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Throwback Thursday Series: Falcons hire Dan Quinn

It was the best possible decision the team could have made, following a catastrophic two-year run which cost Mike Smith his job.

Atlanta Falcons Introduce Dan Quinn Photo by Daniel Shirey/Getty Images

We’re in the dead period of football (you can read about how much I hate this period here), and with it, we don’t have much to talk about except for some speculation here and there.

I figured this would be a good time to look back on some moments in Falcons history and maybe relive them while we wait for football to come back.

That idea has given rise to a new series of “Throwback Thursday” articles I’m planning on writing throughout the dead period. Each week, we’ll relive and discuss a certain moment in this franchise’s 52-year history.

You can find last week’s Throwback Thursday article, about the Julio Jones draft day trade, here.

The Atlanta Falcons entered the greatest and most successful era in franchise history when they drafted Matt Ryan in 2008. After the franchise had never experienced back to back winning seasons in 42 years of existence prior to 2008, the Falcons went on a run of five straight winning seasons and four playoff appearances.

Atlanta was led by Mike Smith from 2008 through 2014, a period in which he became the most successful head coach in franchise history, with a 66-46 record in the regular season. Smith developed some severe playoff demons, however, accumulating just a 1-4 record in the postseason.

Smith’s lone playoff victory and the peak of his time with the franchise came in 2012, when the birds compiled a 13-3 regular season record and beat the Seattle Seahawks in the Divisional Round before subsequently blowing a 17-0 lead against the San Francisco 49ers in an NFC Championship Game, which still hurts to this day. That year was a great building block, and it left owner Arthur Blank and the team’s fanbase expecting even more in the coming seasons.

Nothing is a given in the National Football League, however. With great expectations set for them in 2013, the Falcons suffered from dreadful offensive line play, a slow defense and a season-ending injury to Julio Jones to finish the year with a 4-12 record. Smith was nonetheless retained because of his past success and the unfortunate injury luck.

He wouldn’t be as fortunate in 2014, however, as a 6-10 record (with an embarrassing 34-3 defeat to the Carolina Panthers in week 17 punctuating the disappointing season) would be the final nail in Smith’s coffin as Atlanta’s head coach. The Falcons would part ways with the winningest coach in franchise history on Black Monday, the next day.

A head coaching search would begin almost immediately afterward, with recently fired New York Jets head coach Rex Ryan, Detroit Lions defensive coordinator Teryl Austin, Arizona Cardinals defensive coordinator Todd Bowles and Seattle Seahawks defensive coordinator Dan Quinn being eventual top candidates.

Ryan, who led the Jets to back-to-back AFC Championship Game appearances in 2009 and 2010, was the top choice for many Falcons fans. I’ll admit that I also wanted Rex Ryan as Atlanta’s head coach at that time. The likelihood of the Falcons hiring the loquacious Ryan decreased after he left Flowery Branch without a deal in place following a very long initial interview, however. The two sides reportedly had mutual interest, but Atlanta didn’t pull the trigger in making an offer or setting up a second interview.

Ryan would go on to become the head coach of the Buffalo Bills shortly afterward, while the Falcons narrowed their search to two — Dan Quinn and Todd Bowles. Both were part of the team’s initial first wave of interviews, but they couldn’t set up a second interview with Quinn until after the Super Bowl because his Seahawks made a deep enough playoff run. Bowles, whose defensive unit in Arizona ranked fifth in terms of points allowed in 2014, had a five-hour initial interview with the team and was impressive enough to be offered a second interview.

The New York Jets had Dan Quinn as their top candidate, while the AJC’s D. Orlando Ledbetter speculated that Bowles could be named the Falcons’ head coach immediately following the conclusion of his second interview with the team.

In the end, however, the Jets were afraid of having to wait for Quinn, who couldn’t be hired until after the conclusion of the Super Bowl, so they pounced on the opportunity to secure Bowles as their head coach, keeping him from taking that second interview with the Falcons. Had the Seahawks not made such a deep playoff run that season, the entire NFL landscape may have been different — with Todd Bowles as Atlanta’s head coach, and Dan Quinn coaching the Jets.

While there was some hesitation to do so on their part, the Falcons did end up waiting on Quinn, who was interested in the job because of the presence of a steady front office and a franchise quarterback already in place. A day after the Seahawks’ Super Bowl defeat, Atlanta gave Quinn a five-year contract to become the team’s head coach.

Some question marks surrounded Atlanta’s new head coach regarding just how instrumental he was to Seattle’s success. While he did preside over a Seahawks defense which gave up the fewest amount of yards and points in both of his seasons as the team’s defensive coordinator, many credited his predecessor, Gus Bradley, as being the architect of that defense. Quinn’s staunchest critics saw him as someone who was just along for the ride in Seattle, because of how talented that famed defense was.

Quinn won a Super Bowl with the Seahawks in 2013 and came one handoff to Marshawn Lynch away from winning again in 2014.

In his time with the Falcons, however, Dan Quinn has disproven the notion that he was “just along for the ride” in Seattle. The way he’s rebuilt an Atlanta defense which ranked dead last before he got there has been nothing short of sublime.

In his first season as Atlanta’s head coach in 2015, Quinn saw his team get off to a blazing 5-0 start before a disappointing second half of the season, punctuated by a six-game losing streak, which resulted in an 8-8 record.

In 2016, after Quinn retained offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan despite most of the fanbase wanting him gone, the Falcons exceeded everyone’s expectations and dominated the NFC on to their way to representing the conference in Super Bowl 51. Atlanta was unstoppable through the first half of the third quarter in that game. My memory is a bit hazy, so I don’t want to can’t recall what happened after that.

Fighting against the Super Bowl hangover and subpar offensive playcalling, Quinn managed to lead the Falcons to the playoffs once again in 2017. Atlanta was the only NFC playoff team from 2016 to make it back to the postseason a year later.

Through three seasons as Atlanta’s head coach, Dan Quinn has compiled a 29-19 regular season record and a 3-2 postseason record. In just his second season with the Falcons, Quinn accumulated more playoff wins than Mike Smith had through seven seasons as the team’s head coach.

The Falcons look poised for even greater heights in 2018, and beyond, and all of that is because they made the best possible decision in hiring Dan Quinn to be the team’s head coach back in 2014.

Rex Ryan, meanwhile, is currently working for ESPN after being fired by the Bills near the end of the 2016 season. Todd Bowles has accumulated a 20-28 record in three seasons with the Jets, but one can hardly blame him for that poor mark with the talent deficiency that team has had the past two seasons.

Dan Quinn is arguably one good season away from being recognized as the best coach in Atlanta Falcons history, if he’s not there already.

Expect these “Throwback Thursday” articles to be recurring throughout the offseason, to reminisce about the team’s history and to give us some stuff to talk about. Don’t expect them to go in order, however. The next one could look back on a moment that occurred in the 90s or even a few years ago. Between you and me, I’m just making it up as I go along.