Arthur Smith has heard just about everything in his short time as the Atlanta Falcons' head coach. The franchise received some outside criticism from fans and media after it traded Matt Ryan to the Colts this offseason. The criticism increased after the Falcons opted not to pursue another big-name veteran to replace Ryan, instead signing former Titans quarterback Marcus Mariota.
A narrative is growing that the Falcons are putting themselves in position to select one of the top quarterback prospects in next year's draft, a group that is expected to be headlined by Ohio State's C.J. Stroud and Alabama's Bryce Young. Smith, however, has strongly dismissed the notion that the franchise isn't trying to win games in 2022.
"This is a waste of your time and my time if you want to talk about '23," Smith said in an interview with The Athletic. "It's the dumbest thing I've ever heard — that a team would try to not win football games. If you don't, there's going to be consequences.
"OK, you're at the top of the draft — I got it. But you're in a very transactional phase of the National Football League right now. Trades in the draft. Trades for quarterbacks. It's a different landscape than when Jimmy Johnson took over the Dallas Cowboys in 1989. It was pre-free agency. The famous Herschel Walker trade. They blew it up and went 1-15, and … it was a long rebuild. That is not the same NFL as today. Back then, people would've given their first born before they gave their picks away. People are still going off old narratives, and it's comical. Any good team knows how to rebuild every year."
Smith is right in his assessment on the current value of draft picks. The Rams, the reigning Super Bowl champions, haven't had a pick in the first round since 2016. Los Angeles has decided instead to trade those picks for proven commodities, like cornerback Jalen Ramsey and quarterback Matthew Stafford. Other teams have followed suit; eight teams were without first-round picks in last month's draft after trading them in prior transactions.
The Falcons' second-year head coach also defended the team's decision to trade Ryan, a former league MVP and one of the most decorated players in franchise history. Ryan's immediate successor is expected to be Mariota, who five years ago helped lead the Titans to the second round of the playoffs. Atlanta used a third-round pick to select Desmond Ridder, who last fall helped lead the Cincinnati Bearcats to the College Football Playoff.
"At some point, you'd have to (trade him)," Smith said of Ryan while adding that restructuring his contract, "would be just opening another credit card to pay off debt."
Atlanta has had some lean years following their 2016 Super Bowl appearance. The Falcons haven't made the playoffs since 2017 and have averaged fewer than seven wins per season since the '17 campaign. Things bottomed out in 2020, when Atlanta went 4-12 while suffering through its wort season since 2013.
Things appeared to start to the turn in the right direction in 2021, Smith's first season in Atlanta. As is the case with most rebuilding teams, the 2021 Falcons came up short against the their toughest opponents, teams that included division rivals Tampa Bay and New Orleans. Smith's team was able to largely handle its business against some of the weaker teams on the schedule. The Falcons were also able to post an impressive win over a Dolphins team that finished with a winning record.
Atlanta received quick returns from Kyle Pitts, last year's first-round pick who earned Pro Bowl honors after going over 1,000 yards receiving. Smith was also lauded for the way he utilized the talents of Cordarrelle Patterson, who ran for six touchdowns and caught five more scores.
Smith and Falcons GM Terry Fontenot are looking to build a roster that can compete on a year-to-year basis. While the plan may requite patience, Smith believes that patience will be rewarded with longterm success.
"Terry and I have a shared vision how to build this thing in the long term and also compete in the short term," Smith said. "You can't keep selling hope all the time. You have to have that buy-in. Is it going to be a perfect year? No. But you need to have a program like Pittsburgh that can sustain success, that wins year after year, and even in down years, it's going to be a dogfight to play them. You have to have something to sell. Otherwise, you're just a politician."