Falcons hypothetical head coach opening considered among the best

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The Falcons are spinning their wheels in the third year of the new regime’s tenure. Despite a vast investment in the roster this offseason, Arthur Smith and Terry Fontenot find themselves in a similar position as they’ve been in each of the last two seasons.

The club sits one game under .500 through 13 contests and is in second place in the NFC South. There’s a clear path to a postseason berth, which would end a five-year drought. Winning out would surely give Smith his first taste of playoff football as a head coach.

However, fans’ confidence seems to be waning because the Falcons are coming off a frustrating loss to the Buccaneers in a game that they had multiple chances to win, which would’ve given Atlanta a stranglehold on the division.

If the club misses the playoffs for the third season under Arthur Smith, there will be questions that need answering, especially at the quarterback position. Despite that, those inquiries won’t target the head coach, barring a collapse to end the season. According to reports, Smith’s job is safe. He will be back in Atlanta next season unless there’s some sort of implosion.

So, it’s certainly not impossible, but I’d describe it as very unlikely. But if the job did open, it would be a desirable one. ESPN’s Bill Barnwell explored ten potential head coach openings and ranked them from best to worst, and the Falcons hypothetical job ranked third.

Below are the full rankings with the pros and cons of each from Barnwell’s point of view.

10. Carolina Panthers

Pros: Young defensive talent, weak division, leverage for longer deal
Cons: Impatient ownership, questions about quarterback, draft capital

9. Las Vegas Raiders

Pros: No income tax
Cons: Erratic ownership, limited talent on roster, difficult division

8. New Orleans Saints

Pros: Weak division, big names on roster
Cons: Oldest team in league, terrible cap situation, some missing draft capital

7. Washington Commanders

Pros: Halo effect from new ownership, low expectations, draft capital
Cons: Subpar facilities, lack of star talent at key positions, need to rebuild culture

6. Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Pros: Talent on both sides of the ball, no income tax, easy division
Cons: No franchise quarterback, difficult cap situation

5. New England Patriots

Pros: Draft capital, potential path to a quarterback, defense, stable ownership
Cons: Old roster devoid of offensive talent, fan base agitating for success, shadow of greatest coach ever

4. New York Jets

Pros: Defense, veteran quarterback, immediate chances of success
Cons: Draft capital, lofty expectations, quarterback uncertainty post-2024

3. Atlanta Falcons

Pros: Patient ownership, young talent, subpar division
Cons: Major questions at quarterback, possibility of a limited budget after a 2023 spending spree

2. Los Angeles Chargers

Pros: Franchise quarterback, top-end talent on both sides of the ball, location
Cons: Lofty expectations, perennial home-field disadvantage, roster in transition, division

1. Chicago Bears

Pros: Draft capital, access to potential star quarterback, young roster
Cons: High-stakes decision to be made immediately, significant work needed on line of scrimmage

Now, let’s dig into what Barnwell said about Atlanta’s opening.

The Falcons are like the NFC’s version of the Bengals. Cincinnati used the draft to stock up with playmakers and went through free agency to build its defense. So did Atlanta. The Falcons have a better offensive line, but the general roster-building plan is similar.

There’s one very significant difference. The Bengals used the No. 1 pick in 2020 to land Joe Burrow. The Falcons passed on Justin Fields to draft Kyle Pitts in 2021, selected Desmond Ridder in the third round of the 2022 draft, then didn’t move up to take Anthony Richardson with the No. 3 pick in 2023. Bijan Robinson has been exciting as a rookie, but the preseason talk about how he was going to be used as a unique playmaker has mostly turned out to be nonsense. Robinson has six catches for 58 yards on 46 routes out of the slot all season, and 33 of those yards came on a glorified jet sweep last Sunday.

While the offense has dominated the conversation, the defense has been what has fueled the Falcons. With Jessie Bates III in the middle of an All-Pro season, the Falcons rank seventh in QBR allowed and expected points added (EPA) per play. It’s an unfamiliar concept in Atlanta, where the defense hasn’t been above-average since 2017, but this is the best defense it has rolled out in a long time.

So, the Falcons have a resurgent defense, exciting young playmakers (who rarely see the ball) and a quarterback who has already been benched once in 2023. A new coaching regime would have no allegiance to Ridder, who ranks 24th in QBR with four games to go. There will be some coaches who see a Falcons opening and think that they could make better use of Atlanta’s highly drafted receivers with better quarterback play and more obvious playcalling.

I don’t disagree with anything in Barnwell’s assessment because the quarterback position has been the thing holding the Falcons back. Desmond Ridder has proven capable of starting in a pinch, providing immense support for his teammates and doing anything necessary to help his team win — that’s all the attributes of a premier backup quarterback.

However, his inability to consistently protect the football will be his downfall. Ridder has produced just about more turnover-worthy plays than any signal caller in the league, and it’s capped the offense’s ceiling. Still, I think Barnwell is missing an important factor in all of this.

The Falcons have only invested a measly third-round pick and a couple of cheap free agent deals in the quarterback position. No, they don’t have the franchise guy, like the Chargers, who should undoubtedly be ahead of the Bears because of Justin Herbert, but they have immense resources to find one.

Atlanta has all of its draft picks, and though Barnwell noted a potentially limited budget because of the spending spree last season, that’s not the case. The Falcons could have as much as $45 million in cap space this offseason with a couple of cuts. With an arsenal of draft capital and more than enough future cap space, the hypothetical head coach would have plenty at his disposal to find the franchise quarterback he desires.

Arthur Blank has generally been one of the NFL’s most patient team owners, which is a reason this opening is unlikely to become available. Jim Mora got three years. Bobby Petrino left after one year, but Mike Smith was in the job for seven seasons. Dan Quinn was fired partway through his sixth season. Then again, Mora, Mike Smith and Quinn all made the playoffs within two seasons of taking over; Arthur Smith would be finishing his third season without a playoff berth if the Falcons don’t make it in 2023.

Will Blank want to spend heavily on a quarterback? He has never hesitated to back his coaches before, but the Falcons went on a spending spree last offseason, signing six of their 10 most oft-used defensive players this season in free agency while also handing out big contracts to offensive linemen Kaleb McGary and Chris Lindstrom. The Falcons have over $30 million in cap space, so they’ll have room to work with, but most coaches prefer to be present during the season when the vast majority is spent, not the year after. Given that there’s still room in the budget and enough to be excited about around the questions at quarterback, I suspect the Falcons would draw plenty of interest if we see a split between the league’s two Arthurs after the year.

Though fans might not be very fond of Arthur Blank, I’d wager most, if not all potential head coaching candidates would love to work under the Falcons owner because he will put his money where his mouth is and is also more patient than most other owners. Those are desirable attributes.

I don’t think the gig will be available this offseason, but there’s a reason why Barnwell ranked the opening third; it’s desirable. It’s one quarterback away from being one of the situations in the entire league.

Photographer: Rich von Biberstein/Icon Sportswire

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