Why Arthur Smith is out in Atlanta, and who might be next

ATLANTA -- In August, Atlanta Falcons owner Arthur Blank said he would be disappointed if his team was not more competitive in 2023 and didn't show improvement. What Blank watched throughout the season was far too much of the same.

So Blank decided to make a change, firing coach Arthur Smith after three seasons late Sunday night after a 48-17 loss to the New Orleans Saints with a playoff berth on the line.

It was a somewhat quick turn for the typically patient Blank, who gave Jim Mora Jr. three seasons, Mike Smith seven years and Dan Quinn five-plus years. The difference is those three coaches all made the playoffs in their first or second year as head coach.

While Arthur Smith's situation was different from his three predecessors when he took over because of salary cap constraints, he also never finished a season with a winning record or made the postseason. So Atlanta now embarks on a coaching search.

Why fire Smith?

The one thing the Falcons were during Smith's tenure was inconsistent. Atlanta never won more than two games in a row under Smith, and both of his last two seasons had at least a three-game losing streak.

After the Falcons snapped a three-game losing streak in December by beating the New Orleans Saints, Smith was asked how to keep the energy up. In some ways, he summed up his tenure in the process.

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"Consistency, right," Smith said. "That's the biggest challenge week to week. For us to take the next step, we have to do that. Be consistent and playing with the same focus and energy going into the last week."

And much of it comes to quarterback play. Smith had four starting quarterbacks in his three seasons: Matt Ryan in 2021, Marcus Mariota and Desmond Ridder in 2022 and then Ridder and Taylor Heinicke this season. It's perhaps the decision to go with Ridder -- and then Ridder's propensity for turnovers and critical mistakes -- that ultimately did Smith in.

Smith and general manager Terry Fontenot were hired in an unenviable cap situation and spent two offseasons cleaning it up. This season was the first in which Smith had a roster mostly of players he and Fontenot sought. Improvement didn't show in the record or at quarterback.

Smith's playcalling and decision-making also was suspect at times. Against the Carolina Panthers in Week 15, he went with a game plan that was far too conservative against a one-win Panthers team. It was a decision that played a part in Atlanta's 9-7 loss to the Panthers and put their playoff hopes in peril.

Atlanta had one of the NFL's easiest schedules and could not take advantage of it. The Falcons lost to the Panthers, Arizona Cardinals, Washington Commanders and Tennessee Titans -- all teams that finished in the bottom 10.

"When you go about there, there's been instances in games where we've looked obviously good," offensive coordinator Dave Ragone said. "And there's been times where we've had issues."

On offense, eliminating turnovers and improving third-down conversion rates were areas Ragone pointed to as being inconsistent; the Falcons were tied for 24th with 28 turnovers and 13th with a 40% success rate on third down.

What is the pulse of the locker room?

Falcons players appeared to genuinely enjoy playing for Smith and backed him often when questions about his job popped up late in the season. There was a consensus they appreciated how he handled them as players and how he handled accountability as well.

"I believe in what he stands for and what we're trying to do here," left tackle Jake Matthews said on Dec. 17. "And I'm absolutely bought in."

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After the blowout loss to the Saints in the season finale, they still backed their coach. Multiple players expressed how the issues weren't with the coaching staff and how they hoped the staff would return in 2024.

The concept of shared accountability -- which Smith preached often to his team and publicly -- carried a lot of weight with players. The locker room stayed together until the final days. Smith even joined players in a brief shootaround on a basketball hoop in the locker room after the final day of practice.

"Coach Smith is the best coach I've ever had," right guard Chris Lindstrom told ESPN on Sunday. "I absolutely f---ing love him, and I think this group and this team does as well."

While money also helps lure free agents, Atlanta was able to get coveted players, such as safety Jessie Bates III and defensive lineman Calais Campbell, this offseason in part because they believed in what Smith was trying to build.

So why didn't it work?

It starts with the quarterback.

Ridder became the starter in 2023 after a four-game stint at the end of the 2022 season. He showed flashes of potential marred by fumbling issues and untimely interceptions, eventually leading to a flip-flopping between Ridder and Heinicke, who had starting experience in Washington.

While quarterback was the main issue -- along with defensive problems in Smith's first two seasons that were largely remedied by the hiring of defensive coordinator Ryan Nielsen and an upgrade in personnel last offseason -- there were other factors on offense.

For every well-designed and innovative play Smith schemed up, for example, there was a decision to run in a third-and-long situation or to give the ball to someone other than one of his stars in critical situations.

But Smith's failed tenure comes down to the issues at quarterback.

Falcons QB Taylor Heinicke (left) had a 54.4% completion rate for 890 yards, five touchdowns and four interceptions. Desmond Ridder (right) finished the season completing 64.2% of his passes for 2,836 yards, 12 touchdowns and 12 interceptions. Charles Rex Arbogast/AP Photo

What's next at quarterback?

The new coach will dictate that, but it seems clear Ridder and Heinicke are not the answers.

While Ridder showed flashes of success, he turned the ball over far too often to be an effective starter, including in the season finale when he was reinserted as the starter after an ankle injury to Heinicke and had two second-half turnovers -- an interception and a lost fumble. His decision-making, at times, was head-scratching. Ridder threw an interception in the end zone against Washington, a fumble crossing the goal line against Tampa Bay and a red zone interception against Carolina; two of those three games ended in losses.

Ridder finished the season completing 64.2% of his passes for 2,836 yards, 12 touchdowns, 12 interceptions and 12 fumbles. Heinicke had a 54.4% completion rate for 890 yards, five touchdowns and four interceptions.

A question for the new coach will be whether Ridder and/or Heinicke should remain with the team as a backup. Heinicke has one more season on his deal and a $9 million cap hit for 2024. Ridder has two years left on his rookie contract. But it would be difficult to see any coach sticking with Ridder as the starter.

Whether Atlanta pursues a veteran starter or takes a rookie in the upcoming draft might depend on the next head coach and offensive coordinator. A rookie might require trading up in the draft, but the Falcons have cap room to spend. The issue might be who is available. Kirk Cousins, Baker Mayfield and Ryan Tannehill are the top quarterbacks slated to be free agents.

Who might Atlanta target as its next coach?

Teams often go opposite of what they had before, so a candidate with prior head-coaching experience might be what Blank and Fontenot look at. But this might not be the most attractive year for that, especially because former Detroit Lions and Indianapolis Colts head coach Jim Caldwell said last year that he's done pursuing head-coaching openings (he could have been a sensible choice).

Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh would be an obvious call, as he has won everywhere he has coached in college and the NFL. While Bill Belichick is 71 years old and has losing seasons in three of his past four years, he remains one of the best coaches of all time and would be worth calling if he and the New England Patriots part ways.

Detroit offensive coordinator Ben Johnson could make a lot of sense with how Atlanta's offensive playmakers are similar to the Lions' at No. 1 receiver (Detroit's Amon-Ra St. Brown vs. Atlanta's Drake London), No. 1 tight end (Sam LaPorta vs. Kyle Pitts) and running back (David Montgomery and Jahmyr Gibbs vs. Tyler Allgeier and Bijan Robinson).

If the Las Vegas Raiders choose to not keep interim head coach Antonio Pierce, he would be someone worth interviewing and giving a long look to because of his performance this season.

No matter whom Atlanta targets, its head-coaching position should be an attractive job because of the team's offensive talent, reasonable cap space and young playmakers on defense. Plus, the new coach won't be tied to any incumbent quarterbacks.


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