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It’s best to see what Arthur Smith can do as the Steelers next OC

That reaction you read and heard on Tuesday when word leaked that Arthur Smith, the most recent head coach of the Atlanta Falcons, would be the Steelers’ next offensive coordinator, was the exact opposite reaction you read and heard when news surfaced that Matt Canada was fired as the team’s OC last November 21.

That was also on a Tuesday.

The celebrations were so widespread that you could almost feel them wherever you were. People were excited about the possibilities. Where would the Steelers’ offense go from there? Turns out, not much of anywhere until Kenny Pickett suffered an ankle injury and was ultimately replaced as the starting quarterback by Mason Rudolph.

Pittsburgh had a nice little run to close out the 2023 regular season and snuck into the playoffs as the final seed, before being tossed back out of them in the wildcard round.

But days later, during his season-ending press conference, head coach Mike Tomlin said he would look externally for the team’s next offensive coordinator. It would be someone with play-calling experience.

Anyway, the possibilities again were endless. Steelers fans were in search of love, an offense they could love, that is. You know what it’s like when you’re looking for love and fantasizing about it. You conjure images of affection, bliss, and holding hands on the beach (or down on the North Shore). You picture sweet morning text messages, filled with heart emojis. You dream about sitting in a cafe and looking into your lover’s eyes. Are her eyes really that blue, or is that heaven?

But when love actually arrives in real life, you realize it also comes with baggage, with history.

Smith has baggage and history. OK, it’s not a long history, but the baggage includes three straight 7-10 seasons as the Falcons head coach and an apparent offensive philosophy that doesn’t make anyone feel like he’s one of today’s young and innovative minds on that side of the ball.

Smith was that guy as recently as three years ago, right after his two seasons as the Titans offensive coordinator.

The Titans had a damn-fine offense in 2019 and 2020, an offense that relied heavily on the run–namely, Derrick Henry–and managed to get the best out of quarterback Ryan Tannehill. Tannehill threw a combined 55 touchdowns to only 13 interceptions during those years and led the NFL in passer rating at 117.5 in 2019.

The Titans averaged over 25 points a game in 2019 and 30-plus points a game in 2020.

So what happened in Atlanta? For starters, Smith never had a running back as dominant as Henry. But maybe even more importantly, he never had a quarterback as talented as Tannehill. I realize that might sound weird to you, but it’s true unless you count Matt Ryan, who left Atlanta after Smith’s first season as coach.

Also, maybe some guys aren’t cut out to be head coaches. Maybe coaches have ceilings, and Smith’s is as an offensive coordinator. You might say the same thing about quarterback coaches and pass game coordinators who come from the Shanahan/McVay coaching tree. Just because you know a system, that doesn’t mean you’re going to be able to be a successful offensive coordinator. There’s more to being an offensive coordinator than just knowing a system. You have to be able to utilize your personnel and devise schemes that cater to your players’ strengths.

The popular sentiment regarding the Smith hire is he’s being brought in to cover up Pickett’s weaknesses. Smith, a former tight end and offensive line coach, doesn’t have the skill set to develop quarterbacks. Maybe Smith doesn’t, but maybe a quarterbacks coach does. Then again, how do we know Smith doesn’t have the skills to develop a quarterback? And just because his teams have been run-heavy the past five seasons both as the Titans OC and the Falcons head coach, does that necessarily mean Smith doesn’t have the chops to take advantage of talented wide receivers?

Todd Haley was the last Steelers offensive coordinator who had a stint as a hot-shot OC before becoming a not-so-hot head coach. The Cardinals had one of the best passing attacks in the NFL with Haley as the offensive coordinator. But his offense was more run-oriented when he was the head coach of the Chiefs.

The Steelers offense was good at everything during Haley’s tenure in Pittsburgh. Of course, he also had All-Pro players at just about every position. That certainly helped, but you can’t say he didn’t take advantage of his personnel.

I know fans like to react to offseason news in much the same way they react to an actual game, but February just started. We don’t know what this Steelers offense is going to look like personnel-wise by the time summer rolls around. There’s still free agency. There’s still the draft.

Heck, Smith hasn’t even assembled his staff yet.

The bottom line is this: The Steelers hired an offensive coordinator with previous NFL experience (you forgot about that little Tomlin nugget when you were falling in love with Zac Robinson and/or Jerrod Johnson). Smith’s reputation is a bit tainted after his stint as the Falcons head coach. Why didn’t he utilize Bijon Robinson more? Why didn’t he find a way to unlock Kyle Pitts and his considerable talents? Again, there’s a lot more to being a head coach than just focusing on one side of the ball.

It’s like what Bill Cowher once said: A head coach has to manage every aspect of a football team, all the way down to the secretary.

Now that Smith is back to being just an offensive coordinator, he can pour all of his energy into one side of the ball. Will he be successful in Pittsburgh?

It’s way too early to say he will, but it’s also way too early to say he will not.


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