Arthur Smith, Ryan Tannehill and Derrick Henry are indelibly linked, for better or for worse.
Smith, the new Atlanta Falcons head coach got his first big break when he was promoted to Tennessee Titans offensive coordinator after Matt Lafleur left to coach Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers in 2019.
In his two seasons, Smith guided Tannehill to a career resurgence that included NFL Comeback Player of the Year in 2019 and helped Henry become a two-time NFL rushing champion and one of eight players in league history to rish for more than 2,000 yards in a season.
“When he [Tannehill] took over, it just clicked,” Smith this said on The Cris Collinsworth Podcast. “What we wanted to do really fit his skillset. And really Derrick, it was a practicality. Derrick is the outlier. The number of carries he had, and when he gets going, it’s impressive to watch. So, it all kind of gelled together.”
Henry and Tannehill each their best seasons in 2020, the last with Smith as their play-caller.
With Henry, it was 2,027 rushing yards and a league-leading 17 rushing touchdowns That made the Titans the only team in NFL history to have multiple 2,000-yard rushers. Chris Johnson rushed for 2,006 yards in 2009,
While Henry gashed teams on the ground, Tannehill found consistency with his arm through the air.
The quarterback, originally acquired by Tennessee to be Marcus Mariota’s backup, sits atop the NFL in QBR since 2019 (110.6). Over that same span, he leads the NFL in yards per pass attempt (8.55) and was one of three quarterbacks to receive a 90-plus grade, posting a 92.5 in 2019 and a 90.3 in 2020, according to Pro Football Focus.
Last season, the Titans won the AFC South division for the first time since 2008.
So, with the play of Henry and Tannehill, it’s no surprise that the Smith views the recent trade between his current and former clubs for Julio Jones as a win-win situation. Atlanta needed a way to get under the shrinking cap, and the Titans desperately needed another elite playmaker. Getting Jones’ $15.3 million off of the books for this season aided the Falcons, but it gave the Titans’ offense another wrinkle.
“We knew the issue with the cap, and then obviously the cap went down this year, coming off the bizarre year with the pandemic, the cap actually shrunk. So we knew there were going to be some big decisions we would have to make coming up. The way everything worked out, we feel pretty good," Smith said. "We feel like it was a win-win. With the salary cap, and Julio going to Tennessee and us right now being able to solve our short-term issue with the cap.”
With Tennessee sending Atlanta draft compensation, getting Jones off the books didn’t immediately make the Falcons better, but the organization is playing the long game with Smith.
Meanwhile, the Titans are in win-now mode with Tannehill, Henry, A.J. Brown and now Jones. To Smith, this deal addressed each organization’s individual goals. And though he’s in Atlanta, Smith still has some praise for the team he helped coach.
“I will always be very loyal and grateful for [Titans coach] Mike Vrabel,” Smith said. “There were a lot of lessons learned, and I can’t say enough about Mike Vrabel’s leadership at that time... I got to experience a lot and came out the other side.”