ATLANTA — Arthur Smith, who inherited a rebuilding project in his first NFL head coaching job and failed to lift Atlanta from its playoff drought, was fired late Sunday night, hours after completing his third straight losing season with the Falcons.
Smith, the 41-year-old son of FedEx founder Fred Smith, finished with a record of 21-30. He went 7-10 each year.
Smith was dismissed after a 48-17 loss at New Orleans — the second-worst setback of his tenure, topped only by a 43-3 rout at Dallas in 2021. The Falcons dropped four of their last five games and were blown out in Smith’s final two contests, losing 37-17 at Chicago a week ago.
The Falcons have posted six straight losing seasons since their last playoff appearance in 2017.
After the team arrived back in Atlanta, Smith met with owner Arthur Blank and CEO Rich McKay. The firing was announced shortly after midnight, the first of what is expected to be several coaching changes around the NFL on “Black Monday.”
“Decisions like this are never easy and they never feel good,” said Blank, the 81-year-old owner who now begins the search for the the sixth full-time head coach of his two-plus decades as the Falcons’ owner.
The franchise that joined the league in 1966 is still seeking its first Super Bowl championship. Blank and McKay will lead the coaching search with input from general manager Terry Fontenot, who is keeping his job after also being hired ahead of the 2021 season.
“We have profound respect for Coach Smith and appreciate all the hard work and dedication he has put into the Falcons over the last three years,” Blank said in a statement. “He has been part of building a good culture in our football team, but the results on the field have not met our expectations.”
Smith was hired by the Falcons in 2021 after a decadelong stint as an assistant with the Tennessee Titans in which he moved up to become their offensive coordinator.
Smith didn’t feel much heat after his first two losing seasons as Atlanta dealt with major salary cap issues, the result of trading away two franchise stalwarts: quarterback Matt Ryan and receiver Julio Jones.
The expectations on Smith grew immensely this season, with Blank making it clear he expected nothing less than the team’s first trip to the playoffs since 2017 after a free-agent spending spree to improve the defense and using three straight top-10 draft picks on offensive playmakers Kyle Pitts, Drake London and Bijan Robinson.
But Smith never got reliable quarterback play, switching back and forth between Desmond Ridder and Taylor Heinicke this season.
Ridder got the start on Sunday, throwing two touchdown passes in a game that was tied 17-17 at halftime. But he tossed a crucial interception in the third quarter that led to the Saints’ go-ahead touchdown and set up another New Orleans’ score with a fumbled snap. The Falcons, meanwhile, were shut out in the second half.
Ridder finished the season with 12 touchdown passes, 12 interceptions and 12 fumbles.
“It happened too much this year,” Smith said. “The job is to consistently do it, and we didn’t do it.”
Asked about his job status following the loss, Smith added, “This is the industry that we are in. I love coaching. I would have loved to win today. Obviously, we didn’t.”
Some players spoke out in support of Smith.
“I absolutely love Coach Smith,” offensive guard Chris Lindstrom said. “I know we didn’t win the games that we’re supposed to this year. But I think the foundation of what this locker room is, there’s a lot of great things to come.”
Those great things did not come in 2023, despite one of the league’s easiest schedules. The fan base really turned on Smith after a dismal 9-7 loss to the NFL-worst Carolina Panthers in Week 15, an opponent that came in with a 1-12 record and interim coach.
Smith’s biggest downfall was failing to settle the quarterback position after Ryan — the Atlanta starter since 2008 — was traded to Indianapolis following Smith’s inaugural season.
Marcus Mariota started much of the 2022 campaign, without consistent success, before the Falcons turned to Ridder for the final four games.
Ridder, a third-round draft pick, was anointed the starter heading into his second season and it looked like the team was headed for better times after a 2-0 start.
But the young quarterback struggled with turnovers, leading Smith to make a switch in early November to Heinicke. After two losses with Heinicke as the starter, the Falcons again turned to Ridder, with the coach saying he didn’t want to keep going back and forth.
Then came the loss to the league’s worst team on a dreary day in Charlotte before a largely empty stadium.
Clinging to a 7-6 lead midway through the fourth quarter, Ridder led a potentially clinching drive deep into Carolina territory — only to throw a pass that was so ill-advised, it was hard to even tell which receiver he was trying to hit.
Carolina made the gift interception and drove nearly the length of the field to milk the remaining time on the clock, kicking a chip-shot field goal as time expired.
The loss knocked Atlanta out of a three-way tie for first place in the NFC South and largely sealed Smith’s fate. Livid fans flooded social media with post demanding that Blank “#FireArthurSmith” amid griping that Smith only got his job because of his billionaire father’s relationship with the Atlanta owner.
Ridder was benched again, with Heinicke reclaiming the job before being held out of the final game due to an ankle injury.
Smith was hired largely based on his offensive success with the Titans. But he never developed a dynamic unit in Atlanta.
He was heavily criticized for conservative play-calling and failure to take advantage of Pitts, London and Robinson. Most telling, the team produced more than 30 points only once during his tenure. Atlanta was 26th in the league in scoring this season, averaging 18.9 points per game.
Smith’s most daring call might have been growing a mustache ahead of the 2023 season. He shaved it off in frustration after a last-minute loss to the Minnesota Vikings, only to grow it back — then shave it off again.
“After significant thought and reflection, we have determined the best way forward for our team is new leadership in the head coaching position,” said Blank, who was scheduled to address the coaching change at a news conference Monday afternoon.
Blank struck out on several of his hiring decisions, most infamously with Bobby Petrino walking out on Atlanta after just 13 games. Smith joined Jim Mora as coaches who were fired by Blank after just three seasons.
Mike Smith and Dan Quinn had more success, though both were fired by Blank when their fortunes turned. Smith became the first coach to guide the Falcons to back-to-back winning seasons, while Quinn’s tenure will always be remembered for the team squandering a 28-3 lead to Tom Brady and the New England Patriots in the Super Bowl after the 2016 season.
Other than Petrino, Blank has never hired anyone with previous head coaching experience, which might lead him to seek out candidates who have led a team at the pro or college level this time around.
No matter who comes in, the biggest issue facing the team remains the quarterback position. The Falcons struck out in their attempts to trade for Deshaun Watson and didn’t pursue a deal for Lamar Jackson because of concerns about his injury history, leaving largely the same predicament that they were in when Smith arrived with an aging Ryan as his quarterback.
Now, it falls to the next coach.
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