FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. - When Arthur Smith started playing football at age 9, he woke up on game-day mornings and ran into his parents' room already in full pads. He loved all of it -- the camaraderie, the teamwork and the contact as an offensive lineman.
The Atlanta Falcons coach was also fascinated by the plays, from creation to implementation.
Smith grew up in the video-game generation, hooked on Madden and NCAA football. The Bill Walsh College Football game that was a predecessor to NCAA was a particular favorite.
The combination of playing on the field and virtually allowed Smith to fall in love with the idea of designing and calling plays himself.
"I always had ideas running through my head," Smith said. "Even when I was in high school. I didn't have some great notebook or anything like that, but my mind kind of went that way."
That curiosity served Smith -- now 40 and in his fourth season running an NFL offense -- as he developed under mentors on both the offensive and defensive sides of the ball. His innovative offensive approach and game plans -- remember the Derrick Henry jump pass in the 2019 playoffs when he was the Tennessee Titans coordinator - are what landed Smith the Falcons job.
DERRICK HENRY JUST THREW THE PERFECT JUMP PASS.— NFL (@NFL) January 12, 2020
What can't he do?! #Titans #NFLPlayoffs @KingHenry_2
📺: #TENvsBAL on CBS
📱: NFL app // Yahoo Sports app
Watch free on mobile: https://t.co/81PYwJcw9t pic.twitter.com/9paFSVZqq6
"He's got a strong, convicted, clear thought process in things that he does," Falcons offensive coordinator Dave Ragone said. "So it's not surprising when you see him as a playcaller, his ability to think ahead on the next play, why he wants to do what he's doing on this play to set up the next one, because he's a clear thinker."
Ragone saw this at the ends of games last season, when Smith sometimes eschewed a traditional three-receiver look for other personnel packages fitting the situation better, like against Miami on the final drive, where Smith had three tight ends on the field for one play and then two backs and three tight ends for another. Both resulted in deep completions to tight end Kyle Pitts.
Smith's evolution into a play designer and playcaller started years back, when he was an offensive guard at North Carolina looking for his next steps in the game of football.
GARY TRANQUILL TOOK chances. The Tar Heels offensive coordinator had been a college coach for over four decades. By the time Smith became one of his offensive linemen in the mid-2000s, Tranquill was willing to experiment with designs and playcalls.
Tranquill's career path included jobs under such legendary coaches as Bill Edwards of Vanderbilt and Western Reserve, George Welsh of Navy and Virginia, Nick Saban and Bill Belichick. Tranquill could tell when a player grasped the deeper concept. Smith's work in practice showed he got it. While the two never talked much about play design or playcalling, they didn't have to. By listening, Smith could learn. Tranquill knew some of what he was trying to run could be complex, but he leaned on simplicity in explanation.
"If they don't understand what the hell they're doing," Tranquill said. "They ain't going to do it."
College football was starting to change in the early 2000s, with spread offenses catering to quarterbacks with big arms and fast legs. Tranquill tried to innovate and how he packaged plays in the run game intrigued Smith.
Smith saw how Tranquill experimented with different formations and personnel groupings. He dipped into spread formations with pre-snap movement, which you often see in Smith's designs now.
"I had a real admiration for him and the way his mind worked and it clicked with all the things I had been interested within the game of football," Smith said. "Not playing, but the strategy behind it.
"So whether he intended to or not, Tranq had a pretty good impact on me."
By the time Smith's college career was ending, he was thinking about his own strategies. And, he wanted to coach.
ONE THING THAT helped Tranquill and, in some ways, Smith with offense was spending time with defense. Tranquill coached defense for 20 years, rising to coordinator at West Virginia before moving to offense.
Smith had four years on defense, all in entry-level jobs at Ole Mississippi in college and Washington and Tennessee in the NFL. In those four years -- along with a year as a graduate assistant at UNC -- he realized he had a lot to learn.
In Washington, he watched how defensive coordinators Gregg Williams and then Greg Blache planned. It taught him a different view and helped him understand what might key defenses and, in theory, how to counteract it.
When Smith took over as the offensive coordinator in Tennessee in 2019, he remembered what Blache did when he took over for Williams. Blache didn't have to change language -- that it was about making sure things didn't affect players first. Smith handled his transition when Matt LaFleur left to become Green Bay's head coach the same way.
Blache's organization, practicality and how he broke down games stuck with Smith. So did his ability to "keep the main thing the main thing," and stay focused on the things that mattered. Those defensive coaches from Washington shaped how Smith viewed the NFL.
When you hear Smith talk about playcalls and play design today, the defensive experience comes through.
"If there's things that show up that defenses are trying to play for us, you're always looking for a counterpunch," Smith said. "It's just, the games within the games in the NFL I think don't get enough credit."
ARTHUR SMITH HAD been with the Titans for three seasons when coach Ken Whisenhunt hired Mike Mularkey to be his tight ends coach. Smith, a quality control coach without a position, became the assistant tight ends coach.
Smith was good with computers and cutups - even today, Smith considers himself "a big One Note guy." Smith knew Mularkey's playcalling and design history from Pittsburgh in 2001 to '20003 and in Atlanta with Matt Ryan, from 2008 to 2011.
"He was so intrigued by it," Mularkey said. "He just kept hanging around."
Mularkey turned into a mentor. He taught Smith how to coach and get the most out of his players. He showed him a different organization. To Smith, Tranquill's play packaging could combine with Mularkey's creativity.
When Mularkey became offensive coordinator and then Tennessee's head coach, Smith moved to tight ends coach. Under Mularkey, Smith was in charge of short-yardage and goal-line plays, presenting ideas to Mularkey. Being in those meetings and watching Mularkey helped frame Smith's philosophies.
"Whether I agreed with Mike or not, I was fascinated with the way he saw the game," Smith said. "And there are some things, some principles that Mike showed me, you're your own guy but he had a huge impact on me."
Smith and Mularkey are also big on trying new things. When Mularkey was in Pittsburgh, his receivers were Antwaan Randle-El, a former quarterback at Indiana, and Hines Ward, a receiver who played some quarterback at Georgia. Ward had his three best rushing seasons under Mularkey, carrying 33 times for 286 yards and 12 touchdowns; Randle-El rushed 34 times for 209 yards and was 10-of-12 passing in two seasons under Mularkey.
The Falcons could have two mobile quarterbacks in Marcus Mariota and Desmond Ridder, a former quarterback playing tight end (Feleipe Franks), an option college quarterback at receiver (Jared Bernhardt) and a former receiver playing running back (Cordarrelle Patterson).
Mularkey said he had 10 2-point conversion plays coaching Pittsburgh in 2002. Nine of them had trickery involved. Mularkey was never afraid to call them. Neither is Smith.
"I even look back at myself and I cannot believe, first of all, the play design, but also to have the nerve to call those plays in that situation," Mularkey said. "But Arthur, I've watched him. I watched him in Tennessee. Some of the things he did, final plays of games, the gadgetry of it, call it and win it, that takes a lot of nerve."
When Smith became a coordinator in 2019 under Mike Vrabel, he had "a clear picture" of his plan. He couldn't implement it all immediately -- the in-house promotion gave him an idea of what he was working with -- but he slowly started altering designs and game concepts. Vrabel, as a defensive guy, offered new thought processes.
Smith didn't need to reconstruct the offense; just tweak what was there. Then everything moved to Zoom because of COVID. Stuck inside watching film, Smith had more time to tinker with ideas and design.
The Titans were in the top 10 in scoring both of Smith's seasons in Tennessee. They had the No. 3 rushing offense in 2019 and the No. 2 rushing offense in 2020 with Henry as a 2,000-yard rusher in 2020.
It led to head-coaching interviews and the job in Atlanta. Smith had Ryan, who was familiar with some of his concepts from Mularkey's influence.
But this would be different. This would be Smith's offense, from first implementation, all his own.
ONE OF THE BIGGEST through-lines with Mularkey and Smith is deception. What Mularkey used to like to do during timeouts was have players in the huddle for multiple personnel groupings to keep defenses guessing.
He'd shift guys in and out during timeouts to keep them confused and give them less reaction time to call a defense. Smith has often talked about positional flexibility and position-less football. The more players they have who can fit this type of mold, the more deception can occur.
It allows Smith more creativity in play creation, how he might add distractions to a play to throw off a defense or use a player in multiple spots, like he did with Patterson and Pitts last year. Both lined up all over formations. Pitts had 42% of his snaps at tight end, 29% out wide and 28% in the slot with one snap in the backfield. He spent more time on the right side of the formation than the left. Patterson had 63% of his snaps in the backfield, 22% out wide, 11% in the slot, 4% lined up in a tight end position, two snaps at free safety and one snap (an incomplete pass) at quarterback. Patterson was more equally distributed on the right and left of formations when he wasn't in the backfield.
Smith also tries to use motion to gain leverage on a defense.
Smith didn't want to provide much insight into specific play designs because he believes he might come back to a play or concept he ran before. But his thought process aims toward evolution and pushing the boundaries of convention.
"I don't want people to say, 'Oh, he ran this play in 2019 out of this set. I know this is coming again,'" Smith said. "That's the part of the strategy I like about it. As you sit there and you're watching, you have to be careful.
"There's a fine line of being too cute and looking for that perfect play, perfect opportunity."
Last season gave him a chance to start on what he wants to do while shifting the roster. He couldn't use everything in One Note. Last year was more integration instead of full-on implementation.
Smith isn't sure how many different plays he designs in a season. A lot of plays "never make it to the final cut." Mularkey and Tranquill taught Smith it's OK to take chances as long as he's steadfast in his decision-making.
It's decisions that started with beating his brothers in NCAA and Madden -- and becoming frustrated with a friend who kept playing with the Falcons and an unstoppable Michael Vick. In some football foreshadowing, Smith used the Titans and running back Eddie George almost every play while learning the basics. It continued with the packaging of plays at North Carolina to what defenses might see in Washington to the nuance and psychology of it in Tennessee.
"I'm not afraid to try things that can be unconventional and you have to be willing to accept the criticism," Smith said. "When it doesn't work, it's going to look bad, and you can't let that get in the way of it.
"Because eventually, sometimes when you believe in what you're doing it's like, 'Let's stay at it.'"