One night this season, as Arthur was managing his first year as the Titans’ offensive coordinator, he asked his dad whether he knew General Jim Mattis, the former U.S. secretary of defense. Of course he did, his father replied. Fred Smith was a decorated Marine before he became a business tycoon and one of the richest men in the world — he’s also a shareholder of the Washington Redskins — so he put Arthur in touch.
“He asked him how he assessed opponents, about how he adjusted to different situations,” Fred Smith said of his son’s conversation with Mattis. “He’s just a sponge for people who are good at their jobs and who have to both manage and lead people. I tried to steer Arthur to the study of the great captains, to understand what leadership is all about.”
Fred Smith said that his son has kept in touch with Mattis throughout the Titans’ playoff run — which began with an upset win over the New England Patriots in the first round last week and will continue with Saturday’s divisional-round road game against the top-seeded Baltimore Ravens — and that unlikely relationship helps illustrate the reputation that Arthur Smith has developed in his first season calling plays.
Those close to Smith, who was not made available for comment by the Titans, describe him as a coach who relentlessly puts in long hours during the season. He’s a voracious reader, known often to devour the Wall Street Journal, and he’s constantly looking to learn from figures outside of football to help fine-tune his leadership of the Titans’ offense, the franchise’s highest-scoring unit in 16 years.
The success of the offense has hinged on a midseason change at quarterback — Ryan Tannehill took over for Marcus Mariota and rebooted his career — and leaned heavily on running back Derrick Henry, the NFL’s rushing leader. But Smith also has earned his share of credit, including from CBS announcer Tony Romo during Saturday’s broadcast of Tennessee’s upset win over the Patriots. Smith has found success blending a run-heavy playbook that features crafty play-action, bootlegs and screens — all of which have cast the 37-year-old as a young, innovative offensive mind in a league that increasingly values that ability.
It’s exactly what Tennessee Coach Mike Vrabel expected after former offensive coordinator Matt LaFleur left to become the Green Bay Packers’ head coach last offseason, leading Vrabel to promote Smith from his job as tight ends coach.
“I thought he was ready,” Vrabel said. “I thought he has continued to grow and develop. He’s put a lot of work in. He does a nice job during the game of making adjustments, and he has a great relationship with the quarterbacks and the entire offense.”
It has been Smith’s ability to forge tight relationships with his players that has made him enough of a fixture to remain on staff of four different head coaches in Tennessee. When he arrived in 2011, he landed on the other side of the ball as a defensive quality control coach, working closely with the team’s linebackers coach, Dave McGinnis.
One of McGinnis’s duties, with Smith assisting, was to scout opponents, analyze their protections and to formulate the Titans’ pressure packages.
“Arthur took it to a completely different level,” said McGinnis, who also was entrusted on game-plan day to get in front of his fellow coaches and present his strategy. He recommended that Smith do it instead.
“He was marvelous,” said McGinnis, who is now the color commentator for the Titans Radio Network. “There’s something to say that there is no job too small for you to do, and there’s also something to say that there’s no job too big for you to handle. That’s Arthur.”
Smith was determined to coach from an early age. His father often would observe him during backyard football games directing other kids on plays. Fred Smith wanted his son to become a better reader and student, so he sent him to board at Georgetown Prep, a private school in North Bethesda. By the end of his sophomore year, he had become a devoted student and had taken command of offseason workouts with the football team, becoming a college prospect at offensive tackle. He would make recommendations to his coaches on the team’s veer offense, and he often would bury himself in the team’s offices to watch hours of game film.
“He was a constant studier,” Georgetown Prep Coach Dan Paro said. “He was born to live somewhere in the game of football.”
Smith’s football career at the University of North Carolina was interrupted by a serious foot injury, but that season he sat out also allowed him to study the game analytically from the sideline. He stayed on as a graduate assistant in 2006, followed by a stint as a defensive quality coach with the Washington Redskins under Joe Gibbs.
“I think the most important thing for Arthur with the Redskins, when he was there, was watching Joe Gibbs,” Fred Smith said. “I think he was so impressed by Joe Gibbs’s philosophy, the way he managed and led the Redskins, I think Arthur has modeled a lot of what he has done in his career after Joe Gibbs.”
After leaving the Redskins in 2008, he nearly joined the Marines, his father said, but the pins in his foot kept him from enlisting. It may have been easy for Smith to work for his father, who according to Forbes is worth $3.7 billion, but he was drawn back to coaching and eventually landed in Tennessee, where he has worked on the staffs of head coaches Mike Munchak, Ken Whisenhunt, Mike Mularkey and Vrabel.
“He has an insight into players, and he generates trust from players,” McGinnis said.
That trust could be felt by Washington Redskins physician John Tabacco this offseason when a former Titans player joined the Redskins for training camp. Tabacco introduced himself as a childhood friend of Smith’s — they played on the offensive line together at Georgetown Prep — and asked the player about his time with Smith in Tennessee.
“I was just trying to make chitchat,” Tabacco said of the interaction. “He choked up and said, ‘I’ve never met a guy so trustworthy, so direct and who really lets you know where you stand.' ”
Those were some of the qualities that Fred Smith wanted to instill in his son from an early age, when Arthur would constantly be asking questions about how things worked. He’s still asking his father questions every few nights in their brief phone conversations after long days at the Titans’ facility, and Fred Smith always tries to help, whether it’s just to offer advice or to pass along the contact info of a military commander.
“He’s his own man, I can assure you that,” Fred Smith said of his son. “Nobody in his family is surprised at what Arthur is doing.”