It’s hard to imagine just how devastating a blow Super Bowl LI was to this Falcons organization. Sure, they made it back to the playoffs in 2017, even winning a game there, but in reality, the shine was off what could have been one of the all-time great offenses in the NFL.
Losing Kyle Shanahan hurt, of course — HC Dan Quinn was never able to replicate the explosiveness Shanahan brought to Atlanta with his subsequent uninspiring OC hires. But Quinn’s biggest failure, given his background, was not taking care of his defense, which never finished better than 20th in total yards allowed in the four years since Super Bowl LI (a year in which Atlanta was 9th in yards allowed). The result was Atlanta posting three consecutive losing seasons for the first time since 1999-2001, coincidentally also on the heels of a Super Bowl run. It cost Quinn and GM Thomas Dimitroff their jobs.
Now, Atlanta is in the throes of a full-scale teardown — the third time owner Arthur Blank is hiring a GM, and the fifth time he’s hiring a head coach.
For GM, he brought Terry Fontenot, just 40, over from the division rival Saints. At coach, he hired someone even younger — 38-year-old Titans offensive coordinator Arthur Smith.
Let’s just get this out of the way: Smith doesn’t need this job. Why? His father, Fred, founded FedEx and is worth $5.4 billion. Smith could just cruise by for the rest of his life, but instead has chosen a passion project, and it’s one he’s really damn good at.
Starting at his alma mater, the University of North Carolina, in 2006, Smith had several low-level coaching jobs, never progressing above a “quality control” coach until 2013, two years into his decade-long tenure with the Titans, when Smith became an “assistant” offensive line and tight ends coach. From 2015-2018, he finally helmed his own position as tight ends coach with the Titans, and in 2019, he was promoted to offensive coordinator following Matt LaFleur’s hiring as head coach in Green Bay.
Smith’s promotion to offensive coordinator was, at the time, shrugged off at best, given he was a little-known coach who had headed up a non-premium position. But all Smith did the last two years was call the plays for a Titan offense that ranked 6th (2019) and 4th (2020) in FootballOutsiders DVOA. Smith is at least partly responsible for the career resurgence of QB Ryan Tannehill, and the emergence of Derrick Henry as the most feared bell cow back in the league. And given how much the Titans run the ball, Smith does it his way in a league that has obsessed itself with the opposite.
Of course, Smith has been saying what you’d expect — he’ll build his offense to the strengths of the roster, and that is quite obviously the passing game right now.
One of the things that stood out from Smith’s introduction as Falcons coach was that he is very much against “groupthink” — that should be pretty obvious given the way his Titans offenses looked in the modern NFL. But he also despises groupthink in coaches’ meetings, choosing to hire his coaches from a variety of backgrounds, ages, and ethnicities.
Smith’s offensive coordinator, Dave Ragone, is only 41, having spent the last five years in Chicago as quarterbacks coach (2016 through 2019) and passing game coordinator (2020). He previously coached with Smith in Tennessee from 2011 to 2013. This will be his first offensive coordinator job.
Smith’s defensive coordinator, Dean Pees, is 71 and just spent a year in “retirement.” He’s been coaching football for longer than Smith and Ragone have been on the planet. Counting college jobs, this will be Pees’ ninth job as either a defensive coordinator or head coach. Pees coached with Smith in Tennessee in 2018 and 2019, and with Pees out of the picture in 2020, Tennessee’s defense fell from 18th in DVOA in 2019 to 29th in 2020. Pees is highly respected and well regarded for his variety of pressure concepts (any pressure would be welcome in Atlanta).
QB coach Charles London, 45, will be coaching that position for the first time. His seven years of most recent NFL experience were as the running backs coach in Houston (2014-17) and Chicago (2018-20).
One thing that stood out when looking at Smith’s staff was the fact that, of QBs with 50 or more play action attempts in 2020, the top two in play action rate were Ryan Tannehill (with Smith’s Titans) at 36.4% and Mitchell Trubisky (with Ragone’s Bears) at 36.0% (PFF). Matt Ryan was at just 25.8%, 22nd in the NFL. In 2016, the Falcons’ Super Bowl season, Ryan led the NFL in play action rate under Kyle Shanahan at 27.6%. So obviously, PA rates in general have gone way up, but it’s still startling to see that kind of drop for Ryan. (For reference sake, 16 QBs had a higher PA rate in 2020 than Ryan’s league-high mark in 2016.)
Play action is coming back to Atlanta.
I don’t think we can be 100% certain that Ryan will be the quarterback for Atlanta in 2021, given new GM Fontenot didn’t rule out drafting a quarterback with the #4 pick this year — it’s worth noting that the last time the Falcons changed both head coach and general manager in the same off-season, when they hired Mike Smith and Thomas Dimitroff following the Bobby Petrino disaster, they drafted Ryan at #3 overall.
But this Falcons team does have more needs, especially on the offensive line, where they ranked 26th in FootballOutsiders’ run-blocking metric and 18th in their pass-blocking metric in 2020. By comparison, Smith’s Titans ranked 2nd and 11th, respectively. The offensive line has been a massive catalyst in the Titans’ success with Smith calling plays, even after losing star LT Taylor Lewan to a knee injury early in the 2020 season.
If Ryan is still the QB, I expect the Falcons to be more efficient through the air in 2020. Only Deshaun Watson and Tom Brady averaged more yards per attempt on play-action dropbacks than Tannehill did in 2020, while Ryan averaged 8.9 YPA on PA dropbacks vs. 6.7 on standard drops (PFF).
Of course, to run play action more, the Falcons have to be in situations when it makes sense — ergo, they can’t be playing from behind nearly as much as they have the last three years under Quinn (over the last three seasons, the Falcons have thrown the 6th-most passes in the league when trailing). That’s where Pees comes in to play, and I expect his change in defensive philosophy will be one of the most underrated aspects in increased efficiency for this offense.
There is a lot of work to be done to improve that defense, though — the Falcons have the third-lowest cap room for 2021, per OverTheCap.com, so Fontenot can’t just throw money at this team’s woes.
One area where we expect Smith to have success, though, is on the ground, and that’s an impossible situation to break down right now. The only backs on the Falcon roster currently under contract are JAGs Ito Smith and Qadree Ollison. There is zero reason for Atlanta to bring back Todd Gurley. There isn’t much money to spend here at that position, but it stands to reason Smith will want a back he can trust, whether the Falcons go exploring on the free-agent market or in the Draft.