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VOL. 45 | NO. 4 | Friday, January 22, 2021

Smith earned his ascension to NFL head coach

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Tennessee Titans offensive coordinator Arthur Smith, right, has departed, accepting the head coaching position with the Atlanta Falcons. He helped the Titans become one of the top offenses in the NFL this season and running back Derrick Henry eclipse 2,000 yards rushing.

-- Photo By Phelan M. Ebenhack | Ap

Arthur Smith took the road less traveled in becoming an NFL head coach when he could have been on Easy Street.

Smith was named head coach of the Atlanta Falcons this past week, just days after wrapping up his second season as the Titans offensive coordinator and after a decade spent in the organization working a variety of mostly low-level roles under four different head coaches.

Smith slowly worked his way through the ranks of quality control assistant all the way up to offensive coordinator in 2019, and once he got his chance set about sending the Titans once-moribund offense to heights never imagined with Derrick Henry, Ryan Tannehill and A.J. Brown.

Smith didn’t have to climb the coaching ladder the way he did, although his approach definitely ups the respect factor for how he accomplished his goal.

He is the son of billionaire FedEx chairman and Memphis resident Fred Smith. So had Arthur wanted to pursue the family business, he likely could have been a big cog in a very big company.

Even after choosing football as a career, he could have taken a shortcut there, too, because his father is a minority owner in the Washington franchise after having dabbled in some of Memphis’ pro football ventures in the past.

But kudos to Arthur Smith for earning his own way. In fact, unless he is asked specifically about his famous father, the subject rarely comes up.

And that is a credit to Arthur Smith for carving out his own career and his own path – though in fairness, Arthur’s turn, unlike his father’s company motto – did not come overnight.

Even as he became a hot commodity after many years of simmering on the coaching back burner, Smith did not change his approach.

“You have to compartmentalize. You can’t worry about things that are coming down the road. That’s just kind of how I’ve lived my life,” he said just before the playoffs when his name was being floated as a head coaching candidate.

“I’ve focused on the task at hand. It’s not right to cheat the job you’re in. I’ve never thought like that.”

It speaks volumes for Smith that he joined the Titans as a quality control coach during Mike Munchak’s first season as head coach in 2011, then continued through the staffs of Ken Whisenhunt, Mike Mularkey and, finally, Mike Vrabel.

Those are four very different personalities, and Smith managed to impress all of them enough to keep rising to higher positions.

“Arthur would do a great job. I’ve got a lot of respect for Arthur,” Vrabel said when it became apparent that Smith would get one of this offseason’s head coaching jobs.

“Arthur’s always done the best job in the job that he’s had, hasn’t worked telephones and tried to undercut anybody. He’s always come to work. I have a lot of trust in Arthur as a person, first and foremost. I know he’d do a fantastic job leading anybody’s team.”

Vrabel’s comments about Smith and the respect that he has for him was echoed by the Titans players he will be leaving.

“Arthur deserves everything he gets,’’ guard Rodger Safford says. “He’s done a fantastic job as a motivator and in being an instructor in teaching everybody the offense and teaching it the way it needs to be played.

“He’s been boisterous. He really deserves everything he gets. He’s definitely going to be a big loss for this team.”

Tannehill, too, is sorry to see Smith go, but like Saffold and Vrabel is happy to see Smith’s hard work rewarded with a head coaching gig.

“He’s a great coach all the way around,” Tannehill said before the Atlanta announcement. “Everything that you look for in a coach and a leader and a great offensive mind, he does a good job with. I’d love to have Art back, but if he does get a job it’s well deserved.”

Smith’s career got its first real boost when Whisenhunt was fired during the Titans’ train wreck of a season in 2015. Mularkey was the choice of Amy Adams Strunk to be interim coach to finish out the season, and Smith, serving then in an assistant tight ends coach, was bumped up by Mularkey to be the coach of that position group.

Smith had a benefit of coaching Delanie Walker, who was the Titans’ best offensive weapon at that time, and did well enough in his short trial that Mularkey kept him on when the interim tag was removed at season’s end.

As the Titans began to ascend and improve, Smith also showed a knack for developing young players. It was enough that Vrabel, who mostly cleaned out Mularkey’s staff when taking over in 2018, held on to Smith as his tight ends coach.

A year later, Vrabel turned to Smith, who had never called plays before, to replace Matt LaFleur as his offensive coordinator when LaFleur became the Packers head coach.

The long and winding road for Smith has now paid off as he takes over a talented but underachieving Falcons team to try and turn them around. The Falcons won out, beating out six other teams that all had Smith high on their wish list this offseason.

For Smith, the right and respected approach paid off.

“I just focus on the job at hand,” Smith says. “If things work out they work out.”

Instead, his action and the corresponding results paid off in the end.

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