By now, you know Dan Quinn’s mantra for this team. Repeat it with me now - “fast and physical.” As Falcons fans, we heard the phrase at least 190,000 times in the first week that Quinn joined the team. Some fans even made fun of the phrase, though many were cautiously optimistic that he would actually bring that to fruition. That optimism was well founded.
In just year 2, Dan Quinn has taken the Falcons to the Super Bowl. Many fans were frustrated by the 2015 8-8 campaign, and some even wondered if Dan Quinn was the right guy to helm this team. That said, the evidence of what he’s built - and how he has personally grown as a coach - is hard to ignore.
Setting a clear vision
From day one, Dan Quinn’s vision for the Falcons was absolutely clear. He wanted fast players who could play physically. The first thought most fans would have is “isn’t this what every coach wants” and while true, the devil is always in the details. As covered elsewhere, the Falcons adopted an approach to assessing players that measures their “toughness.” This evaluation process eliminates guys who are “soft” or who don’t have a particularly competitive nature. While this was implemented at the end of Mike Smith’s time with the Falcons, it was honed under Dan Quinn.
Quinn has emphasized that speed across the board. Whereas draft classes in the past would look for “special teams guys” in the later rounds, Dan Quinn has kept the emphasis on finding hard hitting athletes with speed throughout the draft and even in free agency. This emphasis puts the priority on finding physically capable players instead of those who can “contribute” sooner. This wouldn’t necessarily work on every team, but with Quinn’s “simplistic” approach to defense, the emphasis on athleticism is a perfect fit.
That is another key factor: Quinn isn’t necessarily looking for the absolute best players as much as he’s looking for the absolute best player in what he’s trying to do offensively and defensively. The two are not necessarily the same. Take for example the drafting of Keanu Neal. Many labeled him a “reach” but Quinn knew that - for what he wanted to do on defense - Neal was a perfect fit. The same can also be said for Deion Jones (also labeled a reach) and De’Vondre Campbell (considered very raw). Yet, here we are and all three players are contributing, with Neal and Jones as viable defensive rookie of the year candidates and Campbell getting better every week.
This vision has made drafting and free agency very focused, and the success of the past two draft classes (and moves in free agency) are proof that Dan Quinn’s vision has been a huge factor in the quick turn around for the Falcons.
Coaches and players almost universally love working for Dan Quinn. Part of the reason Michael Bennett returned to Seattle was because of the bond he formed with Quinn when Dan Quinn was the defensive line coach for the Seahawks. If you ask anyone around Dan Quinn, his authenticity is what stands out most of all. The coach you see in the videos is the same one on the field.
One particular episode in Falcons history stands out to me as a point of comparison. What Falcons fan can forget the infamous Oklahoma drill Mike Smith ran for “Hard Knocks” during the 2014 season. Anyone who had followed Smitty and the Falcons for any stretch of time could easily see this was a bit of a joke, just not an intentional one. Mike Smith wanted desperately to instill toughness into the team, but the Oklahoma drill only proved further that he just didn’t know how to. It was a sad sight, and may have been the biggest statement on Smith’s final years with the team.
Contrast that to Dan Quinn’s practices. Music blasts onto the practice field as Dan Quinn (and all of his coaches) interact with the players after every single play. Coach Quinn himself would “strap up” and participate in some of the drills to emphasize what he wanted from his players. Hands-on. High energy. Authentic.
The best leaders connect well with all of their people while also maintaining the fine (but important) line of hierarchy and respect. It’s a tough balancing act. Jim Mora fell too far on the side of befriending players while Coach Smith eventually became too disconnected from his guys. Right now, Quinn has found that balance, and it is resonating with every single person in the organization. The “Brotherhood” is not just a statement, it’s a reality that Quinn has injected into the team and that even the fans have adopted. None of it resonates if Quinn isn’t authentic in setting the tone himself.
Ultimately, football is still about the players and how they execute. A great coach can only do so much with the talent he’s given. Thomas Dimitroff and Scott Pioli deserve a tremendous amount of credit for restocking this roster with “Quinn” guys. That said, Dan Quinn has made the most of the guys he’s been given. He’s drawn them closer together and gotten the best out of each one of them.
None of this is a guarantee that the Falcons will win the Super Bowl next Sunday. However, what Dan Quinn has done in his short time with the team is no fluke. In setting a clear vision and coaching authentically, he has turned this franchise around quickly. Fans should be excited not only about this season, but the future of the franchise. It appears to be in good hands once again.