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A Closer Look at Arthur Smith’s Candidacy for Titans Offensive Coordinator Position

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Is the Tennessee Titans’ tight ends coach being considered for a huge promotion?

NFL: International Series-Tennessee Titans at Los Angeles Chargers Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Former Titans Offensive Coordinator Matt LaFleur was officially introduced as the 15th head coach in Green Bay Packers’ history on Wednesday, leaving Titans fans waiting with bated breath for any bit of news about who might be replacing him in Tennessee.

Jon Robinson made the media rounds on Wednesday morning, starting with an “exclusive interview” with Jim Wyatt for TitansOnline.com, available to read here. He then appeared on 104.5 The Zone’s Midday 180, followed by ESPN’s 102.5 The Game, where he spoke a lot about continuity.

Jim Wyatt quoted Jon Robinson on this subject in his recent article:

“It is always challenging when you are talking about new terminology, and concepts. I kind of liken it to learning a foreign language, and he is on his fifth language now,” Robinson said of Mariota, and the change at OC.

The idea of continuity has led some to speculate that current Titans’ quarterbacks coach Pat O’Hara may be first in line for an in-house promotion.

I’m not sure who first suggested Arthur Smith as a second potential in-house candidate, but according to Twitter timestamps, it was @Bjarnagin33 on Tuesday afternoon as a reply to Turron’s tweet above, based on my Twitter search for “Arthur Smith.”

I didn’t hear the Titans Radio broadcast on Tuesday evening, but apparently Rhett Bryan mentioned Arthur Smith as a possibility on the air that night...? (Forgive me if that’s not entirely accurate.)

On Wednesday, Paul Kuharsky released an article reporting his findings after he spoke with three former members of the offensive staff to gauge the Titans’ potential in-house replacements for Matt LaFleur.

PK believes that Arthur Smith would have the best chance of any coach currently on the staff to be considered for the offensive coordinator position. Check out his article to read the quotes of endorsement he received from those who’ve worked closely with Smith in Tennessee.

And PK wasn’t the only one asking around about Art. Our own Justin Melo reached out and got a great quote, as well.

The coach Justin spoke to said Arthur is “ready for that role.” It would be certainly an intriguing choice for a team set to decide on a potential make-or-break hire for the franchise.

So what is it exactly that makes Arthur Smith qualified to be an offensive coordinator at the NFL level? Smith has spent the last three and a half seasons as the Titans’ tight ends coach, ever since Mike Mularkey was promoted to interim head coach in the middle of the 2015 season.

Brandon Morales wrote a profile on Arthur Smith for MCM back in July if you need a full refresher, but here’s a quick summary of Smith’s background:

  • He played offensive line for four seasons at North Carolina, from 2002-2005
  • In 2006, he joined the North Carolina coaching staff as a graduate assistant. According to Tar Heel Times, he was a video assistant.
  • He then managed to secure a position with Washington as a Quality Control Coach / Defensive Assistant under legendary coach Joe Gibbs in 2007, Gibbs’ final season as an NFL head coach.
  • Smith stayed with Washington in 2008 in the same role when new head coach Jim Zorn took over.
  • In 2010, Smith returned to the college ranks, where he, according to his profile on the Titans website, served as an administrative assistant/defensive intern and worked primarily with the linebackers at Ole Miss.
  • Art joined the Titans staff in 2011 when Mike Munchak was promoted to head coach. Smith was initially hired as a defensive quality control assistant.
  • In 2012, he performed the same duties, but now for the offense as a quality control assistant.
  • In 2013, he was promoted to assistant offensive line coach/assistant tight ends coach.
  • In 2014, the Titans brought in a new coaching staff, including Mike Mularkey as the tight ends coach. The Titans retained Arthur Smith as the assistant tight ends coach.
  • In 2015, he began the season as the assistant tight ends coach and was promoted after 7 games when Ken Whisenhunt was let go.
  • In 2018, another new coaching staff was brought into Tennessee. Arthur Smith interviewed to keep his position as tight ends coach with Mike Vrabel, and he was again retained.

A quality control coach is typically responsible for compiling film cut-ups and personnel and tendency statistics on upcoming opponents to help prepare the coordinators to create gameplans. As a quality control coach on both sides of the ball under a multitude of different head coaches, Arthur Smith would have been exposed to a wide variety of formations and concepts, something that would obviously help his potential bid to become an offensive coordinator.

It’s truly remarkable how Arthur Smith was able to survive so many coaching changes throughout his career. That means he impressed a multitude of different coaches and personality types to successfully and repeatedly convince all those new coaches that he deserved to stay on their staff.

The Titans as a team were ravaged by injuries last season, but it was Arthur Smith’s group that was hit the hardest. Pro Bowl tight end Delanie Walker was lost for the year in Week 1, leaving an inexperienced group to try and fill the void behind him.

A team that wanted to emphasize two tight-end sets was without their top tight end nearly the entire season. Second-year player Jonnu Smith showed tremendous improvement filling in for the superstar under Art’s watch over the course of 2018, getting better as both a blocker and a receiver.

In fact, every Tennessee Titans tight end was playing at a high level through at least the back half of the season. On Derrick Henry’s 99-yard touchdown run, three tight ends combined to seal a crease along the left edge and spring the play, none more important that Jonnu man-handling two guys at once.

When Jonnu went down in Week 14, the Titans top three tight ends became Luke Stocker, Anthony Firkser, and MyCole Pruitt. Pruitt was signed off the Texans practice squad on September 10th after Walker’s injury, and he scored his first career NFL touchdown under Arthur Smith’s tutelage — a game-winner over Washington in Week 16.

The production Art was able to get from his tight end group is relatively amazing considering the experience level in the room after Delanie went down.

Pruitt was a fifth-round pick of the Vikings in 2015. He’d spent time on numerous practice squads around the league before the Titans scooped him up in September.

Anthony Firkser was picked up by the Jets as an undrafted free agent out of Harvard in 2017, but he didn’t make their final roster. He was signed to the Chiefs practice squad later that season, and joined the Titans last May, where he floated between the practice squad and the active roster before carving out a role in October.

Firkser really impressed from his first snaps in training camp after coming in as a complete unknown. When the season started, he went on to catch each of the first 16 targets thrown his way, some through contact and in tight situations. He finished the season with 19 catches on 20 targets for 225 yards and a touchdown.

I dug into Arthur Smith’s background a bit from his playing days at North Carolina in the early 2000s. Apparently, Smith dealt with a rare bone break on the top of his foot that forced him to miss nearly two full seasons after suffering the injury in his first career start.

From a 2004 GoHeels.com article by Lee Pace that reported Smith’s return for the then-upcoming season, I learned some interesting tidbits about Smith’s past.

Arthur Smith’s grandfather started Tottle House, one of the first fast-food restaurant chains in America. Arthur is one of nine children of FedEx founder Fred Smith. He grew up in a very comfortable household, as Pace quotes in his article:

“My Mom made sure we were all grounded,” Smith says. “I grew up in a nice area and nice home, but I never felt spoiled. We got good values from our parents. We learned `Yes sir, no sir’ at an early age.”

Although a Memphis native, Arthur played football at a prestigious Washington-area prep school, Georgetown Prep, where he was a team captain for the league champions, posting a 10-0 record and earning the number four ranking among high schools in the state of Maryland. Smith was heavily recruited by Division 1 schools before earning a scholarship to play football at North Carolina, according to Pace. More from his article:

“I wanted to earn my own way to college, to get a scholarship on my own merits,” Smith says. “I wanted to make a name for myself. I’ve used my background as motivation to be successful rather than leaning on a crutch.”

Before starting FedEx, Arthur’s father served as a Marine in the late 1960s, from whom Arthur learned the value of discipline. Says Smith via Pace:

“You have to be a disciplined person to succeed in this program,” Smith says. “Coach Bunting demands discipline. As a young adult in college, there are so many distractions. Without discipline, you have no focus.”

Arthur Smith spoke a lot about his father and different lessons he’s learned from him in that article by Pace. This is a cool story about attention to detail:

“My Dad was looking for investors and was showing a man through one of the hangars at the airport,” Smith says. “He didn’t think the guy was interested. But it turned out the guy did invest in the company. Dad later asked him, `What made you give me your money?’ The guy told him he was impressed with how shiny the floors in the hangar were, that it showed attention to detail, that every little thing matters, that it was obviously important to the employees there to pay attention to details.’ That’s stuck with me—attention to detail.”

There were many interesting pull quotes from Lee Pace’s article about the kind of work ethic Arthur Smith possesses. Here’s another, this one from his former head coach (emphasis mine — remember this was almost 15 years ago):

“When we recruited Arthur, we knew he was a tough, hard-nosed kid who loves to play football,” Tar Heel head coach John Bunting says. “Some day I think he could be a great coach. He loves the intangibles about the game, loves the teamwork and has a great passion for the game.”

Bunting isn’t the only member of North Carolina’s staff who spoke highly of Smith. Strength and conditioning coach Jeff Connors had this to say:

“Nobody works harder than this kid. He did an exceptional job coming back from his injury. He’s got his weight back up to 287 and his strength back and is ready to go.”

And offensive line coach Hal Hunter added:

“He has a real hunger to get better--practicing after practice, things like that.”

Yet another fascinating tidbit from Pace’s article is the connection between Arthur’s father Fred Smith and the Washington professional football team:

FedEx purchased the naming rights to the Washington Redskins’ new stadium in 1999, and in the course of that transaction, Fred Smith and Redskins’ owner Daniel Snyder became friends. Last year, Snyder asked Smith if he was interested in becoming a minority partner. Smith invested in the team and now Arthur has access to some pretty good perks. Between summer school and the opening of the Tar Heels’ training camp in August, Arthur planned to visit the Redskins and watch their camp from the inside.

That may explain how Smith was able to land his first job with Washington as a quality control assistant in 2007. The hard work and attention to detail may explain how he managed to stay on staff when Jim Zorn was hired.

But it takes more than a strong work ethic, experience as an assistant, and an outstanding performance as a positional coach to become a successful offensive coordinator in the National Football League.

Arthur Smith has no experience designing offenses or calling plays. That is a pretty looming concern for a team that has to nail this offensive coordinator hire to give Marcus Mariota the best chance to be successful in what may be his final chance to prove himself in 2019.

The thing is, every great playcaller had to start somewhere. Sean Payton spent 12 years as an offensive assistant, running backs coach, and quarterbacks coach (with a brief stint as OC at Miami-Ohio) before finally getting his shot as an offensive coordinator in the NFL in 2000.

Andy Reid, heralded as one of the greatest offensive coaches of all time, started as a graduate assistant and then served 9 years as an offensive line coach at four different colleges before getting a chance to be an offensive assistant with the Packers. He worked his way from assistant offensive line coach to tight ends coach and then to quarterbacks coach before he was finally offered the head coaching job of the Philadelphia Eagles despite no play-calling or offensive coordinating experience.

Kyle Shanahan got his start as a quality control coach in Tampa Bay. He then spent 2006 and 2007 working his way up the ladder in Houston before being named offensive coordinator under head coach/playcaller Gary Kubiak. He left Houston to be the offensive coordinator under his father in Washington soon after.

Who knew about Freddie Kitchens this time last year? Kitchens filled various assistant and position coach roles for different colleges for six years before the Cowboys gave him a chance to be their tight ends coach in 2006. He was a quarterbacks and running backs coach in Arizona before Cleveland hired him as running backs coach and associate head coach at the start of 2018. He had never coordinated an offense or called plays before Hue Jackson and Todd Haley were fired midway through last season, and now he is the Cleveland Browns head coach.

The Vikings just announced that Kevin Stefanski will remain offensive coordinator, another complete unknown to most people just a few months ago. Stefanski has been with the Vikings for about 13 years, starting in an assistant role and working his way up to quarterbacks coach before finally taking over offensive coordinator duties from the fired John DeFilippo despite no previous playcalling experience.

Every coach I’ve named above eventually worked their way to the role of quarterbacks coach before they were finally given a chance to call plays. It is the more traditional path to becoming an offensive coordinator, which is perhaps the reason people assumed Pat O’Hara would be the likeliest internal hire for the Titans.

However, there is one notable coach who made the jump straight from tight ends coach to offensive coordinator with great success.

The NFL’s favorite wonder-kid Sean McVay began his coaching career as an assistant wide receivers coach for Tampa Bay in 2008. He spent 2009 as a quality control coach for a now-dissolved UFL team, the Florida Tuskers. McVay was brought on to be an assistant tight ends coach in Washington in 2010, and then served as the tight ends coach from 2011-2013. In 2014, he was promoted to offensive coordinator under head coach Jay Gruden (great read here about his rise). Initially, Gruden planned to call plays during the 2014 season, but he soon handed the duties over to 27-year-old Sean McVay. And the rest is history.

I’m not saying the Titans have their own Sean McVay waiting for his chance to shine, but I am saying it’s possible that Arthur Smith becomes the next offensive coordinator in Tennessee.

It wouldn’t be the first time a team took a chance on a long-time assistant, and it may in fact be becoming a new trend around the league.

While Arthur Smith lacks the desired playcalling experience you’d hope to pair with Marcus Mariota, the 36-year-old has some other strengths that make him an interesting consideration.

For one, he’s been with the team since 2011. As I mentioned before, just surviving so many coaching changes is a promising start for his resume. Unfortunately, that also means he hasn’t worked under the most successful head coaches and offensive coordinators, but he has seen a wide variety of systems roll through Nashville. From Chris Palmer and Dowell Loggains to Ken Whisenhunt and Jason Michael, from Mike Mularkey and Terry Robiskie to Matt LaFleur, there’s no question that Smith has witnessed first-hand what to do to make things work and, more importantly, what not to do.

Smith more than anyone would have a thorough understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of the roster. The only players who were with the team before Smith arrived are Derrick Morgan and Brett Kern. Art was present and involved for the install of Matt LaFleur’s offense and terminology last season, and he might be able to borrow elements that he knows worked well for Mariota, Derrick Henry, and the rest of the players from the past several years to craft an effective scheme.

Here’s a link to a video on the Titans website of Smith being interviewed during the install phase of the Titans most recent system.

Arthur Smith is most certainly not the flashiest hire, and I’m not even saying he’s my top choice, but he has seen and hopefully learned from the mistakes of his predecessors, and unlike a retread hire, he’s never been fired for failing to run an effective offense.

While there may be more exciting, more accomplished options still available (like Todd Monken) or “hotter” names on the market (like John DeFilippo), for the sake of continuity of verbiage and familiarity with the players, the Titans might seriously look at Arthur Smith as one of their better candidates.

Based on the glowing recommendations I’ve read today from people who know Art well, I wouldn’t blame them. An outside coordinator would have to spend lots of time studying the strengths and weaknesses of the team’s offensive pieces, and they would likely install a new “language” for their playbook. If continuity is truly important to you, that probably doesn’t sound like a great plan.

Another “positive” in Arthur Smith’s favor is that he isn’t a likely candidate to be plucked away for a head coaching job in the next year or so. Todd Monken interviewed with the Jets for their head coaching vacancy last week. The Jets, Lions, and Packers all interviewed Jim Caldwell in this cycle. John DeFilippo was among the hottest names as recently as last year. But Arthur Smith? Who’s hiring away Arthur Smith to be a head coach?

Whether or not you think that’s a good thing is a different conversation. The idea of hiring a guy just because no one will try to poach him doesn’t sound so appealing on its own.

But everyone has to start somewhere. Could this be that start for Arthur Smith?