I wanted to give myself some time away from a frustrating, occasionally exciting 2015 Falcons season to talk about what Dan Quinn was able to accomplish in his first year as head coach.
He was following one of the most beloved and successful coaches in franchise history in Mike Smith, who was 66-46 in the regular season, 1-3 in the playoffs, and paired a pair of NFC South titles with a NFC Conference Championship berth in 2012. It wasn't even close to a smashing success, but Quinn's debut season gave us glimpses of what he wants to do as the coach of the Falcons, as well as some of his weaknesses. There is reason to believe he can be a quality coach for Atlanta for a long time, and I'll try to parse out why (and why you might be hesitant to say that) below in some rambling thoughts.
- Quinn came in and instantly endeared himself to the team and the fanbase. He's a little more candid (if just as reliant on buzzwords) as Mike Smith was, he's a true player's coach, and he set about installing a positive environment right away that seemed to survive the team's huge losing skid. While the attitude and press conferences don't mean a ton in the long run, they were a change the fanbase wanted.
- Quinn came in preaching speed and physicality,and to his credit, players bought in to that idea as much as was humanly possible in one offseason. Tyson Jackson slimmed down significantly, players like Devonta Freeman and Ricardo Allen appeared to buy in and take huge steps forward, and guys seemed legitimately excited to be playing in Quinn's system, unease with the offense aside.
- There's little question that Quinn could have blown up this roster more, had he wanted to, and installed more of "his" guys. That likely would have left the Falcons worse off in the short run than they wound up being, and it would have meant that Quinn wouldn't have given chances to players like Ricardo Allen (who was a huge, pleasant surprise) and Paul Worrilow (who was about the same as he has been). Those are worthy chances for a coach to take when he knows he can't churn his entire roster in one year, and it makes the business of turning things over in 2016 easier.
- He's shown a willingness to cut ties with established players if they're no longer delivering, something we'll see a lot more of in 2016 (and already have, with Moore and Durant being cut). These won't always be the right decisions, but you want an unsentimental coach when it comes to transactions, unless of course we are talking about Roddy White.
- He's willing to try some unorthodox things, even if conventional wisdom suggests they're not great ideas. Moving Raheem Morris to offense, assembling a large, multi-faceted coaching staff, and being open to moves like Ricardo Allen to safety and Mike Person to center aren't all going to pay off, but some already have, and it's not a bad approach for a team that isn't going to be talented enough to win outright just yet.
- It feels like the Falcons have a plan, and I can't stress how important that is for the organization. The Falcons of 2013-2014 had a plan, too, but it was one based on a lot of bad assumptions (you can gin up a pass rush with scheme alone, pure run stoppers are worth a lot of money, throwing caution to the wind and deciding to give shaky, unproven offensive lineman extended run) that the team doesn't seem as likely to make under Quinn. He could fail and fail spectacularly, of course, but he's going to do so while pushing the team to get their hands on legitimate pass rushers, and trusting an expanded coaching staff that has a mandate to develop young players. Refreshing.
- Quinn proved himself to be the kind of in-game coach so many NFL coaches are: Unwilling or unable to make drastic changes (which is understandable) and showing poor critical thinking skills in the moment (which is less forgiveable). His field goal decision against San Francisco remains the defining mistake of his rookie season as a head coach, and he had occasionally shaky clock management, as well.
- I don't know how much progress we could reasonably expect from this team, but we didn't really get a ton. The pass rush was still bad, the linebackers were bad and the offense sort of imploded, not that it's his area of expertise. More on this in a moment.
- The team's performances against the NFC South, with the exception of that Carolina triumph, were downright unsettling. This Falcons team routinely looked flat and outmatched by a pair of mediocre teams in Tampa Bay and New Orleans, and getting blown off the field 38-0 in the first Carolina matchup was embarrassing. Considering how often Quinn told us he wanted to see how the team responded and cut down on mistakes, the second Tampa Bay game in particular was incredibly disheartening, with Jameis Winston's huge first down scramble going down as the single worst play of the season. Quinn's clearly going to need multiple years to coax something great out of this team, if he ever gets there, but I think it was fair to assume more improvement than we actually got.
- He's willing to try some unorthodox things, even if conventional wisdom suggests they're not great ideas. Raheem Morris to offense, and specifically wide receivers coach, may be a classic case of being overly clever with very little gain. As you can see, I'm of two minds on that move.
Quinn has the makings of a very good coach, one who tries to keep his schemes relatively simple but is willing to try some unorthodox things. What we saw in his first season was a few gambles on the personnel side, a team seemingly buying in, and a coach who was accountable and seemed to recognize the problems of his team and his roster, even if he wasn't always able to fix them. It's a promising start, but it doesn't tell us a ton about Quinn's future aside from the fact that he's always going to say "fired up" a lot.
The bottom line is that no matter how good of a coach Quinn is, he clearly needs more talent to win. Do you think he'll get it?