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How the Falcons got here: Atlanta parts ways with head coach Arthur Smith

The Falcons finished their third consecutive season with a 7-10 record on Sunday after loss to rival Saints. 

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- In his final press conference as the Atlanta Falcons head coach, in the moments following a 48-17 loss to the New Orleans Saints to end the 2023 season, Arthur Smith was questioned about his job status. The Falcons had just finished their third consecutive season with a 7-10 record.

Smith was asked to make a case as to why he believed he should continue as the Falcons head coach into 2024.

"With any job, you got a lot of confidence, but I am not going to give a state of the union right now on everything that's happened the last three years," Smith said Sunday evening. "… The season just ended. It wasn't the result we needed today, and clearly the second half got out of hand. Credit to New Orleans."

And though Smith didn't break down the last three seasons in Atlanta on the record after the loss, that doesn't mean owner Arthur Blank -- who sat a few feet away from Smith in that press conference -- wasn't thinking about the state of the Falcons union in that moment.

So, how did the Falcons get to this point? Let's go back in time.


Arthur Smith and general manager Terry Fontenot were hired in January 2021. The duo had never met prior to the interview process that led them to work together in Atlanta. Quickly, they began putting their staffs together. Smith hired Dave Ragone as the Falcons offensive coordinator and Dean Pees coached the defense. Smith announced in his introductory press conference that he would be calling plays for the offense, a role he maintained throughout his three seasons in Atlanta.

The outside narrative around Smith and Fontenot's first two years with the Falcons, though, had less to do with the coaching staff and front office and more to do with the salary cap constraints placed upon them.

Together, Smith and Fontenot inherited one of the most significant salary cap deficits in the league at the time. At the start of 2021, Atlanta had its work cut out for it to get under the salary cap. It wasn't going to be a one-year process to see the cap return to health, especially considering the negative effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on the league cap size, which has since increased by roughly $42 million.

At the time of their hire, the Falcons had Matt Ryan, Julio Jones, Deion Jones and many others under contract. Those deals were heavy, and it was natural for the Falcons to move on from them. After drafting tight end Kyle Pitts with the No. 4 overall pick in the 2021 NFL Draft, the second big move of this regime was moving on from Julio Jones. The Falcons sent Julio Jones to Tennessee for a second- and fourth-round pick in the 2022 NFL Draft.

Over the next two years, the Falcons roster was pieced together with mid-level veteran free agents on short-term deals and young players on rookie contracts. It was all they could afford. Still, the Falcons were competitive.

In 2021, with Ryan as the Falcons starting quarterback, Atlanta outperformed what many predicted at the onset of that regular season. However, even with this notion in mind, the Falcons ranked in the bottom of the league in scoring as an offense, coming in at 26th in the league in points per game. They finished the season 7-10 and with the No. 8 overall pick in the 2022 NFL Draft. It was a pick Atlanta used on wide receiver Drake London. However, before getting to that point, the Falcons made headlines regarding the quarterback position and its future in Atlanta.

Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan #2 talks with head coach Arthur Smith during the game against the New Orleans Saints at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta, Georgia on Sunday, January 9, 2022. (Photo by Matthew Grimes/Atlanta Falcons)

The Falcons explored the prospect of signing different options at quarterback, including Deshaun Watson. The organization ultimately decided to move on from Ryan in March 2022, sending him to Indianapolis in exchange for a third-round draft pick. On the same day the Ryan deal was finalized, the Falcons agreed to terms to sign quarterback Marcus Mariota to a two-year deal.

Mariota had worked with Smith at Tennessee after the quarterback was drafted in 2015 out of Oregon. In the draft two months later, the Falcons used a fourth-round pick on Cincinnati quarterback Desmond Ridder, who would be Mariota's backup to begin the year.

The 2022 season was similar to that of the season before. The Falcons still had serious cap constraints and had to be strategic about how they pieced together their 53-man roster, again using veteran free agents on one-year deals, young players and rookies to fill the roster out. The dead money hit placed on the Falcons following Ryan's departure was the most expensive dead money load of any singular player in the league's history. At the time, Fontenot and Smith said they would take the hit on the chin in order to have better cap health in 2023.

When the 2022 season came to an end, the Falcons had improved as an offense from bottom in the league in scoring to middle-of-the-pack. This shift was thanks in part to a rejuvenated run game with the likes of Cordarrelle Patterson and fifth-round pick Tyler Allgeier. Atlanta was a top-five team in nearly every statistical rushing category that year. Mariota played a part in those stats, too, but costly mistakes had the Falcons choosing to move Ridder into the starting quarterback role in the final four games of 2022.

Again, the Falcons finished the season 7-10 with the No. 8 overall pick in the 2023 NFL Draft.

Atlanta Falcons quarterback Marcus Mariota #1 talks to head coach Arthur Smith on the sideline during the second half against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Florida on Sunday, October 9, 2022. (Photo by Doug DeFelice/Atlanta Falcons)

However, despite the similar outcome to the year before, the 2023 offseason felt different, more optimistic. The Falcons had finally fought their way out of salary cap difficulties. As the new league year began in March, the Falcons right near the top of the league in cap space. The first round of free agency saw the Falcons pump resources into its defense. They hired Ryan Nielsen to take over for a retired Pees as defensive coordinator and the Falcons dealt out important contracts to players like Jessie Bates III, David Onyemata, Kaden Elliss and Calais Campbell.

Offensively, the Falcons brought NFL journeyman Taylor Heinicke in as Ridder's backup. The Falcons made the decision early in 2023 that Ridder would be the starting quarterback in 2023. And after the Falcons used their No. 8 overall pick on Bijan Robinson, the offensive weapons were plentiful. As training camp began, hope and optimism ran high.

Once the 2023 season began, though, that hope slowly chipped away. Key losses to the Cardinals, Panthers and Commanders offset any good feelings the Falcons had about its season as the NFC South title slipped further and further out of reach. An offense that was once lauded by Smith and others in the preseason as "fun," "explosive" and "position-less" became unproductive, with ill-timed turnovers and inconsistent play plaguing the unit and keeping it out of the end zone.

As Week 18 came to an end Sunday, the Falcons had only scored 32 touchdowns in 2023, coming in as the 26th-least productive scoring offense in the league. As a quarterback trio, Ridder (15 game appearances), Heinicke (five appearances) and Woodside (who went in for Ridder in the final quarter of Sunday's loss) combined for 17 interceptions on the year. That number tied for the fifth-worst in the league in interceptions. Added to the 13 fumbles committed by the team this year, the Falcons accumulated 30 total turnovers through 17 games.

Again, the Falcons finished the season 7-10 with the No. 8 overall pick in the 2024 NFL Draft.

In the end, Smith's three-year tenure as head coach for the Falcons resulted in three losing seasons and a 21-30 overall record.

Atlanta Falcons head coach Arthur Smith and quarterback Desmond Ridder #9 during practice at Atlanta Falcons Training Facility in Flowery Branch, Ga. on Wednesday, November 8, 2023. (Photo by Shanna Lockwood/Atlanta Falcons)

In a late-night release after the Falcons 2023 season ended, Blank said in a statement that though Smith had been a part of building a good culture with the team, "the results on the field have not met our expectations."

"We have determined the best way forward for our team is new leadership in the head coaching position," Blank said via the statement released by the Falcons. 

Fontenot remains the Falcons general manager and will have input as the Falcons enter a coaching search, with Blank and team CEO Rich McKay leading the way.

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