When the New York Jets inevitably begin their search for a new head coach in 2021, Tennessee offensive coordinator Arthur Smith should be the number one target.
Some might say it’s too early to be writing this article. After all, we are just two weeks into the season. But after watching back-to-back weeks of uninspired, undisciplined, and frankly unwatchable football, it’s time to start looking towards a brighter future.
Most Jets fans hated the Adam Gase hire from the start, but somehow it’s turned out worse than expected. I have been more patient with Gase than most, largely giving him a pass last year for his quarterback getting mono, putrid offensive line play, and a weekly injury report that included more than half the team. Over these last two weeks, however, it has become clear as day that Gase is not the man to lead the Jets to even just a winning season, let alone the playoffs or a Super Bowl.
I believe the Jets have a stud general manager in Joe Douglas, but he needs a competent running mate. Somebody to help him drag this mess of a franchise out of the last decade of misery and help transform it into a team that fans are excited to watch on Sundays.
In a limited amount of time, Douglas has shown that he understands how a winning team should be built. He values premium positions and he understands the team should be assembled through the draft, not flashy free agent signings. Douglas remained patient and fetched a mega-haul for Jamal Adams, and the (very) early returns on his first draft look promising (see Becton, Mekhi).
One of the biggest keys to this inevitable coaching hire is to find somebody whose vision for the team aligns perfectly with the GMs. The Johnsons need to avoid a flashy Jim Harbaugh-type hire who will inevitably try to override Douglas and push for roster control.
The best-run organizations in this league have synergy from top to bottom. The Jets gave Douglas a six-year contract so he could properly execute his vision for the team, which included building “the best culture in all of sports,” as he himself has proclaimed. A head coach establishes culture more than anyone else in the building, so Douglas deserves full authority to handpick his guy, and handling this search in any other way is a mistake.
The Jets need somebody who sees football the same way as Douglas. Somebody who can establish a mutual trust with him. They need a coach who has a clear vision that Douglas believes in, who in turn believes that Douglas will acquire the perfect players to execute that vision.
Arthur Smith can be that guy.
As Tennessee’s offensive coordinator since 2019, Smith has gained notoriety over the last year for rejuvenating Ryan Tannehill’s career and turning the Titans offense into one of the NFL’s best, riding an elite run/play-action game to an AFC Championship appearance.
After a shaky start with Marcus Mariota, Smith’s offense has been among the best in the NFL since Tannehill took over. From Weeks 7-17 of 2019, the Titans scored a touchdown on 34.5% of their offensive drives, second-best behind only the Ravens.
Rather than trying to set up favorable third downs like Gase, Smith avoids third down altogether by keeping his foot on the gas pedal. His Titans moved the chains on a league-high 25.9% of first down plays from Weeks 7-17.
Previously known as a mediocre starter, Tannehill looked like a superstar under Smith, leading the NFL in yards per attempt (9.6) and passer rating (117.5) – video game numbers for a guy who was once seen as damaged goods under Gase.
It seemed impossible to replicate the smashing success of 2019, but the early returns for Smith in 2020 have been great. Tannehill is fourth in the NFL with an even higher 120.7 passer rating. The Titans rank seventh in third down conversion rate (51.9%) and are 6-for-7 (85.7%) scoring touchdowns in the red zone, third-best. Overall, Tennessee is 10th in points per drive (2.55) and ninth in offensive DVOA (+13.5%).
With a unit that probably would have been considered more talented than Tennessee’s at the start of the 2019 season, Gase led the Jets to 32nd in both offensive DVOA (-25.4%) and points per drive (1.36). Sam Darnold‘s absence was hardly an excuse for Gase, as from Weeks 6-17 (the period following Darnold’s return), the Jets still ranked 28th in the NFL with only 29.6% of their drives resulting in a score (FG or TD) and 30th in the NFL with 26.0 yards per drive, even with seven of their 12 games over that span coming against the league’s six worst defenses according to DVOA.
“Brilliant offensive mind.”
Christopher Johnson is far off-base in his usage of that statement to describe Gase, but those words actually do apply to Smith.
Versatile, explosive, exotic smashmouth football might be the best way to describe Smith’s offense.
Smith made his bones in the league as a tight ends coach, credited with growing the careers of Delanie Walker and more recently Jonnu Smith. It shows in his offense, as the 2019 Titans led the NFL in 13 personnel (1 RB, 3 TE) at 10% and fourth in 12 personnel (1 RB, 2 TE) at 29%. Of course, this would all be great news for Chris Herndon, who would immediately have a major role in the offense. Currently, Gase is misusing Herndon as a checkdown option and wasting his downfield talent.
Chris Herndon’s average depth of target:
2018: 10.6 yards (5th-highest at TE)
2020: 5.7 yards (23rd out of 35 TEs)
Not being used downfield as much as he should
— Michael Nania (@Michael_Nania) September 23, 2020
Smith establishes the run, uses play action to open up the defense, takes shots downfield, and keeps it simple for his QB. His offense is very much in the same vein as NFL wonderboys Kyle Shanahan and Sean McVay.
Here’s an example of what a good play-action game allows an offense to do. New Orleans completely sells out on a Derrick Henry run, giving Tannehill an easy completion for the first (which amounts to a TD after the catch).
Smith uses a ton of pre-snap motion and play-action to make things as easy as possible for his quarterback. Last year the Titans were top five in their usage of both pre-snap motion and play action, via Sharp Football Analysis.
Here, the initial motion helps Tannehill read the defense, and he checks something at the line according to what he sees in response to the motion. Then, the play action completely fools the safety, leaving WR A.J. Brown wide open for six.
Tannehill gets to make simple reads and let his pure physical talent do the talking, a luxury Darnold never gets under Gase.
One of the most important aspects of offensive game-planning in today’s NFL is creativity. And Smith has plenty of it, constantly keeping the defense on their toes, such as with this goal-line pass to an eligible tackle.
Smith does things differently. He is not tethered to old-school philosophies and instead remains open-minded with no fear of calling anything. He’s versatile and molds his system to his players, not the other way around.
One of Smith’s best traits is his ability to stay one step ahead. He frequently shows the defense a certain look on one play and then later builds off that same look to run something completely different.
Here are two plays that showcase both Smith’s creativity and his ability to build off of concepts. On this first play, Smith shows off his gutsiness as he pitches it to Jonnu Smith – a tight end – toward a bunch formation to the right side. With plenty of lead blockers out in front, the athletic Jonnu picks up over 50 yards.
Few coaches would be willing to put their tight end in a position like that, but Smith is one of them. He understands what his players do well and creates opportunities for those strengths to shine. Jonnu can make plays with the ball in his hands, so Arthur gets him the ball in a favorable position to do just that even if it is in a way that is untraditional for a tight end. And he calls unique stuff like this all the time.
Now, to exemplify Smith’s knack for using something he has already shown opponents on film to set up something entirely different. The very next week following the Jonnu run above, Arthur fakes the same play out of the exact same formation, but instead throws a screen to Brown with left tackle Taylor Lewan as the lead blocker. New Orleans is fooled and Brown gets an easy first down.
This is also a good example of Smith manufacturing easy yards for his players, something Adam Gase struggles with. Instead of blaming the players for not executing a bubble screen that requires non-blocking receivers to block and non-YAC receivers to make multiple guys miss, Smith’s play design puts as little pressure on the players as possible to produce yards.
Most people have been calling for Chiefs offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy as Gase’s replacement. While I’d be ecstatic if he (or Bills OC Brian Daboll for that matter) is the guy, Smith might be the best fit for the Jets. Plus, Bieniemy will be the hottest name on the market, so I’d expect him to prefer a situation such as Deshaun Watson in Houston or a more stable organization like Atlanta.
Tennessee’s offense under Smith has been one of the smartest and most creative units in all of football, which will warrant his shot as a head coach in 2021.
However, there’s more to Smith than just his impressive offense that makes him the perfect fit to become the head coach of the New York Jets.
Philosophy matches Joe Douglas
Arthur Smith’s system is founded largely in his roots. Smith, like Joe Douglas, is a former college offensive lineman, playing guard for the University of North Carolina. It is clear through his weekly gameplans that he firmly believes the game is won in the trenches, that everything on offense is built through a good offensive line.
The Chiefs may have the highest-powered offense in the league, spreading the field with a heavy passing attack and taking vertical shots downfield. But the truth is: they’re an anomaly. Not many teams have the talent to pull off what Kansas City can with their trio of Patrick Mahomes, Tyreek Hill, and Travis Kelce.
Look around at the other top offenses in the NFL. San Francisco, Green Bay, Dallas, Baltimore, Tennessee, among others; they establish the run to open up their passing game with play action, and then take high-percentage shots downfield off of the respect demanded by their run game.
It may be a passing league, but the best offenses are able to run the football, and most importantly, have a five-man unit capable of creating holes to spark that run game.
Douglas understands this. It’s a large part of the reason he will continue to invest premium resources into the offensive line. Build a bully in the trenches and the offense can enforce their will on the ground, open up the playbook for deep explosive plays, and keep the quarterback upright.
Smith is the perfect coach for Douglas in that regard, and visa versa, Douglas is the perfect GM for Smith. I don’t doubt that the two former offensive linemen would have a parallel vision for what New York Jets football should look like.
Synergy between Douglas and the new head coach is an absolute must, and Smith certainly fits the bill on paper.
Track record of fixing Adam Gase’s mess
Perhaps the greatest argument for hiring Arthur Smith is the work he did with QB Ryan Tannehill, a former victim of Adam Gase’s hyper-complex, progression-based offense.
In 2018, Gase’s last year in Miami, Tannehill was ranked the league’s 32nd-most efficient quarterback out of 34 qualifiers according to DVOA. Under Smith in 2019, Tannehill was the league’s fifth-most efficient quarterback according to DVOA.
Tannehill looked like a completely different quarterback under Smith, leading the Titans to a 7-3 record and an AFC Championship performance.
Smith played to Tannehill’s strengths. He simplified things for the quarterback, giving him easier reads, manufacturing completions, rolling him out constantly, and of course, building an elite running game behind Derrick Henry.
But don’t get it twisted. Tannehill was and is much more than a game manager for the Titans. He made big-time throws for Tennessee and is still very much a gunslinger. Smith knows that Tannehill has physical talent but struggles on the mental side, so he built an offense that allows Tannehill to do less thinking and more playing.
Tannehill himself said of Smith, “From the minute I took over he believed in me and just wanted me to go play, wanted me to go cut it loose, not overthink things. That was a lot of fun for me to just go out and play, throw confidently. Really at the end of the day, that’s what it was. Arthur does a great job of pushing the envelope of keeping defenses on their toes.”
Does that remind you of a current franchise quarterback in the AFC East who could use the same exact formula, but isn’t getting it?
The hope for the Jets would be that Smith’s experience of teaching his physically-gifted quarterback to forget everything he learned under Adam Gase would translate to helping New York’s uber-talented (certainly more so than Tannehill) Sam Darnold.
The most likely scenario for the Jets next year is that Darnold will be the guy once again. They could be in a position to replace him in 2021, but that will probably only happen if the Jets secure the top pick and a chance to select Trevor Lawrence, and as bad as the Jets are, landing at #1 is a tough thing to do.
At this point in his career, the Jets have failed Darnold. They haven’t surrounded him with talent, built an offense to his strengths, or put him in any sort of situation to succeed. But so far, Darnold hasn’t shown enough to prove whether he is or isn’t the franchise quarterback. Plenty of flashes, not much consistency.
However, Arthur Smith’s system is the exact type of offense Darnold could thrive in. From a pure ability standpoint, Darnold is one of the most gifted quarterbacks in the NFL. His struggles with the mental side of being an NFL quarterback are what have held him back. Darnold needs a coach that can neutralize his weaknesses so his physical talents can shine.
That’s exactly what Smith has done for Tannehill. Smith would come in and immediately simplify things for Darnold, consistently getting him out of the pocket where he’s at his best and putting him in positions where he’s reacting instead of thinking.
Darnold can be his gunslinger self and thrive. He can take shots downfield while at the same time finding the balance between risk-taking and efficiency.
Gase has not understood this, trying to turn Darnold into his Peyton Manning, a pocket-strapped, field-reading maestro. Darnold is not that kind of quarterback. Under Gase, Darnold has either been forced to play way too conservatively or he’s had far too much on his plate and been forced to play hero ball. In both cases, Darnold’s strengths are minimized and his weaknesses are put under the microscope.
Arthur Smith would do the opposite.
After seeing what he has done with Tannehill, it is exciting to think about the possibilities of what Smith could do with Darnold. After all, Tannehill is already 32 years old, while Darnold is only 23 (younger than rookie-year Tannehill, who entered the league at 24). If Smith could completely revitalize a veteran quarterback who had been put through the Gase wringer, he could certainly do the same with the raw Darnold.
This is how the Jets can do right by their young QB, hopefully making up for their negligent sins of the past.
As a leader: the anti-Gase
Perhaps more than anything, the Jets desperately need a leader.
Gase hasn’t been the leader of men required to be a successful head coach. He’s clearly not Lombardi, Landry, Belicheck, or hell, even Rex Ryan. He has come off as smug, stubborn, and unwilling to show accountability.
It’s certainly fair to question Gase’s leadership skills after numerous players in Miami celebrated his demise in Miami, Jamal Adams publicly called him out in a public exposé, and more recently, players complaining about the energy at practice.
Does anybody really think Gase is the man to lead the Jets to a Super Bowl?
The Jets need a leader for both sides of the ball. Somebody whose players will run through a brick wall to play for him.
Again, Arthur Smith fits the bill.
Smith has experience on both sides of the ball, coming into the league as a defensive quality control coach for Washington in 2007. As tight end Delanie Walker said when Smith was hired as the Titans’ offensive coordinator, “The guy has worked on defense, offense, and he’s been in every room. He knows the game, he studies his butt off and I know he is going to be a great OC…[t]he dude knows what he is doing. He understands football.”
Perhaps the most impressive part of his resume is that he survived three different coaching regimes in Tennessee. Clearly well-liked, he arrived in 2011 and worked his way from offensive quality control coach, to assistant offensive line coach, to tight ends coach, before becoming the offensive coordinator in 2019.
But more than this, his players love him.
This excerpt from The Washington Post says it all. Asked about Smith by a Washington Football Team physician who was a childhood friend of Smith’s, a former Titans player choked up and said, “I’ve never met a guy so trustworthy, so direct and who really lets you know where you stand.”
The literal polar opposite of Gase.
From the same Washington Post article, Titans linebackers coach Dave McGinnis said of Smith, “He has an insight into players, and he generates trust from players.”
Smith isn’t just a brilliant offensive mind. He doesn’t just share the same football ideology as the GM. He hasn’t just shown that he can fix quarterbacks ruined by Gase. He’s all of those things, but most importantly, he checks the box as a leader of men. That’s the trait that separates great head coaches from great coordinators.
Backing up the brinks truck for Smith may not be enough, as he’s the son of FedEx founder and multi-billionaire Fred Smith, but Christopher and Woody Johnson need to do everything in their power to bring him to 1 Jets Drive. Get him in a room with Douglas and let the fellow offensive linemen talk ball.
The franchise is at a crossroads and cannot force to mess this hire up like the last one.
This is it. This is the guy. They can end the search.
The man who can help lead the Jets out of the NFL cellar and into contention.
The Jets need a savior.
And he goes by the name of King Arthur.