Coming out of the injury riddled 2013 season, the Falcons appeared poised for a bounce-back season. Promising draft picks like Jake Matthews and Ra'shede Hageman appeared to bring hope to both our offensive and defensive lines. As we all know, the 2014 season was not a bounce-back season, as the team finished 6-10 and we witnessed the end of the Mike Smith era. Many fans were frustrated by 2014, because it felt like the team could have done more. Many fans argued that the talent just wasn't good enough, while others pointed to coaching concerns with Smitty and his coordinators.
If we've seen one thing through the first three games of the pre-season though, it's this: coaching does matter. Don't get me wrong, talent is still critical no matter what a bad Keanu Reeves football movie tries to tell you. But good coaching can maximize talent while poor coaching can limit it.
Before I go on I do want to bring some reality back: Dan Quinn hasn't even coached a regular season game yet. It's entirely possible that he flames out and is out of Atlanta in short order. But the early returns are encouraging, and at the very least we're seeing significant changes in the coaching that appear to be paying dividends already.
Maximizing talent, reducing complexity
Much has been said about Dan Quinn's defense but it bears repeating. By simplifying the assignments on the field, players are better able to play at full-speed and not get caught in an endless list of reads/rules that can cause confusion. This reduction of complexity is already starting to show itself.
Paul Worrilow has looked like a man reborn in this new defense. He has been good in pass coverage and run stopping in the preseason and looks like he could flourish under Quinn. After playing DE in a 3-4 alignment for the past two years, Babineaux is back to his natural 3-tech position and has already shown he still has the ability to disrupt the backfield. Much maligned players Tyson Jackson and Paul Soliai have also shown to be better overall players in this defense, a revelation in itself.
While there's still a lot of football to be played, the difference in many of these players is already significant.
Whether it's the music at the practices, or the overall positive tone of what Quinn has to say, the players are buying in. In a recent article by Vaughn McClure at ESPN, a current Falcons player compared the current staff to the previous one and noted the significant difference in the tone and approach of Quinn versus Smitty.
I don't want to harp on Mike Smith, because I have great respect for what he did for this franchise. He was absolutely the right coach for this team when he came in. But it's becoming clear that the team needed a change, and Quinn and his staff have been a breath of fresh air so far.
Of all the things that Quinn has brought to the table, it's his out of the box thinking that has already proven to be significant. There are two prominent examples that emphasize this point already: Ricardo Allen and Adrian Clayborn.
At 5'9", Ricardo Allen is not your prototypical safety. As a fifth round pick in the 2014 draft as a cornerback, one would be reasonable if they looked at Allen and thought "long-term project as a nickel corner." In fact, the previous coaching staff would end up cutting Allen and stashing him on the practice squad - a move that confused many fans. Entering 2015, many questions centered around who would play free safety, with Charles Godfrey the presumed starter. Talk began to surface that Quinn was experimenting with putting Allen into the competition and before mini-camp had ended, Allen had emerged as the favored starter and hasn't looked back. Ricardo has looked good in the free safety role already, and many are left wondering how the previous staff didn't see this before.
Of all the free agent signings, none has had a bigger impact this preseason than Adrian Clayborn. Seen by some as a "concession" signing after the Falcons couldn't lure Derrick Morgan away from the Titans, the former Buccaneer came in with many questions. How would he fit in Quinn's defense? Can he stay healthy for 16 games? Is he really a solution to our pass rush? Well, in his games so far Clayborn has been nothing short of stellar. The difference? Quinn and his staff moved him inside as a sub-package DT and he has absolutely thrived in the role, a move few saw coming but is already looking like brilliance.
I don't want to oversell a team that hasn't done anything yet. It's easy to get caught up in the hype and optimism that all fans are prone to. But there are already signs that Quinn has brought some much needed change and creativity to this team that appeared to be lacking in recent years. If nothing else, this new staff has shown that even in a league dominated by talent, coaching still matters.