Arthur Smith is beginning his tenure as a first-time head coach in Atlanta, where he's joining a team featuring a franchise quarterback.
That same franchise is in a bit of limbo at the position because of its standing. Atlanta has missed the playoffs for three straight seasons despite not having any questions under center, and with the team far from the postseason after finishing 4-12 and firing its general manager and head coach, some have wondered whether a parting of ways is ahead between Matt Ryan and the Falcons.
Smith made one thing clear during his introductory press conference Tuesday: He and the organization need some time to determine how they see the future everywhere, including at quarterback.
"There's a long process ahead of us as we evaluate this offense," Smith said, via the Atlanta Journal Constitution's Jason Butt. "... Matt Ryan has been a terrific quarterback."
In the four seasons since Ryan won the league's Most Valuable Player award and led the Falcons to a Super Bowl appearance, the quarterback has been steady, posing a passer rating of 91 or better in each of his campaigns. Ryan has proven his generous contract valuable in his play, but the Falcons are at a turning point that could include finding a replacement for the 35-year-old.
Ryan's contract isn't the easiest to move, as it carries a dead cap number of $26.5 million for 2022. But in 2023, Ryan's dead cap number drops drastically to a mere $8.6 million in the final year of his deal. That season is still two years away, yet it makes for a potential out for the Falcons, if they can find his replacement before then.
Smith is coming off a two-year stretch in which he called an offense quarterbacked by Ryan Tannehill, who won the NFL's Comeback Player of the Year award and made the Pro Bowl in 2019, and followed that up by posting a passer rating of 106.5 in leading the Titans to an 11-5 finish and playoff appearance. Smith gained valuable experience working in Tennessee and directing Tannehill's career revival, but doesn't necessarily believe he'll employ the exact same approach with Ryan.
"(Matt) is a great leader and obviously there's a lot of things he can do, but I don't get into comparisons because we did something with Ryan," Smith said, via AtlantaFalcons.com. "It doesn't mean we're going to do the same things with Matt.
"We're going to play to Matt's strengths just like we tried to play to Ryan's strengths."
Smith said Tuesday he will call plays in Atlanta, which will be one of his responsibilities but not his primary job. Smith's top responsibility will be serving as an effective head coach for a team that has wandered into a vast forest outside the postseason for the last four years. It will take more than working with Ryan and notable teammates like Julio Jones to turn around the Falcons, Smith noted, but he believes he's joined a franchise capable of returning to prominence sooner rather than later.
"It's more than Matt and Julio (Jones)," Smith said. "There's a lot of talented players on this roster, whether you're talking about Chris Lindstrom, Grady Jarrett. … The roster today is gonna look different to September and as you get to Week 17. It's a constant evolution. There's a lot of talent here that we'll want to build off of. But I can't give you any snap judgments today because we're still early in this process."
Smith will work in tandem with new general manager Terry Fontenot, who comes to the Falcons from the division-rival Saints, a team that has served as the NFC South's standard of excellence in recent years (despite falling to division rival Tampa Bay in the Divisional Round on Sunday). They'll collectively push toward a brighter future in Atlanta, where each individual holds each other accountable, no matter who ends up taking snaps for the Falcons.
"We share the same vision," Smith said. "We have the same values. Certainly, it won't be groupthink, but Terry and I ... it will be an ultimate partnership. It will be a great collaboration, a good partnership as we look to build this team for the short term and the long term."