Falcons General Manager Search: Rick Smith

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Last Friday, the Falcons announced via Twitter the team conducted interviews with Anthony Robinson and Rick Smith for the vacant general manager position. Chase briefly covered the two candidates shortly after the news broke on Friday, but we will take a closer look at the external candidate — Rick Smith. If you missed the Anthony Robinson article, be sure to check it out.

If Anthony Robinson is the low-key, under the radar, internal candidate, then Rick Smith is the exact opposite. Smith is a highly coveted former executive of the Houston Texans. He has been out of the NFL since 2017 but clearly seems to be a hot commodity around the league. Along with the Falcons, the Washington Football Team and Detriot Lions have reportedly shown interest in Smith.

From 2006 to 2017, he served as the Texans general manager. In 2012, he welcomed more control and a new title, becoming the team’s Executive Vice President of Football Operations and general manager. As I mentioned before, Smith left the Texans after the 2017 season. It has been well documented the foremost motive for Smith’s departure was his wife’s battle with breast cancer. Tiffany Smith passed away on January 31, 2019, a little more than a year after Rick stepped away from football.

Although Smith left his position to be with his family and care for his wife, it cannot be understated how the relationship between himself and Bill O’Brien affected his decision. By 2017, Rick and former Texans head coach Bill O’Brien, who had been hired three years earlier by owner Bob McNair with input from Rick, were having differences about how the organization was being run. After Smith decided to take a minimum 12-month leave of absence, McNair gave most of Rick’s authority to O’Brien. Rick says McNair called him to his office six months later and told him he no longer saw a place for him in the organization.

Bob McNair later passed away in November of 2018 and was succeeded by his son, Cal McNair. The Texans officially relieved Smith of his duties and his insurance provided by his former employer. It happened at Tiffany’s downfall and created a sort of resentment from her husband towards the Texans. From an article in The Athletic, Smith noted he voiced his frustrations.

A section of Rick’s journal entry on January 3 reads:

I emailed Cal. I feel better. I feel better. There was something therapeutic about expressing this and releasing it.

It is now clear, Bill O’Brien and Bob McNair played a role in driving Smith out of Houston. This decision has resulted in the Texans searching for a new head coach and general manager with an old, depleted roster and minimal draft capital to replenish it. Now that it has been said the Texans’ downfall should not be attributed to him, we can take a look at Rick Smith’s resume.

He was a Purdue Boilermaker strong safety from 1988 to 1991. Smith then served as a coach in some capacity at his alma mater until 1995, where he transitioned to coach in the NFL with the Denver Broncos until 1999. From 2000 to 2005, Smith transitioned to the front office and worked as the Broncos’ Director of Pro Personnel. He then became the NFL’s youngest general manager in 2006, succeeding Charley Casserly of the Texans.

In that role, Smith was responsible for all aspects of the football operations, including the salary cap, which could be especially attractive to the Falcons, given the unfavorable situation they face this offseason. In the Anthony Robinson article, I mentioned how it is sometimes difficult to determine who deserves credit or blame for a free agent or draft acquisition, but circumstances differ for Rick Smith.

While Robinson is the Director of College Scouting in Atlanta, Smith was the Executive Vice President of Football Operations and general manager in Houston. Though comparable, Smith’s duties and authority supersede those of Robinson. Smith can be directly credited and blamed for many of the transactions in Houston. These were some of the notable acquisitions made during his tenure with the Texans.

As you can see, Smith has an almost immaculate reputation for finding talent. The one major blemish? Quarterback. Aside from Deshaun Watson, Smith never hit on any quarterback. And though Watson seems to be well on his way to an MVP or two, for every Watson, there is a Brock Osweiler. Rick Smith is the sole reason for Houston trading up to acquire the franchise’s best quarterback in Watson, but he is also why Osweiler received a contract worth $72 million over four years.

This is not anything new, though; every great general manager has had a few blunders. The difference between an average executive and a great one is admitting the mistake and subsequently fixing it. Once it was realized that Osweiler and O’Brien were never going to work, Smith forged one of the most improbable trades in NFL history, packaging Osweiler with a second-round pick and dumping him on the Browns. He had this to say about it, “You are going to make mistakes in this business,” Smith says. “Either you admit them and find a solution, or sit in them.”

Whatever team hires him, Smith will act as more of a leader than a hands-on, day-to-day decision-maker on personnel and roster construction. From the same article, Smith noted the importance of character. “We spend so much time, resources, energy, attention on draft evaluation,” he says. “We have huge dossiers on these players, where they are from, how they learn, personal lives, social skill set, scores, their history, everything. After the draft, all that information about that player we learned doesn’t get integrated into his onboarding. I think that’s a mistake. You can onboard players and utilize all that information to put a plan together that gives them a chance to give them a better chance to be a better man, a better member of the organization, and a better football player. There is a holistic approach to player development we are missing.”

Smith wants to implement his vision. What is unclear is how it differs from the one he had in Houston. In my eyes, he is a safe hire who would bring integrity and unity to the Falcons. What do you think?

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