Echoes of Kyle Shanahan with Falcons coach Arthur Smith

Titans offensive coordinator Arthur Smith works on the sidelines. Smith is the new Falcons head coach. (AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack)
Titans offensive coordinator Arthur Smith works on the sidelines. Smith is the new Falcons head coach. (AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack)

Credit: AP

Credit: AP

The Falcons went to the 2017 Super Bowl with Kyle Shanahan masterfully running their offense. Their next two coordinators couldn’t come close to matching Shanahan’s results. Their new head coach, Arthur Smith, ran great offenses in Tennessee using a system that’s like Shanahan’s.

It’s hard to say what kind of head coach Smith will be. He’s never done the job, which involves a lot more than designing game plans and calling plays. I’m more confident saying that, after four years of Falcons offense coordinators trying to keep up, they’ll have a head coach/play-caller who will keep them a step ahead.

Falcons franchise owner Arthur Blank said that’s a reason he hired Smith away from Tennessee.

“The fact that he’s creative, staying ahead of the curve of what’s happening in the NFL,” Blank said Tuesday. “Some leaders have the ability to see around the corner. It’s important. Not everyone can do that.

“I think coach Smith has done that (and) has shown the evidence of that. I think his offense has been a leading one. I think he’s prepared to make adjustments to it based on the players that he has.”

Before dismissing the idea that Smith can do the same for the Falcons, note that they have talent among their skill players. Quarterback Matt Ryan’s play is declining, but Smith helped Ryan Tannehill make the Pro Bowl after he was a Dolphins draft bust. Calvin Ridley is a star, and when Julio Jones is healthy, the Falcons have a deeper receiving corps than the Titans.

But the wide-zone scheme also needs a cohesive offensive line and dynamic running backs. It thrives with blockers who sprint outside and create creases to run. It needs backs who decisively dart through those creases. Get those elements working in sync, and it can set up a devastating passing attack off run fakes.

The Falcons don’t have the line to make it all work. They probably can find an adequate back in the draft or free agency. It won’t be so easy to fix the line. Shanahan’s Falcons offense didn’t take off until the team got that part right. Similarly, Tennessee’s improved line play allowed bruising running back Derrick Henry to flourish in Smith’s system.

Smith said he’ll stick to his philosophy, but also “play to the strengths of the roster.”

“We certainly had a wide-zone foundation (in Tennessee), but we adapted,” Smith said. “There is a lot of mythology to it because people come from one system. But, if you look around, there’s a natural evolution. (It’s there) when you look around what’s going on in San Francisco, (with) the L.A. Rams, the Green Bay Packers.”

The Titans had a bad offense in 2018, when Smith was tight ends coach. They ranked 27th in points and 23rd in Football Outsiders efficiency metric, adjusted for opponent and game situation. The 2018 Titans ranked 14th in explosive play rate, as measured by Sharp Football. They were 23rd in red-zone touchdown percentage.

Coach Mike Vrabel promoted Smith to offensive coordinator for the next season. The Titans almost immediately became one of the better offenses in the NFL. Usually that means regression for the next season, but the Titans were a great offensive team again in 2020.

The Titans ranked 10th in points in 2019 and fourth this season. They were sixth in Football Outsiders efficiency in 2019 and fourth in 2020. Tennessee ranked first in red-zone TD percentage in 2019 and second in 2020. Their explosive play rate was third in 2019 and ninth in 2020.

The Falcons haven’t come close to that kind of efficiency, production and explosiveness since Shanahan left to coach the 49ers. It was an awkward fit in his first year because Ryan didn’t seem to be comfortable with the bootleg fakes that left him vulnerable. He flourished behind an improved offensive line the next season. Ryan was voted MVP with Shanahan building game plans and calling plays.

Shanahan committed to the wide zone and built everything else around it. The runs looked exactly like the passes. The Falcons were efficient at both. They had big-play threats at wide receiver and running back. Defenders had a hard time dealing with all of that.

Smith took a similar approach as Titans offensive coordinator. Here’s what Texans defensive coordinator Anthony Weaver told reporters before the Titans beat his team in October:

“Honestly, I have to give Arthur Smith and his coaching staff a tremendous amount of credit. They do a good job of making everything look the same. You’ve got to play it honest, otherwise that one time you (go) for the (run fake) and you guess (wrong), you’ve got Derrick Henry cutting it back where you’re supposed to be in that (outside) gap, and he’s running it downhill into your secondary.”

Here’s what Derrik Klassen wrote at Football Outsiders after reviewing Titans game film last month:

“The Titans also do well to create ambiguity between their run and play-action pass concepts. More than just making sure to call play-action passes that flow off the same action as their primary run concepts, the Titans will use similar motions and shifts into formations to try to imitate some of their run calls.”

The same things could have been said about the Falcons in 2016. Statistical studies show that play-action passes are more efficient than straight drop-backs. But there’s an art to making passes look like runs and sequencing plays so that the fakes are most effective. Shanahan was great at that for the Falcons, and now they have a head coach with a knack for it.

Play-action pass use has increased in the NFL as statistical evidence proved its effectiveness. Pre-snap motion is another emerging trend. By moving players before the snap, teams can create matchup advantages or get over-eager defenders out of position.

It’s no surprise that Shanahan’s 49ers used more pre-snap motion than any team this season. Smith’s Titans offense also used a lot of motion. That’s another curve where the Falcons were behind.

It didn’t take long for Smith to transform Tennessee’s offense from one of the worst to one of the best. Chances are it will take longer for him to do the same for the Falcons, if he can do it all. Even if the Falcons quickly improve on offense, their defense needs work. There are only so many draft picks and salary-cap dollars to go around.

“I’m not going to give predictions because every circumstance is so different,” Smith said. “Certainly, we all need good players. That’s the beauty of the NFL. That’s what I love about it. There is a lot of (talent) parity, a lot of strategy involved in building the roster and when you have to adapt to it.”

New Falcons general manager Terry Fontenot will have primary responsibility for building the roster. Adapting to the talent is Smith’s job. He’s got a track record for doing so with an offensive system he believes in while using strategies that are on the NFL’s cutting edge.

Last time the Falcons had a guy like that calling the plays they went to the Super Bowl.

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