Stealing Signals, Week 7, Part 1
Why Arthur Smith is the worst, plus TNF and early Sunday games
I went in on Arthur Smith on Twitter yesterday, and that was obviously centered on the surprise Bijan Robinson (lack of) usage. I actually don’t have a lot of Bijan on my own teams — you guys know I really struggled with his price, because I loved the player, but worried about his “legendary upside,” and preferred WRs in that range — but it was still tilting to see him playing as the No. 3 RB in this game. If he wasn’t healthy, you’d think he would be a surprise inactive and not be out there.
I do have to walk back some of what I said. I figured there were possibilities there was an explanation, but I didn’t really expect Bijan himself to come out an make it clear he wasn’t upset, and was dealing with a legit migraine Saturday night and into Sunday morning. He seemed to really appreciate that his coach had his best interest in mind. Kudos to Smith for that, and it’s a good glimpse into why there have been reports that his players do like him.
One of my central points about how difficult it must be for the young players on the Falcons is it’s not fair to them to work as hard as they do and not get put in positions to succeed, and then have to deal with stuff like the worst of the FF world jumping into their social media mentions to tell them they suck because they didn’t score enough fantasy points. Knowing the way those FF players think, and also the general sentiment on Kyle Pitts, I’m quite certain that’s something Pitts has had to deal with, and man that’s just pretty shitty because it’s so clearly not on him, or at least he’s not being put in the best positions to let his own successes or failures dictate that stuff (which doesn’t mean that online vitriol would be valid in those cases, but it’s especially tough when the ball’s not even in your court).
But in Bijan’s case, the player in question defended the situation, and while we would have preferred an inactive or more or an explanation from the team so we could have responded — the NFL is reportedly asking the team injury-report compliance questions — it can pretty easily be argued that letting Robinson stay active so he didn’t feel like he was being punished or anything, and was still there as part of the team, but not pushing him into too much work, was the decision in the best interest of the player. It sounds like Robinson’s headache was worst Saturday night, and he probably could have toughed it out if needed Sunday, so he was sort of an emergency backup. The specific usage to get him his first touch late in the fourth quarter just to set up a field goal makes zero sense, obviously. But in the end, the explanation does have some validity to it.
Having clearly stated all that, it doesn’t mean all Smith criticism is invalid. In fact, there’s a huge part of me that believes he handled this a specific way as cover, where he’s smart enough to know he wouldn’t be criticized in the end here. More broadly, there is a pattern with Smith, and while this instance may not be an additional data point, it’s also not necessarily beyond reproach. I do think it can be said that no other coach would have handled this in this specific way, and Smith’s eagerness to be contrarian in ineffective ways is part of the problem. While I do respect what Bijan said, there are still elements like the specific usage, and then Smith seemingly blowing off Kristina Pink in the halftime interview when she did her job well to ask the question everyone wanted to know the answer to, and got — to quote her — “‘Look, he’s just not feeling all that great’ and that’s all he said,” which felt very much like she was really hoping for more, and there’s ultimately no reason he couldn’t have obliged.
That Smith is condescending to media members isn’t new. That he turns on the attack when asked about specific player usage to criticize fantasy football — something he did last year and then again after Week 1 this year — isn’t new. He seems to get off on being abrasive, and on talking down to people as if they don’t understand. Again, there are basically no other coaches who approach their jobs in this way, with the possible exception of Bill Belichick, who was mentioned to me on Twitter. And to be fair, that’s a frustrating part of Belichick’s whole thing, and he’s at his best when he’s willing to open up a bit in media sessions. People celebrate how cool his longform answers can be.
He’s also earned a lot more than Smith has. I got commentary on Twitter about Smith’s past successes, so I pointed out that he has gone 7-10 each of his two full seasons as a head coach, and is now 4-3 this year. At this point, of his 18 wins as a head coach, 14 have come by 7 points or fewer. That’s 78% one-score victories. Of his 23 losses, only nine have come by 7 points or fewer, or 39%. He’s 4-16 in games decided by 8 points or more, and a big part of my criticism over the past couple years is there’s no end game here. His defenders argue he’s overperformed with bad rosters; I argue he’s playing for mediocrity (at the expense of developing his players), and that he isn’t building something that can consistently beat good teams, but rather just be .500 in one of the league’s worst divisions. If he were somehow able to leverage his team’s weak schedule and sneak into the playoffs, he’d have no shot of actually taking this type of success on a real playoff run. It’d be a lot like the Giants last year, where they actually did get one playoff win over the widely-called-fraudulent Vikings, and then got absolutely toasted by the Eagles when they had to face a stiff playoff test. That’s like the ceiling for how Smith coaches; sneak into the playoffs, beat another team that doesn’t really have a right to be there and isn’t a legit contender either, and then get smashed when the rubber meets the road. Obviously crazy things can happen in football, but I’m not sure there’s anything that suggests he’s building a team with more potential than that.
In writing some of this out in the replies on Twitter, I also got a response about Smith’s time in Tennessee, and I reminded that person that Smith was a long-time quality control and then tight ends coach who was an internal hire after Matt LaFleur got the head coaching job in Green Bay. As an internal hire, he wasn’t installing a whole new offense; he did oversee an uptick in production, and I’m sure he added stuff to the equation. I’ve always said he’s a good run-game designer, and Derrick Henry thrived under Smith. His offenses also often use play-action and motion at decent rates.
But Smith also took over Tennessee for A.J. Brown’s rookie season, and that made a huge impact on their statistical improvements. Brown, incidentally, posted a 100-yard game on 25 snaps in Week 1 of his rookie season, and then put up 94 yards and 2 TDs on just 26 snaps (and 3 targets) in Week 4. He had other strong games, but had to wait until Week 10 to play more than 70% of his team’s snaps in any game. He’d go on to be fantasy’s overall WR2 across the final six weeks of that year, which is just more evidence of Smith refusing to use his talented players for reasons that legitimately do not make sense, no matter how much his apologists want to try to defend it. That Titans team was 4-5 after the first nine weeks, went 5-2 down the stretch to finish 9-7 (which matched their 9-7 records from each of the two years prior, before Smith took over), and then they paid Ryan Tannehill handsomely because his taking over at QB coincided with A.J. Brown playing more. They had a great offensive season the next year and went 11-5, before Smith got the Atlanta job. Then they’d go 12-5 the year after that, without Smith, but when they still had Brown, and then fall off last year without Brown.
I’m not trying to say it was 100% Brown and not at all Tannehill (or Smith, although I’m kind of saying that), but the production uptick was more about player talent than is probably immediately obvious. Arthur Smith’s great time in Tennessee was two years as an offensive coordinator where he was an internal hire who took over an already-installed Derrick Henry-focused offense and had just drafted a WR who turned out to be one of the very best of his generation, and if Smith did anything with Brown it was stifle his development. I’m quite sure he added something to their equation, as I said, but let’s not give him too much credit, and let’s understand that talent wins in the NFL. This was Henry’s prime and AJB’s coming of age. That’s why their offense improved.
That’s the difference between Belichick and Smith — Belichick has always understood that to win in the NFL, he needed to build one offense around Randy Moss and Wes Welker, and then an entirely different one a few years later around two young TEs in Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez, and still other rushing-focused offenses and so many different defenses over the years where he has always fit scheme to talent. That the guy is a scheme encyclopedia is his biggest strength because it’s allowed him to take advantage of the unique skills of all the very best players that have come through New England. And so when Belichick bristles at the media — and often because he’s being asked a regrettable question — you can feel the condescension but you also understand it comes from a certain place of expertise, and it’s almost like he’s asking the reporter to go do their job well, too. Go research something so you can ask a better question, that kind of thing. Is it great? No, never cared for it. But it’s fundamentally different than Smith being condescending simply because he’s an asshole, or doesn’t want to give an answer. There is absolutely nothing in Smith’s coaching history that suggests he’s earned the right to make it difficult on reporters doing their jobs. His press conferences are just him trying to avoid questions.
Anyway, it isn’t really fair to make this whole intro about Arthur Smith today when, like I said, I was the one who was wrong about the latest Smith incident. But I do get questions about my dislike of this guy, and while I get it, I sometimes want to clarify that this runs through several incidents. The reason this matters is because he’s basically the worst head coach for fantasy football we’ve maybe ever had — certainly the worst in the NFL right now, in my estimation. But it’s also not the only issue I have with Arthur Smith, which is perhaps the thrust of this intro: I dislike him because of fantasy but also for other reasons.
For a while I thought it was probably unfair to claim he’s just another middle-aged white dude with confidence — and in this case, one whose dad founded FedEx and he’s an heir to a literal fortune, who grew up with a silver spoon and you can tell given the way he talks to literally everyone (other than, it seems, his players) — but the more you learn about Smith, the more you have to admit that if you believe there’s a legitimate representation problem in NFL coaching, it’s because of exactly this type of dude. There is nothing about Arthur Smith that makes him worthy of one of 32 head coaching gigs. That’s not to say he’s a terrible human being, but he’s boring and he’s average as hell. It’s a waste of our time. For Falcons fans, it’s a waste of the rookie contracts of exciting players.
I got some “virtue signaling” replies when I brought this up on Twitter, and I get that it’s uncomfortable to read about skin color, but if you want to actually advocate for how to fix the representation problem — or you just want to see more good, young coaches get opportunities to make the league more exciting, whatever — then you have to be able to see situations like this for what they are. Arthur Smith is the low-upside fantasy pick that might have value but definitely is not moving the needle. He’s what my buddy Peter Overzet wrote about in the latest edition of his excellent P.O. Box newsletter, commenting on fantasy analysts when he wrote, “most fantasy pundits care far more about being right than they do about actually winning.”
My jaded thoughts that Smith held out Bijan because he knew he could blame it if they lost, and could take credit if they won, are probably wrong. But on some level the way he handled it gave him a chance to be the center of the story, and show that he can run his offense without the talent, which seems to be a goal of his. Like a lot of people who grew up intelligent but being told they were smarter than they probably are, he desperately wants to be thought of as the genius coach who found some way to win that no one else could.
The worst of this type of person is the one who, when they don’t have the answers, turns to condescension instead of listening and learning. I added the ESPN article I linked above after having finished this whole intro, and while working on the rest of the piece, but here’s a fun section from that article that fits right in here as a perfect example of something I’d described before knowing this quote existed:
This is your classic, “I don’t have an answer, so I’m going to say ‘it’s pretty simple’ to try to make you feel like a dumbass.” He’s not saying anything, but he’s not saying anything confidently, and it’s disarming.
But don’t get it confused — this is nonsense. It’s three different comments one after another (two-minute, situational football, changes how people want to call it), and none of them answer the question. They had other options all game long. This is a stupid answer masquerading as being above the question, and it’s the kind of thing Smith does constantly.
As we wind this down, I have something that’s super off the wall that I learned about Smith’s family while digging into Wikipedia a bit yesterday. I was making all sorts of claims about him, so I was curious to read a little more about his dad and the FedEx stuff and see if I was just being totally unfair. And I mean obviously I didn’t learn anything and I don’t know the real story about anything, but one note is he has a sister who is a movie producer (which feels like one of those jobs you get when your family is rich and connected, but what do I know). And one of the other interesting tidbits in Arthur’s Smith’s dad’s “personal life” section is Arthur’s youngest brother married the daughter of Leigh Anne and Sean Tuohy, who were the couple featured along with future NFL player Michael Oher in the story that was popularized by the story behind the movie The Blind Side.
You can probably see where this is going, but I went back to Arthur Smith’s sister the movie producer’s Wikipedia page, and sure enough that movie was the second she ever produced, and the first where she was an “executive” producer. You might have heard earlier this year that Oher — ostensibly the most important figure in the story — clarified that story was more or less a lie, and it turns out that in August he actually filed suit alleging the Tuohys “never adopted him, but instead created a conservatorship which gave them the legal authority to make business deals in his name. He alleged that the Tuohys used their power as conservators to strike a deal that paid them and their two children millions of dollars in royalties from The Blind Side while Oher received nothing.” I’m not saying Arthur Smith’s sister in her role as executive producer was on the other side of that deal which enriched her sister-in-law, because I couldn’t possibly know that. But if you ever wondered what happened with Oher and how The Blind Side actually screwed him over, then you might have (like me) found it interesting how Arthur Smith’s family tied in to presumably help the movie get made a certain way.
(It did occur to me the happy couple might have met through the process of the movie getting made, and that was perhaps the most logical explanation rather than the families already being close, but that wasn’t the case — they married in 2016, but the bride notes in one of the first hits from my quick Google that they dated for 11 years prior to that, and the movie was released in 2009, with the book released in 2006.)
Before you get up in arms at me about all this, remember these people are heirs to billions with a “B” — they’ll be fine without your defense. (If I disappear, though, follow the little white rabbit.)
And it’s not like any of the top-10 picks Smith has misused will be hurting for money (hopefully not, but millions are very different than billions). But it’s worth reiterating that a big part of my frustration is centered on the players, and how their careers are legitimately being impacted by this, both in terms of their production/legacies, and how that impacts their future earning power.
And also, how guys like Pitts get attacked on social for “sucking” — or worse, get racial slurs thrown at them, like Alexander Mattison shared earlier this year, and presumably happens far more than is actually circulated — when it’s just a scheme thing or whatever. That’s not a fun situation for a 22-year old who probably doesn’t feel he can speak out against his own head coach, and that doesn’t mean this 36-year old wannabe blogger should be trying to speak for him, but I mean I’m at least going to call it like I see it. Arthur Smith sucks.
Let’s get to the games. Only seven today, which is rare for a Monday, and afforded me the opportunity to indulge in my hatred of someone I’ve never met and likely have all wrong.
Data is typically courtesy of NFL fastR via the awesome Sam Hoppen, but I will also pull from RotoViz apps, Pro Football Reference, PFF, Next Gen Stats, Fantasy Life, the Fantasy Points Data Suite, and I get my PROE numbers from the great Michael Leone of Establish The Run. Part 1 of Week 1 included a glossary of important statistics to know for Stealing Signals.
Jaguars 31, Saints 24
Key Stat: Alvin Kamara — 17 HVTs (most by any RB since at least the start of 2021)
By 2023 standards, Thursday Night Football was electric, with scoring and pace and play volume — the Saints ran the most plays of any team in the NFL at 87, and threw 55 times, while Jacksonville didn’t have quite the same volume but posted over 400 yards of offense. Over at Ship Chasing, we do TNF watch-alongs, and release our favorite Underdog Pick ‘Em entries, and anyway the late Christian Kirk (6-6-90-1) touchdown, which would go down as the game-winner, pushed us over the edge for I think $2,600 in winnings across a couple different Pick ‘Em entries. I was excited.
Calvin Ridley (4-1-5) had another quiet game, while dealing with Marshon Lattimore on the outside. If you look at the WOPRs for Jacksonville’s pass catchers, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a team so condensed — each of the main four pass-catchers were between 0.44 and 0.46. For Kirk, Evan Engram (7-5-45), and even Jamal Agnew (6-4-36), that meant more targets at a lower aDOT, while for Ridley it was just four looks at a very high 18.8 aDOT. But Ridley easily led the team with his 75 air yards, and it’s not like he’s completely out of the offense; at this point, his production has been lacking so much that it’s time to call that “Noise,” even as I’m not saying it’ll rebound to preseason ADP levels. He’ll be part of this passing game, though, and is a solid buy low (if one you need to be practical about in terms of ceiling, and thus cost). I’d probably value Kirk and Ridley about equal rest of season, with perhaps a slight edge to Kirk for past production, but nothing close to the gap in their scoring to date.
Travis Etienne (14-53-2, 5-3-24) scored twice for the third straight week, once again hitting once from inside the green zone and once from outside it. This is the whole thesis for a guy like this, honestly. You want the green zone role, but you also know he has the potential to run hot on long-distance TDs, and he’s done that in this stretch. Just because we’re always in a buy-and-sell world, I’ll note that I’m not sure Etienne’s specific production makes him a surefire legendary season type of player, and thus if I could get a massive haul that values him as a top-three RB rest of season, I’d at least consider moving off of him. But ultimately, as I’ve written before, you get into more problems than good outcomes when you try to force a trade of a performing player. And there’s still meat on the bone for Etienne in the passing game if Trevor Lawrence ever starts checking down a little more; his routes have been much stronger than his receptions.
As I noted, the Saints ran a ton of plays, but they wound up needing more, running out of downs in the red zone while trying to push the game into overtime when Foster Moreau had a ball go off his hands on third down, and then the Saints I guess just decided to give up their fourth down with a quick fade that had no shot of working. Alvin Kamara (17-62, 14-12-91) was the biggest story, and I’ve written about how his receiving role might manifest since the offseason, but I certainly didn’t expect this. Kamara was unable to convert any of 5 green zone touches, and hasn’t been particularly explosive, but it doesn’t really matter for PPR leaguers because from the opening whistle until the final drive, Kamara just got peppered with checkdowns from Derek Carr. If you’re going to flirt with double-digit receptions in a game, that’s obviously the immediate 10 points (in PPR, or 5 in half), and then the yardage is almost certainly going to add another 5 points at minimum, and probably close to 10. And then you have rushing yardage. That type of receiving role is just so valuable from a floor sense — you’re almost a lock to hit 15 and flirt with 20 — and the ceiling is also there is you have any yardage efficiency and/or obviously score some touchdowns now and then. Obviously Kamara isn’t going to do this every week — the play and pass volume were key here — but he’s literally averaging 8.8 receptions per game through four contests, and there’s very little in this offense that would suggest it’ll stop. With another 9 green zone touches through four games, Kamara’s this year’s HVT god.
Jamaal Williams (5-14) returned to the No. 2 role, while Kendre Miller was relegated to just three out of the 87 snaps. Miller might still work his way ahead of these two veterans by the end of the year, and the way Kamara’s being used you can see scenarios where that could be pretty appealing. But at this point, I also understand if you need to cut him in home leagues. He’s now a longer-term play.
Chris Olave (15-7-57) had a quiet game for a guy with 15 targets, but continues to draw big volume whenever out there. Michael Thomas (7-3-42-1) found paydirt and continues his solid season for a 30-year old who hadn’t played more than the seven 2023 games he’s now played since 2019. Rashid Shaheed (8-4-28) saw volume and nearly made a ridiculous one-handed TD catch, but couldn’t quite get down in bounds.
Taysom Hill (5-18-1, 5-4-50) rushed for a TD while running routes on 70% of dropbacks, his second straight game over 60% after not hitting 50% in any of the first five. Juwan Johnson is expected back for Week 8 and that is sure to shake things up, so it’s tough to know what to expect from Hill’s wonky usage next week.
Signal: Alvin Kamara — 11 HVTs per game (huge usage both as a receiver and in the green zone, and while the efficiency is really lacking, very solid PPR production is going to be there with this usage); Kendre Miller — just three snaps in Jamaal Williams’ return
Noise: Calvin Ridley — 5 yards (team-high 75 air yards, not distancing as a No. 1 but still very clearly in the mix, had a tough matchup here); Taysom Hill — 70% routes (second straight game of decent routes and receiving production, plus the TD equity, makes him feel like a streamable TE option, but Juwan Johnson is expected to return next week to shake things up); Saints — 87 plays, 53 passes
Ravens 38, Lions 6
Key Stat: Ravens — +12.2% PROE (second highest in Week 7, through Sunday)