ATLANTA (AP) — 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 season with the Falcons.
Smith, the 41-year-old son of FedEx founder Fred Smith, went 7-10 in each of his three seasons. The Falcons’ 48-17 loss at New Orleans was the second consecutive lopsided defeated that sealed Smith’s fate, following a 37-17 loss at Chicago.
The Falcons have posted six straight losing seasons since their last playoff appearance in 2017.
Smith was hired by the Falcons in 2021 after a decade-long stint as an assistant with the Tennessee Titans, moving 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 after trading away two franchise stalwarts: quarterback Matt Ryan and receiver Julio Jones.
The expectations on Smith grew immensely this season, with owner Arthur 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.
Asked about his job status following Sunday’s loss to the Saints, Smith said, “Sure, as I’ve said many of times, we know the industry that we’re in. I love doing what I’m doing. Also, like I’ve told you many times, this is the industry that we are in. I love coaching. I would have loved to win today. Obviously, we didn’t.”
When asked what he told his players, Smith said, “These guys have been such a privilege to work with. … They worked extremely hard all season. To clearly come up short … I appreciate the hell out of them. I love coaching this team.”
Some players spoke out in support of Smith.
“I absolutely love coach Smith,” right guard Chris Lindstrom said. “I love the staff. 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 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.
“The job is to win games and get into the playoffs,” Smith acknowledged. “Definitely a tough pill to swallow.”
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 first season.
Journeyman Marcus Mariota started much of the 2022 campaign, without much 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 on Sunday due to an ankle injury. Ridder threw an interception and lost a fumble in the second half following a strong start that included two touchdown passes.
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