Pittsburgh Steelers offensive coordinator Arthur Smith, second from left, gives...

Pittsburgh Steelers offensive coordinator Arthur Smith, second from left, gives instructions to quarterback Russell Wilson (3) during the team's NFL OTA's football practice in Pittsburgh, Tuesday, May 21, 2024. Credit: AP/Gene J. Puskar

PITTSBURGH — Arthur Smith needed to get away — far away — from the NFL after the Atlanta Falcons fired him in January just hours after a third straight 7-10 finish.

So Smith and his wife Allison headed to the other side of the planet to help him clear his head. Dubai. The Maldives. Quite literally half a world away.

Smith knew he needed a break. Just a short one. Sitting out even one season didn't appeal to him. He's hardwired to coach. Even as Smith tried to clear his head, finding his next landing spot was never too far from his mind.

The phone calls with teams interested in bringing him in as an offensive coordinator were steady. One stood out. The one that had Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin on the other end.

While Smith stressed he didn't cut his vacation short to take an interview because “I didn't want to get divorced,” minutes after his plane touched down at JFK he was setting up an in-person interview in Pittsburgh that quickly turned into a job offer to help the Steelers overcome five years of mediocrity.

Asked what stood out to him about this opportunity as opposed to some others that might have come his way, Smith pointed to the franchise's storied history and the mentors he's had — Titans head coach Mike Vrabel and longtime NFL assistant Tom Moore chief among them — who were molded by their own stops in Pittsburgh.

“There's so many guys, players and coaches (that) swear by this place,” Smith said before the Steelers began mandatory minicamp on Tuesday. "It was a home run for me. It’s funny how life works that way. You know, things don’t go your way. And then another door opens, and I couldn’t have asked for a better situation.”

A situation that doesn't look dissimilar to the one Smith inherited when he took over the play-calling in Tennessee.

Those Titans teams had a bruising running game led by Derrick Henry. The Steelers have one of the best running back tandems in Najee Harris and Jaylen Warren.

Tennessee entered 2019 with a quarterback looking to reset his career in Ryan Tannehill. Russell Wilson (and Justin Fields for that matter) are trying to do the same in Pittsburgh.

Enter Smith, who couldn't quite replicate his success with the Titans during three largely blah seasons in Atlanta in which the Falcons essentially ran in place due in part to an offense that had trouble scoring points consistently.

Stability behind center didn't help. Atlanta bounced from Matt Ryan to Marcus Mariota to Desmond Ridder to Taylor Heinicke during Smith's tenure. Smith declined to get into specifics about what went wrong with the Falcons, saying simply things didn't “go the way you want.”

He should be given plenty of time to figure things out in Pittsburgh, where stability at the top has been the norm for decades. The Steelers signed Tomlin — already the league's longest-tenured coach — to a contract extension on Monday that runs through at least 2027.

Don't mistake the extension, however, for a lack of urgency. Pittsburgh has lost five straight playoff games going back to the 2016 AFC championship game, a series of setbacks that all sort of look the same, with the Steelers falling behind early for a variety of reasons and a mistake-prone offense unable to close the gap.

Rather than make an in-house promotion to fill the coordinator position — something Tomlin did with Randy Fichtner and Matt Canada — the Steelers instead identified an outsider with a philosophy that closely mirrors Tomlin's “play physical” mindset.

Only, Smith doesn't feel or sound like much of an outsider. The Steelers have spent the past few months signing players who have played for Smith before, such as running back/kick returner Cordarrelle Patterson and wide receivers Van Jefferson and Scottie Miller. Their arrivals should help ease the transition for holdovers who spent most of the past three seasons playing in a system that failed miserably.

While Smith remains cagey on just about everything — he said Wilson is in “pole position” as the starting quarterback but expects the competition with Fields to “heat up” when the team reports to training camp next month — he is adamant about his desire to stay in the league.

On the surface, going from head coach to a coordinator job is a demotion. Smith doesn't exactly see it that way.

“It's not,” he said. “If you don't have an ego or are (secure in yourself). You have to recalibrate and look at things you can learn.”

Sure, he could have taken an extended break to see if a higher-profile job came along. A self-imposed sabbatical, however, would also have carried the risk of the NFL moving on without him. And no amount of globetrotting could overcome his very real fear of missing out.

“I'm not old enough to want to sit out,” the 42-year-old Smith said. “I want to compete and I'm just thankful the opportunity is here.”

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