FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. — Arthur Smith felt a few jitters Thursday as he began his first training camp as coach of the Atlanta Falcons. Once the first horn sounded on the field, however, he jumped right in and took charge.
"My mind was working on trying to get some sleep last night. You're restless. You're excited," said Smith, the former Tennessee Titans offensive coordinator who is a head coach for the first time. "It's like the first day of school, but once that horn goes, it's on. I'm coaching, trying to make sure I touch every part of the team and do my job.
"It was fun. It was fun to be out there."
The Falcons, who open Sept. 12 against the Philadelphia Eagles, are coming off a 4-12 season that included the firing of Smith's predecessor, Dan Quinn, and general manager Thomas Dimitroff after an 0-5 start. They've essentially cleaned house from the 2016 team that made it to the Super Bowl, with only four starters from that season — quarterback Matt Ryan, left tackle Jake Matthews, defensive tackle Grady Jarrett and linebacker Deion Jones — still with the Falcons.
"There's been good coaches here and there's been good players," Smith said. "All I know is there's ways we want to do things and guys that I've learned from, and you pick the best of what you truly believe in so they know that and know the expectations. It's my job to make sure from the top down that we follow through and enforce it. Follow through with what you say."
Smith wants the Falcons to practice at a quicker tempo than they might be accustomed to. Assistant coaches were barking out orders, and players were responding by digging in and going harder.
"It's deeper than the messaging," Jarrett said. "It's about putting the product on the field. Putting the work in. He made it clear we're not going to be about slogans and all this. The best players are going to play. The toughest dude is going to play. Ain't no fluff. We're going to try and get the best out of everybody day in and day out. I can't do nothing but respect it. I love that about him."
After spending his most of his career working on offense, Smith has bigger duties as a head coach. He still plans to call the plays on offense but has turned over daily operations on that side of the ball to coordinator Dave Ragone. Dean Pees, 71, was lured out of retirement for the second time to serve as defensive coordinator, having most recently overseen the Titans' defense in 2018-19.
Atlanta struggled on both sides of the line of scrimmage last year. The passing attack did fine with Ryan, the 2016 NFL MVP, at the helm, but the running game was next to last in the league with an average of 3.7 yards per carry. The pass defense was the worst in the league, allowing 293.6 yards per game. Atlanta gave up 66 pass plays of 20 or more yards, tied for most in the NFL.
"I'm trying to be everywhere," Smith said. "You don't want anyone to see you as just an offensive coach. No, I'm the head coach. I'm in other meetings. I come out here, there's a lot we meet on and talk about in the building here, and you've got to hire a good staff and let them coach. I don't need to micromanage. I like to be present and move around so I get a pulse of the whole team."
Falcons owner Arthur Blank hired Smith in January after three rounds of interviews. Blank considers Smith to be "very smart and a good listener" with "confidence and humility alike and doesn't assume he has all the answers."
"He knows exactly the kind of moves he has to make to get there, and he has a clear sense of direction," Blank said. "He was one of the top offensive coordinators the last two years in the NFL, not just in kicking field goals but scoring touchdowns. In the NFL, you're going to win some games by field goals, but you've got to score touchdowns, too."
Smith's move from the Titans to the Falcons preceded another big switch between the teams — Atlanta veteran wide receiver Julio Jones being traded to Tennessee. Blank said he tried to contact Jones before the disgruntled star was traded but had no luck.
"Julio had certain aspirations and wanted to do it someplace else," Blank said. "That was not our original intent. We have tremendous regard for the player and for the human being as well. He's given us 10 great years. That's about half of my ownership. He set all kinds of records.
"One thing about football is you want a locker room of players who want to be here. I was disappointed he felt that way."
Camp out for two
On the injury front, Smith said offensive lineman Matt Gono (neck) and defensive tackle Deadrin Senat (upper body) will miss all of training camp. Both are on the physically unable to perform list, along with right Kaleb McGary. Smith said McGary, whose injury hasn't been disclosed, should be able to return "sooner rather than later."
Also, the Falcons have placed defensive end/outside linebacker Dante Fowler Jr. on the COVID-19 reserve list, but Smith would not say whether Fowler tested positive for the novel coronavirus. Earlier in the week, the team placed defensive tackle John Atkins, defensive end Kobe Jones, tight end Lee Smith and offensive lineman Willie Wright on the same list.
Fowler is in his second year with the Falcons after signing a three-year contract with $29 million guaranteed. He had just three sacks with 23 tackles and one forced fumble in 14 games last season. The Falcons restructured Fowler's contract during the offseason, and he will be paid by the sack.