Could Chargers OC Shane Steichen Become Next Season's Arthur Smith?
Jason B. Hirschhorn
One of the biggest coaching moves of the previous offseason registered barely a blip on the radar when it occurred. Shortly after the Tennessee Titans lost offensive coordinator Matt LaFleur to a head-coaching position, they promoted little-known position coach Arthur Smith as his replacement.
A longtime assistant who served under four different head coaches with the Titans, Smith had spent the vast majority of his career working with offensive linemen and tight ends, hardly a fast track to an offensive-coordinator opportunity. Tennessee's staff featured a handful of more obvious candidates, including quarterbacks coach Pat O'Hara, wide-receivers coach Rob Moore, and running-backs coach Tony Dews. Head coach Mike Vrabel could have also reached into his coaching network that extends from the New England Patriots to the Ohio State Buckeyes.
Instead, Vrabel tabbed Smith as LaFleur's replacement, handing over the reins to an offense that finished the 2018 season ranked 27th in scoring and 21st in DVOA. Smith would have to improve an offense with largely the same personnel as his predecessor, a difficult task for even an experienced offensive coordinator.
Unsurprisingly, the early results fell mostly in line with the previous season's struggles. After a Week 1 blowout of the Cleveland Browns, the Titans scored 17 or fewer points in four of their next five games. The nadir came during a Week 6 tilt with the Denver Broncos during which Tennessee punted on its first six possessions and failed to produce a single point.
Though a disheartening defeat, the game proved to be the turning point of the Titans' season. The team benched quarterback Marcus Mariota after a third-quarter interception and inserted Ryan Tannehill, an undistinguished eight-year veteran acquired during the offseason. The change under center allowed Smith to run a more streamlined version of the offense, one that leaned more heavily on play-action passes and bulldozer running back Derrick Henry.
With those elements in place, the Titans offense transformed into an efficiency monster, improving from 28th in DVOA at the time of Mariota's benching to sixth overall. The team averaged more than 30 points the remainder of the season and never scored fewer than 20. Meanwhile, Smith's approach elevated Tannehill's play to new heights. At season's end, no starting quarterback averaged more yards per attempt (9.6) or sported a higher passer rating (117.5). As a direct result, Tennessee won seven of its final 10 games and secured a wild-card berth.
Though multiple factors contributed to the Titans' offensive rebirth, it is impossible to divorce the success from Smith's play-calling. His tactics perfectly suited Tennessee's personnel, allowing multiple members of the unit to unlock their full potential for the first time. The fruits of Vrabel's decision to promote a previously anonymous assistant to offensive coordinator could convince other teams to take a similar approach with their offenses.
Roughly 2,000 miles west of Nashville, another AFC franchise might have already made such a transition.
On Oct. 28, the Los Angeles Chargers fired longtime offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt after a disastrous stretch in which they became the first team to rush for fewer than 40 yards in four consecutive games since 1946. To fill the void, head coach Anthony Lynn handed the play sheet to Shane Steichen, a 34-year-old assistant who had served in numerous positional roles with the organization since 2011.
With the season already at the halfway point and no time to overhaul the offensive system, Steichen's first foray into play-calling proved uneven. A 26-point outburst against a heavily favored Green Bay Packers defense gave way to middling performances against the Oakland Raiders and Kansas City Chiefs. The Chargers appeared to turn the corner after scoring a season-high 45 points two games later only to fall back down to earth over the final three weeks.
Even so, the Chargers saw modest gains in offensive efficiency (improved to No. 12 in DVOA) and scoring (averaged nearly three additional points per game) under Steichen's watch, suggesting better days ahead for their maligned offense.
Whether Steichen can replicate Smith's success remains unclear. Few coaches have enjoyed as much success as Smith in their first full season running an offense, and the Chargers do not yet know whether longtime starting quarterback Philip Rivers will return for 2020.
Still, Steichen has methodically climbed the coaching ladder over the course of a decade, allowing him to learn a variety of coaching philosophies and tactics. With the arrival of the offseason, Steichen now possesses the chance to leave his stamp on Los Angeles' offense by implementing his preferred scheme as well as scout his tendencies as a play-caller. Given the offensive talent at his disposal, he should have more than enough to deliver quality results.
A similar set of circumstances helped Smith grow into one of the NFL's bright young offensive coordinators. The Chargers will find out next season whether Steichen's can chart a similar path to success.
-- Jason B. Hirschhorn is an award-winning sports journalist and Pro Football Writers of America member. Follow him on Twitter: @by_JBH