Arthur Smith was a man true to his word. On the first day of the Falcons training camp a month ago, Smith said those in attendance should plan to see Drew Dalman and Matt Hennessy frequently rotating as the first-team center. Little did anyone know at the time how much emphasis we should have put on the word "frequently."
From the first day of training camp all the way up until the first practice of Week 1, Dalman and Hennessy took turns as the starting center. One day it would be Hennessy. The next day it would be Dalman. And that pattern continued every single day thereafter.
"We're going to make it fair. We're going to evaluate it and it'll be a fair competition as best as it can be," Smith said on the first day of camp. "We've got to be intentional on the rep counts we give them and when we give them reps with the first group, the second group. It'll be a fair competition."
And truthfully, it was fair, as well as competitive.
Neither had more first-team reps than the other. Each started one game of the preseason (Hennessy in Detroit and Dalman in New York), and both later sat out in the final game against Jacksonville. There was never any solid indication which way the coaches staff was leaning throughout the entirety of the preseason. It also didn't feel like there was any significant drop off in the play of the offensive line when Dalman and Hennessy switched out. Because of this, the decision felt as though it was going to take much longer to make than perhaps anyone expected.
In the final couple weeks of the preseason, the decision loomed, but as Week 1 crept closer, the competition between the two never wavered.
"(It was) no different. From the beginning of camp until the end we really have been competing our butts off," Dalman said. "… I think both of us kind of had our head down, trying to improve ourselves and the team. But then, we kind of reached the end of the line there."
Even up until last week, though, Smith was still debating which direction he wanted to go.
"I have until 1 o'clock on September 11th (to make a decision)," Smith joked on Aug. 29. "We are close but not yet... I want to take a step back, go back through everything, so we can take emotion out of it and make a good objective decision."
So, when the weekend came, that's exactly what he did.
Smith sat down and watched everything he could from the last month of the preseason. Recalling the weekend's work, Smith seemed very convicted about making the right decision for the center position. He felt so because he knew how closely this battle was contested between the two.
Chances are Smith sat in a room in the Falcons facility in Flowery Branch and broke down the individual plays of Dalman and Hennessy, how they communicated across the offensive line, how they carried themselves in a role that requires command, and - finally - made a decision.
Speaking to media on Monday, Smith said he had made his decision, but he wouldn't share said decision until the depth chart came out on Tuesday.
When it did, it was Dalman's name slotted in as the starting center. Sure, it was a goal, a dream realized for the lineman from Stanford. However, Dalman felt peace that whatever direction Smith ultimately went that it wouldn't change his mentality as his second season in the league approached.
"I want to win games," Dalman said. "That's the only thing that truly matters."
When asked about the decision, Smith said Dalman and Hennessy made it quite difficult for him to choose. In terms of problems to have, this is likely a good one.
"It was tough, and that's because you have two really good young players," Smith said on Wednesday. "It's not an easy decision, but ultimately you get paid to make decisions."
As for why he chose Dalman over Hennessy, Smith didn't go into elaborate detail, simply saying, "it just felt like where we're at right now that we'll go with Drew."
We could perhaps infer that Smith trusted Dalman in the role because of the command he saw Dalman exhibit throughout the preseason. When asked a couple weeks into training camp what he needed to see from the two competing centers to actively see a separation between the two, Smith harped on command.
"Obviously, the physical stuff you need to see inside, but a lot of it is command," Smith said then. "... They run the show out there; right down the middle of your offense, your center, and your quarterback, if they've got command then you have a really good shot. Seeing Ben Jones do it, he helped change the culture in Tennessee, (he was) a guy that can anchor the middle and we're looking for a guy that's got that kind of command. Obviously, Alex Mack did it here and did it at a really high level. That's such an important position so obviously the minimum job requirement is being able to block your guy, but we want to see that presence as well."
With Dalman officially getting the start on Sunday against the Saints, it's likely Smith felt his presence more than Hennessy's this preseason.
However, don't forget about Hennessy just yet. In true Smith fashion, the head coach didn't write off the possibility of seeing Hennessy again down the road. It's a long season after all, and we're still figuring out the identity of this offense in Atlanta.
"That was the decision I had to make," Smith concluded. "It doesn't mean that I'm going to sit here and appoint (Dalman) to a lifetime job there, because we did have good competition."
We take a look at the top snaps from the final day of 2022 AT&T Training Camp practice in Flowery Branch on Thursday, September 1.
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