ATLANTA -- Falcons owner Arthur Blank said it was not just one factor -- not one thing or game or moment -- that made him decide to fire head coach Arthur Smith late Sunday night.

But during a news conference lasting more than 90 minutes Monday hitting on a variety of topics, Blank kept coming back to one thing: Smith failed to deliver on a vision of success and hope for the 2023 Falcons after two years spent rebuilding.

"The gap between achieving and underachieving was much bigger than what I anticipated this year," Blank said, "in a variety of ways."

2 Related

The Falcons finished 7-10 in Smith's third season, underachieving too much for the liking of his now ex-boss. It was the same record -- which, coincidentally, resulted in the same draft slot -- as in each of his first two seasons for a 21-30 overall mark.

The difference was that this year Atlanta was no longer digging out of a significant salary cap hole. It had multiple years of its own players and significant money invested in free agent signings. And in Blank's eyes, the results weren't enough to stick with Smith.

Blank referenced the team's record against teams with losing records in 2023, which he called "abysmal, honestly." The Falcons lost to the Carolina Panthers, Washington Commanders, Arizona Cardinals, Tennessee Titans, Chicago Bears and Minnesota Vikings -- all teams that, like Atlanta, lost at least 10 games.

Falcons CEO Rich McKay commended Smith for being a good collaborator as a coach and providing "vision" to the scouting department. But McKay said the decision was made after assessing whether the team was being too patient in trying to compete for a championship and making good on a commitment to the fans and players to put the team in the best position to win.

"In this case, we felt like the change was necessary," McKay said. "To make sure that we compete in '24 at the highest level."

Blank and McKay said this while making it explicitly clear that Smith never lost the locker room -- something his players echoed multiple times over the last three weeks of the season and again Monday during locker room cleanout.

Most of Atlanta's players found out about Smith's firing by social media soon after it was announced just after midnight Monday. This came following an hourslong meeting late Sunday night between Smith, McKay and Blank where they discussed the direction and progress of the franchise.

After that meeting, Blank and McKay decided to make a change.

"It's hard to say goodbye to him but we talked and our paths will cross again," linebacker Nate Landman told ESPN on Monday. "He's a brilliant coach and he'll be a head coach again somewhere. Nothing but love and respect for Art."

In three seasons as Falcons head coach, Arthur Smith put together a 21-30 record. Dale Zanine/USA TODAY Sports

Landman said Smith was "popular in this locker room." After being fired, Smith returned to the team's facility in Flowery Branch, Georgia, to have a final meeting with the players Monday morning so he could thank them personally for what they meant to him.

Smith and general manager Terry Fontenot brought in the vast majority of players on this season's roster after taking over a cap-strapped team upon their hiring in January 2021 -- a situation McKay described as one with "serious challenges."

At the time, they declined to call what Smith and Fontenot navigated a rebuild, but on Monday, McKay admitted that it was. Smith and Fontenot spent two offseasons jettisoning contracts and essentially resetting the Falcons' salary cap situation.

"You don't want to say it's a rebuild because you want to win," McKay said. "And you're trying to win. But there was a lot of rebuilding going on for Arthur and Terry."

Fontenot was not present at the news conference as Blank and McKay, who will be leading the coaching search, took all the questions. Blank said Monday that Fontenot is still Atlanta's general manager and "will be heavily involved in the process" of finding a new coach.

McKay and Blank said Fontenot was not present because he and his team are researching potential candidates while also handling the personnel fallout and questions arising from Smith's firing for the coaches still on staff.

Blank went on to praise the roster Fontenot -- and Smith -- assembled as they had worked in a 50-50 split dynamic during their three seasons together. It's a structure McKay said could remain depending on whom Atlanta hires as its next head coach.

McKay said Fontenot will play "a central part" in the hiring process and then they'll decide how to divvy up responsibilities. Under the current structure, both the general manager and head coach report to McKay, who then reports to Blank.

The Falcons said they will announce potential candidates after they finish interviewing them. As those interviews begin, Atlanta will have to answer the questions at the quarterback position that plagued the Falcons throughout Smith's tenure.

Atlanta has Taylor Heinicke and Desmond Ridder under contract for 2024 and the No. 8 pick in April's draft. With no definitive starter, the team is hoping coaching candidates will be attracted by the chance to select a new starting quarterback. Blank noted that "having the right quarterback in the NFL is a really big deal."

"It's an opportunity to kind of pick their own partner, if you will," Blank said. "Their own spouse if you will. Who they can grow with, who they can select or however we acquire them, whether we acquire their rights, draft, free agency, whatever it may be."

Smith, 41, had four different starting quarterbacks in three seasons: Matt Ryan in 2021, Marcus Mariota and Ridder in 2022, and Ridder and Heinicke this past season. The Falcons also had a failed pursuit of Deshaun Watson, which Blank called a "collaborative decision." That, in part, led to trading Ryan to Indianapolis and Atlanta signing Mariota in March 2022.

Blank also said he believes Atlanta made the right decision not pursuing Baltimore quarterback Lamar Jackson last offseason because of the team's cap issues and how it wanted to build the roster. "You can debate whether or not he would have really been available," Blank added, because the Ravens could have matched any potential offer to the Pro Bowl quarterback.