Among past Falcons head coaches, Arthur Smith’s first season at the helm wasn’t spectacular by any means. Dan Quinn finished 8-8 in 2015. Mike Smith and Jim Mora won 11 games on their way to playoff berths in 2008 and 2004, respectively; Dan Reeves went 7-9 in 1997, while Jerry Glanville finished the worst out of the bunch, only winning five games in 1990.
Though some of those men found success in Atlanta, a couple making it to Super Bowls, they were all eventually fired for various reasons without bringing the city a championship. It is way too early to tell whether Arthur Smith is the man to bring the Falcons to the promise land, but we can compare him to his peers and see how he stacks up against other rookie head coaches around the league.
Let’s begin with two coaches that a vast majority of people would agree had worst years than Smith — Urban Meyer and David Culley. The former being one of the worst hires in NFL history, potentially dethroning the Falcons debacle with Bobby Petrino. Meyer was an unmitigated disaster in every facet of being a head coach — hiring Chris Doyle despite the controversy surrounding the strength coach, berating his assistants and calling them losers, threatening to fire subordinates who leaked information to the media, kicking Josh Lambo, trying to revive Tim Tebow‘s career, or questionably benching James Robinson.
It might be recency bias, but Meyer’s tenure that included only two wins is the worst first season as a head coach in league history. It failed miserably, and Shad Khan is the only one to blame. Being fired after only 13 games makes Meyer the worst of these rookie head coaches by far. The Falcons, much like the rest of the league, had a get-right game with Jacksonville on the schedule.
On the other hand, Culley could be defended because he was essentially set up to fail. From the start, it always seemed like Culley would be a stopgap in Houston as ownership waited for the candidate they really wanted. The Falcons were more competitive throughout the season than the Texans, but that shouldn’t reflect poorly on Culley. The Texans are one of the worst ran franchises in sports, and the long-time assistant was never going to be able to mitigate that disaster, especially amid the Deshaun Watson scandal.
Dan Campbell didn’t win many games this year, but he’s inspired a city that is so used to failure. The Lions, much like the Texans and Jaguars, have been a poorly run franchise for many years; what Campbell did in Detroit is astounding. The Lions were competitive in nearly every game they played on their way to being the third-most profitable team against the spread in 2021. Campbell only won three games, but his players love suiting up for him. I’m higher on him than most. If Brad Holmes can put together a competitive roster, the Lions could surprise some folks in the future.
Robert Saleh had an equally disappointing year as the others, but the Jets are also historically one of the bigger jokes in football. New York had a rookie quarterback in Zach Wilson but navigated the season with Mike White after the former BYU Cougar went down with injury. Saleh had impressive wins over the Bengals and Titans, both playoffs teams — something Smith never did with the Falcons, finishing 0-7 against teams in the postseason with a much better quarterback. Saleh may have had a better year considering all of those things, even if the Falcons beat the Jets in London.
Brandon Staley had an incredible season until he fell on his face at the finish line. He had the Chargers squarely in the playoffs for much of the year up until the end of the season. The Chargers dropped three out of their last four games, including one against Culley and the Texans. He also had the timeout blunder against the Raiders in the final week. The Chargers look to be headed in the right direction with Justin Hebert under center, but some of these mistakes have me questioning Staley a little bit.
The last rookie head coach is the only one to make the postseason — Nick Sirianni. The Falcons got a first-hand experience of what he’s done with the Eagles after being blown out in the season opener. Philly struggled after that, though, standing at 1-4 through five weeks. But what is so impressive is how Sirianni’s team finished, going 7-3 to end the season, which included a loss to the Cowboys without the starters playing. Compared to these other rookie head coaches, Sirianni should be heralded for his first season.
I would put Smith’s first season behind Sirianni and Staley’s respective years; however, I wouldn’t necessarily put him above the others. He’s ahead of Culley and Meyer, but there are real arguments to be had for Campbell and Saleh. Smith’s Falcons won more games than the Lions and Jets, but those three are in the same conversation. Smith was fortunate to have Matt Ryan because I couldn’t imagine this team with Zach Wilson or Jared Goff.
Final rookie head coach rankings
1. Nick Sirianni
2. Brandon Staley
3. Dan Campbell
4. Arthur Smith
5. Robert Saleh
6. David Culley
7. Urban Meyer
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