In his first year, the expectations for Arthur Smith as head coach of the Falcons could not be higher. The optimism is palpable, partly due to the fall from grace that Atlanta fans had to deal with. In 2016, the team and fan base were riding higher than ever on the back of the league’s most dynamic and high-scoring offense. It led them all the way to the Super Bowl, where someone in the organization hit the self-destruct button, which is where the tailspin begins.
Over the course of four seasons, the Falcons never replicated the magic of 2016, and inevitably, the Dan Quinn era came to an end. Now, with a new offensive-minded head coach, Falcons fans should be excited about what is to come, but should they temper their expectations?
Although Smith is highly touted as a creative genius when attacking defenses — meshing the personalities, preferences, and idiosyncrasies of Matt Ryan and Atlanta’s new coach might take longer than their first season together. There is a possibility that the transition is seamless, and Smith picks back up right where he left in Tennessee with one of the best offenses in the league, but more than likely, the shift into a new-look offense will take time to reach its full potential.
Aaron Rodgers’ first year in Matt LaFleur’s offense resulted in what would be a career year for most quarterbacks — 62% completion percentage, over 4,000 yards, 26 touchdowns, and four interceptions. Still, it was an average season for him. In the second year, Rodgers tossed for almost 4,300 yards on 70.7% passing for 48 touchdowns and only five interceptions on his way to winning league MVP. Matt Ryan isn’t Aaron Rodgers, so let’s revisit the 2015 and 2016 seasons under Kyle Shanahan.
With Shanahan for the first time in 2015, Ryan tossed a respectable 21 touchdowns and 16 interceptions on 66.3% passing for 4,591 yards. With one year of experience in the system, Ryan lit the league on fire — an MVP year where he threw 38 touchdowns and only seven interceptions on 69.9% passing and 4,944 yards. Much like Rodgers’ leap in his second year in the offense, Ryan’s touchdown numbers jumped, and his interceptions fell — both much more efficient with a season under their belts.
I wouldn’t expect a total failure on offense; in fact, I expect Ryan to post better numbers in his first year with Smith than he did under Shanahan. If he can do that, the Falcons will have a chance to improve dramatically on their 4-12 record from a season ago. I would expect Atlanta’s win total to jump by four or five games, and usually, first-year offensive head coaches experience a similar amount of success based on their team’s win totals from the year before.
Below are recent offensive head coaches in their first year, record, and (previous year record)
Sean McVay 2017, 11-5, (4-12)
Kyle Shanahan 2017, 6-10, (2-14)
Matt Nagy 2017, 12-4, (5-11)
Frank Reich 2018, 10-6, (4-12)
Matt LaFleur 2019, 13-3, (6-9-1)
Kliff Kingsbury 2019, 5-10, (3-13)
Zac Taylor 2019, 2-14, (6-10)
Matt Rhule 2020, 5-11. (5-11)
Kevin Stafanski 2020, 11-5, (6-10)
As you can see, every single first-year head coach improved upon the previous season’s record outside of Taylor and Rhule. But of these coaches, which was fortunate enough to come to a team with a franchise quarterback? McVay had Jared Goff before his play nosedived; Reich had Andrew Luck; LaFleur had Rodgers, and Stefanski had Baker Mayfield. The Browns win differential was the fewest out of that group and still improved by five wins. How I see it, Falcons fans should expect Arthur Smith and Matt Ryan to figure out the offense together over the course of the season, experiencing an increase of four or five wins.
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