Everyone associated with the Tennessee Titans knew it was likely.
Reality hit Friday, though, when the Atlanta Falcons named Arthur Smith their head coach and ended his two-year tenure as offensive coordinator, a brief period that – by any measure – was wildly successful.
No doubt, the Titans will move quickly to replace Smith, who rose through the coaching ranks as a part of the franchise for the last decade. The plan will be to replicate his success to as great a degree as possible, although that might be easier said than done.
Here is a look at the players who likely will be most affected by Smith’s departure:
• Ryan Tannehill, quarterback: The numbers don’t lie. Tannehill was a different – and better – quarterback the last two seasons than he was during his seven years in Miami. His passer rating with the Titans has been well over 100 while he never topped 93.5 in a season for the Dolphins. He has thrown more than one touchdown for every 10 pass attempts with Tennessee as compared to one every 15 for Miami and set a career-high with 33 touchdown passes this season. Pretty much any statistic you want to name, he has been better. Plus, he and Smith have talked often about their rapport and their shared vision for the offense, and those things won’t be easily replicated with someone else.
• Anthony Firkser, tight end: Firkser currently is not under contract for 2021, but there is no reason to think the Titans don’t want him to return (of course, he could follow Smith to Atlanta). He was their fourth-leading receiver in 2020 with 39 receptions for 387 yards and – perhaps – the best example of Smith’s ability to understand what a player can and can’t do and then get the most out of him. Firkser is not the fastest or the biggest or the strongest at the position, but he was 23rd among all NFL tight ends in receptions and 26th in receiving yards. Among the Titans with at least 15 receptions, his 73.6 catch percentage was the best. Will someone else be able to get as much out of him?
• Corey Davis’ replacement: It is almost certain that the 2017 first-round pick will sign elsewhere as a free agent this offseason. Whether it is a draft pick or a free agent (expect the Titans to make a significant addition by both means), somebody is going to get plenty of opportunity as a starting wide receiver because of the attention A.J. Brown will attract as the No. 1 guy. With 65 receptions for 964 yards this season, Davis proved that being No. 2 in Smith’s offense does not mean you’re an afterthought.
• Offensive linemen who can catch: We didn’t see it this season, but in 2019 tackles David Quessenberry and Dennis Kelly caught touchdown passes (Kelly added another in the postseason). Smith’s playbook features any number of creative calls, and his two years as Titans offensive coordinator proved he is not afraid to use them. Keep in mind, he had Derrick Henry throw a touchdown pass in a playoff victory over Baltimore and started the scoring in Week 15 this season against Jacksonville with a successful flea flicker. Any big guys who think they can catch might have seen their last chance to do so vanish, if the new guy is not as bold.
• Derrick Henry, running back: Let’s face it, Henry is still going to be Henry, and coach Mike Vrabel is not going to let the next offensive coordinator retool the running game that got Henry to 2,000 yards this season. However, it is increasingly uncommon these days for play-callers to stick with the run when their team falls behind. Henry had at least 75 rushing yards in four of Tennessee’s five losses during the regular season, and he is the only NFL running back with more than 300 carries each of the last two seasons. It sounds so obvious, but Smith knew enough to give the ball to Henry and then continue to give it to him, regardless of almost any situation.