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.
Tennessee Titans offensive coordinator Arthur Smith, left, watches as wide receiver Tajae Sharpe (19) runs a drill during an organized team activity at the Titans' NFL football training facility Tuesday, May 21, 2019, in Nashville, Tenn. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)
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.