Arthur Smith said he will call his own plays as the new coach of the Atlanta Falcons. But Smith and new general manager Terry Fontenot both insisted that they will collaborate on deciding the makeup of the Falcons’ roster while both reporting to team president Rich McKay.
Both Smith and Fontenot also insisted that it’s far too soon to make any definitive statements on the future of players like Matt Ryan and Julio Jones during their formal introduction to the media Tuesday by Falcons owner Arthur Blank.
The Falcons also have not yet announced any assistant coach hires.
« I can’t give you any snap judgments today because we’re still early in this process, » said the 38-year-old Smith, who spent the past 10 seasons working under four different head coaches with the Tennessee Titans — including the final two as offensive coordinator.
Smith did stress that Ryan « has been a terrific quarterback, and I’ve got all the respect in the world for Matt Ryan, and I look forward to working with him. »
However, Smith added, « It’s more than Matt and Julio. There’s a lot of talented players on this roster, whether you’re talking about Chris Lindstrom, Grady Jarrett … I mean, there’s so many players. »
Smith also made it clear that he will build around the strengths of the players on Atlanta’s roster, rather than trying to replicate the 2,000-yard rushing season that Derrick Henry just produced under his watch in Tennessee. He pointed to the Cleveland Browns having a great two-man tandem at running back, for example.
« We adapted to Derrick, but there’s only one Derrick Henry, » Smith said. « He’s like having Shaquille O’Neal in his prime. You have to feed the big fella. And certainly we did that in Tennessee. But you adapt to the strengths you have. There are multiple ways to do it. »
Blank and McKay stressed throughout the hiring process that they won’t dictate any roster decisions to the new GM and coach. Blank said he believes the Falcons could realistically vault from worst to first in the NFC South after the team was more competitive than its 4-12 record suggested in 2020. But at the same time, he said they couldn’t « fool ourselves » into thinking they were better than the team that went 7-9 in both 2018 and 2019.
They said the goal in Atlanta is having « sustained success » after the team fired coach Dan Quinn and GM Thomas Dimitroff — who had led the Falcons to the Super Bowl in 2016.
Fontenot and Blank also talked about « sustained success » being the primary focus.
« We’re not gonna make decisions that are gonna help us in 2021 but are gonna hurt us in ’22 and ’23, » said Fontenot, who spent the past 18 years climbing the ranks in the pro personnel department for the rival New Orleans Saints. « I know there’s a lot of good players on this roster and I know there’s some areas we need to address. »
The Falcons are projected to be more than $30 million over the NFL’s reduced salary cap in 2021 with just 31 contracts on the roster, according to ESPN’s Roster Management System — though the league has not yet announced an official salary cap number.
They also have the No. 4 pick in the draft.
Fontenot and Smith did not know each other previously — but both spoke highly of the impressions they gained during the hiring process. And Blank said each recommended the other for their respective jobs.
Blank said he was impressed by the success Smith had in Tennessee; by the fact that three new coaches all chose to keep Smith on staff and to actually promote him along the way; and by the recommendations he got from people including Joe Gibbs. Smith was on Gibbs’ staff in Washington early in his career.
« I couldn’t be more excited about Arthur Smith. He’s special, » Fontenot added. « I think the most important thing, the most critical factor with the right head coach is to have the right leader of men. He’s a good man, he can connect to players, he can connect with everyone in the building, he’s gonna be a good communicator. He’s highly intelligent and he’s adaptive. »
Fontenot interviewed with four different teams for their GM jobs this cycle but said he knew the Falcons even better than most because he had been studying them so closely for so long as a division rival. Blank spoke highly of the perspective that Fontenot brought, as well as his winning background while working with demanding people like coach Sean Payton and general manager Mickey Loomis. Fontenot got choked up during his introductory videoconference when he talked about the opportunity that Loomis gave him to join the Saints’ scouting department when he was a 22-year-old marketing intern fresh from his days as a safety at Tulane University in New Orleans.
And the Louisiana native said his family already « bleeds black and red » now, showing off his kids in their Falcons gear.
Fontenot, 40, is now the fourth Black general manager in the NFL and the second one hired in this cycle, along with the Detroit Lions’ Brad Holmes.
« It’s really a blessing. But I don’t look at it like an accomplishment, I look at it as an opportunity, » Fontenot said. « And I take it as a challenge, because I need to be successful. I need to do things the right way and operate and be successful — or that’s not fair to the people that are gonna come after me. You know, my son’s 9 years old and he’s gonna be a GM. That’s what he told me already. So I need to make sure I operate a certain way and I do things the right way so he’s gonna have a great opportunity when it’s his time. »