouldn’t preclude the Falcons drafting a quarterback in Round 1. They’ll need one soon. Picking Justin Fields or Zach Wilson and letting him serve a year’s apprenticeship under the new coach and the longtime incumbent wouldn’t be the silliest course ever taken. (For the record, Smith turns 39 in May; Ryan turns 36 the same month.)
Pairing Smith with Fontenot could work. As much as the Falcons hate the Saints, there’s ample reason to borrow from their nemesis. The Saints have had the same GM (Mickey Loomis) since 2002, the same HC (the dastardly Sean Payton) since 2006. They’ve built a defense to go with their sleek offense. They’ve been able to scrounge for big-time talent. They landed receiver Marques Colston in the seventh round of the 2006 draft; he had six 1,000-yard seasons. They signed linebacker Demario Davis as a free agent in 2018; he’s now an All-Pro. Alvin Kamara of Norcross was a third-round pick in 2017; he has supplanted Drew Brees as their MVP.
Speaking of quarterbacks: The Saints have made sure they’ll never run short at quarterback, which is a huge thing. They’ve gone 8-1 in games NOT started by Brees the past two seasons, having had Teddy Bridgewater and Taysom Hill as insurance. (Also Jameis Winston, though he has done next to nothing.) There’s an aggressiveness about the Saints’ organization – those based in Flowery Branch would call it an arrogance – that can chafe, but nobody ever confused Bill Belichick with Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm. You play to win the game, not to be crowned Mr. Congeniality.
The Saints went 7-9 in 2016, the year the Falcons went 11-5, won the NFC South and led the Super Bowl by 25 points. Since then, the Saints have gone 49-15, winning the NFC South four times; the Falcons are 28-36 and starting over. There’s no guarantee that Fontenot and Smith will make the Falcons champions – 31 other teams play to win the game, too – but we can say this: There’s good reason to have pursued both.
For all the gloom found in the Falcons’ annals, there’s this ray of sunshine. When last the Falcons hired a GM who’d never been a GM and a head coach who’d never been a head coach, they embarked on the best five-season run in franchise history. The first draft pick exercised by Thomas Dimitroff, the third overall, was spent on a quarterback. That mightn’t be a bad way for this new administration to begin.