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Arthur Smith spent 10 years with the Tennessee Titans, rising up the ranks from quality control coach to offensive coordinator. He learned so much from so many during that time, which helped prepare him for an opportunity as the Atlanta Falcons head coach. Smith reflected on that formative period before returning to Nissan Stadium for the first time on Sunday when the Falcons play the Titans.

Story by Scott Bair

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. — Arthur Smith joined the Tennessee Titans in 2011 with a short-term goal and a long-term vision. He wasn't close to either when he called Jerry Gray as a twenty-something working at Ole Miss, looking to turn a connection with the respected defensive mind into a new opportunity in the NFL.

He had been a defensive assistant and quality control coach, respectively, with the Rebels and the NFL's Washington football team before that. Smith was a million miles from his ultimate objective of being an offensive playcaller and a head coach.

He was honest with new Titans head coach Mike Munchak when interviewing for a gig without fanfare, substantial pay or the promise of sleeping very much. Quality control is a taxing position, one that consists of considerable labor completing monotonous work to make life easier for others.

He was willing to take the job for a chance to reunite with Gray, after their time together in Washington, and join the NFL ranks. He spent a year working on defense in Tennessee before taking a step, albeit a small one, in the right direction.

Smith changed units, moving to the offensive side of the ball around his 30th birthday. He'd reached a short-term goal, but his long-term vision was nearly a decade away. The next nine years were spent all in Nashville, learning and grinding and adapting. He was a rare constant within an organization that went through four head coaches and an ownership transition. He slowly climbed the ladder with one eye on a big prize.

Smith reached his peak in 2021 when he was formally named head coach of the Atlanta Falcons. Now, just days away from a return to the place that helped shape his career, Smith sat down to discuss his tenure in Tennessee.

"It was 10 years of formative coaching," Smith said in an interview with "…The building I walked into in 2011 to the one I left at the end of the 2020 season was not the same. The change the building had done, plus the change in the NFL the way these teams operate. You know, that had been a smaller team. It was amazing the way that the business grew around you. It was fascinating to me, and the improvements that were made to the facilities, especially when Amy (Adams Strunk) took over, it was like 10 different lifetimes.

"I felt like I had worked for 10 different staffs but in the same building. Just all around, things changed so much around me. I felt like it was myself and a few guys maybe in the equipment room who had been there through it. It was strange when you go back and look at it."


The Titans changed so much over that span. So did Smith.

He'll return to Nissan Stadium on Sunday both a different version of himself and someone adhering to core values that have allowed him to advance to his current position.

He's committed to objectivity in all things, including his teams and his career. Honesty, even when it's hard to hear, has helped Smith shape and refine his offensive philosophy and his approach to culture-building, first in his position groups and then with an offensive unit in Tennessee and now an entire team here in Atlanta.

He took pieces from every head coach he worked for with the Titans, and there were a lot of them. He was hired by Munchak. He remained on staff when Ken Whisenhunt took over. He stayed when Mike Mularkey assumed control two years later. And then he had a sit-down with Mike Vrabel after his hiring, when the man he considers a friend and mentor asked him a poignant question.

It was similar to what Munchak asked him so many years before: What's your short-term goal and long-term vision?

The answer was slightly different this time around. Smith was in quality control then, wanting to coach a position, then coordinate an offense, and eventually become a head coach. When Vrabel came aboard he was a tight ends coach, with one of his stated goals complete. There were two more to go.

Play caller, then a head coach.


Vrabel was instrumental in helping Smith achieve those aims. He promoted Smith to offensive coordinator in his second season in Tennessee and stayed patient with him when the Titans got off to a slow start with Marcus Mariota. A quarterback change to Ryan Tannehill helped the league see what Smith could do as a coordinator and sent the Titans to the AFC championship game.

They were even better as an offense in 2020, ranking second in scoring and fourth in total yards. That made Smith a hot commodity to fill a head-coaching vacancy, and he got the job in Atlanta to work with general manager Terry Fontenot.

"There are guys in this business that don't have the leadership qualities that Mike Vrabel does," Smith said. "And, if you're not with somebody like that, well, it can get ugly. And I would argue that the biggest thing that helped me and helped us, which I'll always be grateful to Vrabes and loyal, is because he was in the boat with me."

When Smith took the head coaching job in Atlanta, the pair parted with a handshake, with Vrabel understanding Smith's preferred career arc.

That's why Sunday will be a homecoming of sorts. Smith hasn't thought a ton about how he'll feel being back in Nashville, but he admits that going into the visiting locker room will feel foreign. The memories from a decade working for the team will surely flood back, even though Smith is going there to do a job and get the Falcons a win.


Smith is thankful for his time with the Titans, learning so much from so many in the organization. He worked with four different head coaches and some bright offensive minds, taking something from each of them while forming a scheme and core offensive beliefs. He was exposed to so many different things without having to change his address, a true rarity in this league. He started on the bottom rung and worked his way up over a decade to the place he's at now.

"You just realize every year you're in this job, be thankful," Smith said. "There's so much you can learn if you're listening and you've got the right mindset. You put your head down and work."

That's what Smith did during his rise up the Tennessee ranks, and that's how he'll prepare his team to face the Titans in Nashville for the first time as the Falcons head coach.

"There are so many people you know, including the support staff and everyone in the organization who were there during those years," Smith said. "My kids were born there. And the other thing, too, is that I was able to leave a place on good terms because I got a promotion somewhere else. And so many of the guys I worked with, they're still there from the last staff, so that changes the dynamic. It wasn't like no one was there. It will be different because I'm so close to a lot of those guys."

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