Did the Falcons Force a Pass-First Identity on Mike Smith?

Al Bruce@@AlBruce7Contributor IFebruary 6, 2017

Christian Petersen/Getty Images

When the Atlanta Falcons fell to 1-4 after their loss to the New York Jets, I told you why I thought that Falcons head coach Mike Smith will retain his job following this season even if the team finishes with a losing record.

Barring Falcons' owner Arthur Blank getting peeved if the team embarrasses him in its last two national television contests against the Saints and 49ers (Atlanta's Week 14 game in Green Bay will most likely be "flexed" out of Sunday Night Football), I still suspect that Smith will return to Atlanta next year even though things have gotten a lot worse since that Jets game.

Initially I supported my belief that Smith would be retained with the mainstream reasoning: This would be Smith's first losing season, he's won more games than any other Falcons' coach and this year's team was decimated by injuries and forced to play inexperienced players at key positions. 

While all of those are certainly logical factors to cite as reasons why Smith's head shouldn't be the one to roll when this mess is over, I'm starting to wonder if a different theory could explain why Blank and Falcons' general manager Thomas Dimitroff will be reluctant to pull the plug on Smith even if the team finishes 2-14.

If you ask most people who've followed this year's Falcons team to diagnose the squad's biggest issue, they'd probably tell you that it's a lack of physicality at the point of attack because Atlanta gets pushed around too much in the trenches on both sides of the ball.

Given what we discussed last week regarding how physicality seemed to be this team's method of operation on offense during the first three years of Smith's tenure from 2008-2010, I can't help but wonder if a blue-collar coach like Smith was all-in with this team's two-year transition into being a pass-first, finesse-style offense. 

We've been working under the assumption that Smith was on-board with this whole process, but what if Blank and Dimitroff have been forcing Smith to employ a style of football with which he isn't comfortable?

After Atlanta's 48-21 loss to the Packers in the 2011 NFC Divisional Playoffs, the team's need for an additional playmaker on offense was painfully obvious.  Enter Julio Jones via a blockbuster trade with Cleveland during the 2011 draft.  That move initiated Atlanta's transition to being the kind of pass-heavy offense it is today.

Now I'm pretty sure Smith was on board with bringing an All-Pro caliber receiver like Jones into the fold because Dimitroff probably wouldn't have made the trade if Smith wasn't in; however, what I'm curious about is whether Smith, Dimitroff and Arthur Blank envisioned the same style of product on the field once Jones was acquired. 

Perhaps Blank and Dimitroff (and a lot of Falcons fans) envisioned an explosive passing offense that rivals the ones that the Saints and Packers have. 

That sounds great in theory, but the fact is Mike Smith isn't Sean Payton or Mike McCarthy, and Matt Ryan isn't Drew Brees or Aaron Rodgers

That may explain why this team looked a little awkward even when it was winning last year.  The Falcons reacted to the NFL seemingly becoming a pass-first league largely because of their struggles against two NFC foes, but Mike Smith isn't an offensive guru in the mold of Payton or McCarthy.

BALTIMORE, MD - AUGUST 15: Head coaches Mike Smith of the Atlanta Falcons (L) and John Harbaugh of the Baltimore Ravens talk prior to the start of a preseason game at M&T Bank Stadium on August 15, 2013 in Baltimore, Maryland.  (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Im
Rob Carr/Getty Images

At his best, Smith's coaching identity is probably closer to that of John Fox's during his most successful years with the Panthers, Jeff Fishers' in Tennessee or John Harbaugh's in Baltimore

Trying to turn Smith into anything else will yield the kind of mediocre wins we saw in 2011, the narrow escapes we saw in 2012 and the lackluster plays we've seen through nine games this season.

The Saints and Packers aren't successful because they are pass-first teams, they're successful because they stay true to who they are.  In the NFL, staying true to your own identity usually takes a team a lot further than trying to mimic its opponents.

Indeed, if Blank and Dimitroff have been trying to fit a square peg into a round hole by force-feeding Smith with this finesse style of play, then they owe him another season to show what he can do when his team has his identity.

Although this team has never been as physical as it needs to be defensively under Smith, Smith's offensive unit used to dish out some punishment in the ground game, and the rest of the team fed off of that physicality.

2014 should be a make or break year for Smith, but given that, Smith should be able to sink or swim his way.  Any coaching staff or personnel changes and the decision about who to draft this offseason, as well as anything else that will directly impact the product his team puts on the field next season, should go through him.

To do otherwise would send the wrong message about the way Blank and Dimitroff do business:  "Coach for us, establish your style of play and win games; however, if you lose to an eventual Super Bowl winner in the playoffs, we'll shove a completely different style of play that doesn't mesh with your coaching identity down your throat and tell you to figure it out as you go.  If you fail at that, you're gone."

Good luck attracting a top-notch replacement for Smith after this year if you do that.