Arthur Smith has been around the NFL long enough to understand that "tanking" does little to nothing for the current staff employed. In fact, it probably does more harm in the short-term for perhaps marginal results in the near future.
A case could be made for the Atlanta Falcons playing this season with the intent of winning games or implode to land high draft picks and build a young foundation. Is there a right answer for a team that hasn't finished above .500 since 2017?
It depends on who you ask. For Falcons general manager Terry Fontenot, taking a step back and looking at the big picture might seem reasonable. Smith cares about wins. There's no way of sugarcoating it.
“It’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard — that a team would try to not win football games," Smith recently said in an interview with The Athletic. "If you don’t, there’s going to be consequences. OK, you’re at the top of the draft — I got it. But you’re in a very transactional phase of the National Football League right now. Trades in the draft. Trades for quarterbacks. It’s a different landscape than when Jimmy Johnson took over the Dallas Cowboys in 1989."
The Falcons have options in terms of replacing Matt Ryan at quarterback. Neither is promising enough to be the signal-caller for the next 14 seasons like Ryan was.
Marcus Mariota is a bridge option at this point. Third-round pick Desmond Ridder has the leadership skills, winning mentality and poise to compete, but third-rounders don't get many shots to prove they're capable.
Sometimes, the mid-round quarterback pans out. Russell Wilson is the best example after winning a Super Bowl during his decade run with the Seattle Seahawks. Nick Foles is another, having become a Pro Bowler under Andy Reid in Philadelphia and later returning to help the Eagles win their first title under Doug Pederson.
Atlanta spent the past two offseason ridding itself of lucrative contracts and bad deals to free up as much cap space as possible. This year, the Falcons went cheap in free agency, electing to add players such as outside linebacker Lorenzo Carter and receiver Auden Tate over proven talents like pass rusher Von Miller or receiver Odell Beckham Jr.
Few were impressed. According to MGM Sportsbook, Atlanta has an over/under win projection of 4.5 — tied with the Houston Texans for the lowest in the league. Add in its strength of schedule and its easy to understand why.
Games against the Rams, Chargers, Browns and two meetings with Tom Brady and Tampa Bay? Not an ideal start in Year 2 for Smith.
There always needs to be a balance between coaching and the front office. That isn't necessarily the case with every franchise. If the players selected by Fontenot are thriving while the team is losing, the blame is on the play-caller. If draftees struggle, but the team win even in close outings, it's a testament to coaching.
In the NFL, there's a belief that coaches want to win today while general managers want to win tomorrow. That's often true, especially with rebuilding franchises that aren't just a piece or two away from contending for even a division title.
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It seems as of now both Fontenot and Smith are on the same page. After failing to acquire Deshaun Watson from Houston, both agreed that it was best to move on from Ryan after yet another sub-.500 season.
The difference could be where Fontenot and Smith view the team entering the summer. Fontenot hasn't spoken to the public since draft weekend, in which he was cautiously optimistic about the season. Smith, meanwhile, is excited to see in what direction his offense will go.
Out with Calvin Ridley. In with Drake London. Tight end Kyle Pitts will be an instrumental part of whatever success comes next season, but pressure is on whoever plays quarterback to meet the standard.
Ridder impressed in rookie minicamp with his vocal presence and command of the huddle, though working in a helmet and shorts isn't enough to say he's the Week 1 starter.
"It was one the characteristics we liked about him," Smith said Saturday. "If he got here and was mute, I’d be a little concerned. I guess he passed Day 1 in that regard.”
A losing record with Ridder doesn't necessarily mean that he won't be starting Week 1 in 2023. Defensively, the Falcons need more pass rushing help and could be looking for a long-term No. 2 cornerback. Adding London was a start, but the team's group of receivers is still viewed by many as the league's worst.
Following a blueprint like the 2021 Texans might been keen. Davis Mills broke the franchise's first-year passing record and finished second among rookies in terms of passing. He went 2-9 as a starter, but GM Nick Caserio saw enough potential to pass on other options this offseason.
Is that the case for Fontenot and Ridder? Maybe Smith is on board if it keeps him off the hot seat entering the 2023 offseason.
Change is heading to Atlanta. Some could be positive from the start. Others could take time. Smith, however, doesn't want his status as coach to change.
It's why winning is essential for his reputation inside the walls.
“I want to win. I have an urgency to win,” Smith told The Athletic. “You’re never promised anything. You don’t know what’s going to happen a year from now, and I’m not just talking about this job, I mean with health, in life.
"We have something to prove."