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How Dan Quinn and a restructured front office transformed the Falcons into championship-caliber team in two years

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After suffering from countless disappointing losses and several roadblocks, the Atlanta Falcons are one game away from winning their first Super Bowl. How did a team without an identity two years ago manage to rebuild so quickly?

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NFL: NFC Championship-Green Bay Packers at Atlanta Falcons Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

When the Atlanta Falcons blew a 17 point lead against the San Francisco 49ers in the 2013 NFC Championship game, it marked a bitter end to a memorable season.

Despite falling short, this team was poised to make another run at the Super Bowl. An efficient offense and veteran-filled defense had made the Falcons into a perennial playoff team. For the first time in franchise history, playoff football became a yearly tradition in Atlanta. Unfortunately, each loss became more painful during Mike Smith’s tenure.

A hard fought loss against Arizona in 2009 didn’t ruin the new regime’s fairy tale season. Everything appeared to be on the right track between Ryan, Smith, and Thomas Dimitroff. Not forcing a single punt against the Green Bay Packers and not scoring any points offensively against the New York Giants put immense pressure on the entire organization. Although they had a memorable 2012 season, it proved to be nothing more than a distant memory.

Ultimate Failures

Atlanta won 13 games in 2012, while only securing a combined ten wins in 2013 and 2014. Star defensive players such as John Abraham and Asante Samuel were released. Todd McClure and Tony Gonzalez retired in the following years. Locker room leaders, respected veterans, and playmakers all departed in a matter of two years.

With the exception of Desmond Trufant and Robert Alford, there weren’t any suitable replacements acquired or drafted. Perennial playoff teams are supposed to evolve by drafting well and making logical signings to enhance their ability to compete for a championship. That never transpired during Smith’s final two seasons as head coach.

Signing aging veterans (Osi Umenyiora, Steven Jackson), drafting major flops (Peter Konz, Lamar Holmes), and the presence of a flawed motto (We Need Toughness) left the franchise in disarray. Instead of acquiring a capable edge rusher or drafting an acclaimed pass rushing prospect, they opted to invest in one-dimensional run stuffers like Paul Soliai and Tyson Jackson.

Their motives didn’t make any sense in a rapidly developing pass-first league. Ryan’s growth into becoming a top-tier quarterback was halted, and the dynamic duo of Julio Jones and Roddy White lost precious years as well. How does a team without any quarterback concerns falter so badly?

After five winning seasons, it would seem harsh to fire the most successful head coach in franchise history following two losing seasons. Owner Arthur Blank was left no other choice. The roster was too severely damaged. A once-productive running game became non-existent. A once-solidified offensive line became fragmented with poor draft picks and underachievers.

Not addressing prolonged issues at defensive end and linebacker left a lasting effect on the worst defense in the league during the 2014 season. Smith’s questionable clock management decisions didn’t do him any favors either. They couldn’t waste another season with their star quarterback and superstar wide receiver. A new leader and overall identity was needed.

Reconstruction Period

Searching for a new head coach turned into a rollercoaster ride. Rex Ryan and Todd Bowles spurned second interviews for other ventures. Some rumblings about Scott Pioli’s presence left them at a disadvantage compared to the Buffalo Bills and New York Jets. While nobody ever confirmed that rumor, they decided to settle down and wait patiently for Dan Quinn.

The former Seattle defensive coordinator was a true player’s coach. Players constantly raved about his ability to motivate and coach up everyone on the roster, and certainly no franchise needed more defensive help than the Falcons.

Dimitroff surprisingly retained his position, despite relinquishing some general managing responsibilities. That particular front office decision created a unique setup for the new regime. The roster was lacking above average or even promising talent at several positions. Thankfully for their sake, the NFC South was an utter disaster in 2014. A few upgrades could make this a playoff-caliber team, albeit a very fortunate one.

Instead of making a mega free agent splash, they decided to be more active and add mid-level players to the roster. Signing Brooks Reed and Justin Durant provided much-needed experience at linebacker following a season without any NFL-caliber starting linebackers. Adrian Clayborn and O’Brien Schofield brought different styles to a pass rushing unit lacking in every aspect. Adding Jacob Tamme, Leonard Hankerson, and Chris Chester appeared to be solid moves as well.

What will be most remembered about the 2015 off-season was the haul from the NFL Draft. For the first time in many years, major networks and websites commended the Falcons’ selections. Picking Vic Beasley silenced the long cries for a young pass rusher. Tevin Coleman’s game changing speed would compliment Devonta Freeman’s shifty violent style. Replacing Harry Douglas with Justin Hardy made absolute sense. Trading up for Grady Jarrett to give them an immediate long-term replacement when they release Soliai or Jackson was brilliant. Jalen Collins’ upside generated plenty of interest based on Quinn’s fondness for taller physical cornerbacks.

Each new addition seemed to be falling into place, though the starting lineup was still filled with question marks. Not every issue could be addressed in a single off-season, especially for a team coming off two poor seasons, but it was a step in the right direction.

Not many analysts highlighted Ryan’s task of learning a new offense under Kyle Shanahan. Nobody imagined the relationship between one of the few reliable assets on the roster and a sophisticated offensive coordinator would surpass every other issue.

Growing Pains

The starting quarterback will always command more attention than any other position. For every breakout player or moment, it only takes a subpar quarterback performance to seize headlines. That is how Quinn’s first season ultimately transpired. It didn’t matter that Freeman, Trufant, Patrick DiMarco, and Ryan Schraeder developed into top-tier players at their respective position. Ryan had the worst season of his career in 2015. During his downward spiral, significant problems were being overlooked.

White’s catastrophic decline and Hankerson’s poor hands left a gaping hole at wide receiver. The interior offensive line struggled in pass protection, which featured Mike Person’s inability to consistently snap a football. Producing only a league-low 19 sacks showed how the front office needed to be more aggressive in rebuilding the defensive line. Between Durant and William Moore being constantly injured to the lack of speed at linebacker, personnel changes were imminent.

Ryan’s issues were staggering. An above-average veteran quarterback can’t lead the league in red zone turnovers. He looked jittery in the pocket, and he didn’t look comfortable running bootlegs, which is a well-known part of Shanahan’s offense. His interceptions resembled a second-year quarterback still learning how to read defenses rather than an eight-year, battle-tested quarterback.

For the first time since 2008, the Falcons had to make serious offensive changes. That didn’t necessarily mean finding a new quarterback. It meant addressing notable weaknesses at wide receiver and center. A more stable offensive line could only benefit Ryan. Adding more speed on the outside and another red zone option to pair with Jones should bolster an anemic passing game.

Shanahan needed to refine his philosophy as well. Taking away key elements such as running the no-huddle didn’t help his struggling quarterback. The offensive coordinator has to cater to their quarterback’s strengths in some capacity. From developing young talent to being more active in free agency and releasing aging players, Quinn had an enormous challenge on his hands.

Taking risks

A more forceful approach to free agency was expected in Quinn’s second season. Since McClure retired in 2013, the Falcons have suffered from a carousel of disappointment at the center position. Konz, Person, Joe Hawley, and James Stone received opportunities to replace the beloved thirteen-year veteran. Each of them failed miserably. They desperately needed a commanding leader on a slowly improving offensive line. It meant offering a five year, $45 million dollar contract to a 30-year-old center.

Alex Mack’s previous success in Shanahan’s zone blocking scheme made him an ideal fit. Did spending an enormous amount on the best available center make sense for a team lacking talent in so many other areas? They didn’t have another pass rushing threat to pair with Beasley, a starting caliber linebacker, or strong safety on the roster.

With a restless fanbase wanting to see immediate upgrades, the front office made signing Mohamed Sanu a priority. The versatile weapon was viewed as a number two wide receiver, who can be a difference maker in the red zone based on his size and ability to win in traffic. There was little evidence to suggest that the Falcons found a reliable number two wide receiver. Sanu never caught more than 56 passes or topped 790 yards in a season.

By struggling to create separation against man coverage and leading the NFL with 15 drops in 2014, how exactly was he going to be a major upgrade over Hankerson? A five year, $32.5 million dollar deal for a limited wide receiver known for throwing sixty yard bombs and trick plays rather than catching the ball didn’t exactly inspire confidence for a team lacking wide receiver depth behind Jones.

The front office did make some sensible moves by re-signing Clayborn and acquiring Derrick Shelby. Two hard-nosed versatile players would be useful for a rebuilding defensive line. Releasing White, Durant, and Moore were logical decisions based on each player’s decline. The free agency period still left a lot to be desired at the time, especially when they lost out on Danny Trevathan and Jerrell Freeman to Chicago.

Quinn’s success was built off several different elements. “Fast and Physical” is more than a catchy team slogan. The fiery head coach wanted this theme to translate within his defense. It couldn’t be established with aging veterans and limited players being depended on as starters.

Besides adding Michael Bennett and Cliff Avril in free agency, Seattle’s phenomenal defense was built in the draft. Quinn drafted three current starters in the 2015 Draft. He managed to outdo that impressive total in 2016. Quinn and Dimitroff share a mutual belief about the defensive rebuilding process. They want athletic players, who possess speed and explosive traits, yet play with urgency. Specific prospects were pinpointed as potential long-term pieces. Round projections proved to be irrelevant in this draft.

Many analysts believed Keanu Neal and Deion Jones were selected a round higher than expected. De’Vondre Campbell was considered a raw prospect that lacked instincts and awareness to excel as a weakside linebacker. Pro Football Focus infamously graded their 2016 draft class as the worst group. Much like almost every off-season projection about the Falcons, their assessment was wrong.

Rebirth

How would an unstable offense and defense lacking above average players outside of Trufant prosper facing the most difficult schedule in the league? Developing into this decade’s version of the “greatest show on turf” certainly helped them. Ryan and Shanahan got on the same page. With their off-season additions thriving and Coleman’s emergence, this offense became unstoppable.

A candid conversation and couple of beers in Southern California got their relationship back on track. NFL.com’s Michael Silver wrote an excellent piece about Ryan and Shanahan figuring out all of their issues. In a matter of one season, the most stressful storyline in Atlanta was alleviated.

After underachieving in 2015, the Falcons’ offense was ruthless this season. Ryan’s decision making and deep ball accuracy improved. Those jittery moments rarely occurred, as Ryan looked far more composed in the pocket. Facing elite defenses in hostile environments like Seattle and Denver didn’t faze him. Exploiting every defense’s biggest weakness and utilizing every facet within their offense became a weekly tradition.

Despite Ryan’s overall improvement, they couldn’t have reached historic heights without being aggressive in free agency. Mack ended up being the franchise’s best free agent signing since Michael Turner. When Ryan entered the league in 2008, the powerhouse running back allowed him to develop in a comfortable setting. Turner’s success put Ryan in favorable second and third down situations.

As the franchise quarterback faced his toughest season yet, Mack eased the pressure off him by making pre-snap protection adjustments and playing a significant role behind one of the most dynamic running games in the league. The Ringer’s Robert Mays broke down Mack’s impact in a variety of ways. The four-time Pro Bowl center proved to be worth every penny.

For the first time in his career, Ryan didn’t have to rely on two or three receiving options. The well-rounded wide receiver group was created by a few under-the-radar signings. Taylor Gabriel and Aldrick Robinson are explosive deep threats that every potent offense needs in their artillery. Similar to the defense, they desperately needed speed at the wide receiver position. No wide receiver on the roster last season could turn an eight-yard completion into a 20-yard gain besides Jones. Opposing defenses didn’t have to worry about big plays happening after the catch, as long as the ball wasn’t in Jones or Freeman’s hands.

Gabriel and Robinson produced big plays that the offense was sorely lacking in 2015. These shrewd signings allowed Sanu to flourish as a possession wide receiver. He only dropped one pass all season and proved to be a dependable red zone option, as opposing defenses were double-teaming Jones. Hardy developed into a valuable role player as well. Quinn already views him as the best run blocking wide receiver on the roster.

The defense didn’t quite started gelling until December. Remove Durant, Worrilow, Moore, and Phillip Adams to insert Campbell, Jones, Neal, and Brian Poole. The rookie class sparked an immediate change for this defense. There were some obvious growing pains with seven defensive starters in their first or second year. They became a high-variance unit that started to make more difference-making plays. By forcing 15 turnovers in the last eight games, this opportunistic defense started emerging as a capable group.

For the first time since John Abraham and Brent Grimes were Pro Bowlers, the Falcons’ defense has some exciting players. Jones is one of the most intelligent and fastest middle linebackers in the league. Scouts raved about Neal’s hitting ability, yet were skeptical of his range. The first round pick has been excellent in coverage this season. Neal knows how to instantly close down players and land a brutalizing hit. With Beasley’s incredible breakout season, they possess outstanding speed at every level.

The Grand Stage

For all of their shortcomings as a franchise, the Falcons are known for pulling off the impossible. It only took one season to recover from Michael Vick’s arrest and Bobby Petrino’s cowardice. In a matter of two seasons, they went from having a predictable one-dimensional offense and horrific defense to the most terrifying offense in the league and promising defense.

Dimitroff deserves credit for making three late off-season moves during this time period. Trading for Andy Levitre filled a massive hole at left guard. The veteran offensive lineman is an excellent run blocker, which makes him one of their unsung heroes. Signing Gabriel put Cleveland on the receiving end of another punch line. His game-breaking speed and underrated route-running ability put the finishing touches on a dynamic offense. Dwight Freeney’s presence can’t be undervalued either. Left tackles still need to respect him, while Beasley has drastically improved under the legendary edge rusher’s wing.

Arthur Blank deserves credit for not panicking following last season’s collapse. Most teams would have fired someone after losing eight out of their last eleven games. To start 5-0 and miss the playoffs is obviously unacceptable. It wouldn’t have been surprising to see Dimitroff or Shanahan lose their job. Everyone remained calm and moved on in a diligent manner. That decision has paid off in massive dividends.

The front office and Quinn hit on nearly every personnel decision over the past two years. Ryan and Shanahan formed a great partnership. As Quinn elevated several players on defense and instilled brotherhood into the locker room, this group became the most unified Falcons’ team in recent memory. Every player in the locker room is devoted to Quinn’s philosophy, which is remarkable considering all the questions heading into the regular season. Troubled players such as Collins and Ra’Shede Hageman have been terrific in the postseason.

This current team is different than any other group. They are constantly in attack-mode on both sides of the ball. After losing Trufant, Clayborn, Shelby, Tamme, and Sean Weatherspoon to season-ending injuries, this resilient group didn’t fall apart without them. They’ve beaten multiple Super Bowl winning quarterbacks on their journey to the Super Bowl. To defeat the most distinguished one of them all would complete one of the fastest and greatest rebuilding projects in NFL history.