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Why did the Falcons keep Dan Quinn and Thomas Dimitroff for 2020?

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Atlanta’s decision itself is not stunning, but there will be a lot of questions. The Falcons are trying to get out ahead of some of them now.

Atlanta Falcons v Houston Texans Photo by Mark Brown/Getty Images

If you’re like me, you checked your phone a short time ago and did a double take when you saw the news that Dan Quinn and Thomas Dimitroff would be back. The timing is interesting—Arthur Blank apparently didn’t want to deal with the Black Monday rumors or fans getting even more vociferous about making a change if Atlanta lost Sunday—but the decision itself had begun to seem more likely with every win.

Let me put my cards on the table: As you might suspect, this was not the move I would have preferred. My personal line in the sand this year was contending, given the expenditures and expectations, and the Falcons going 1-7 at the beginning of the year made me certain that this team needed a change. The second half surge shouldn’t be discounted out of hand, but with this team needing to get creative with its cap space in 2020 and with its struggles offensively all year, keeping the band together feels like a move with a ton of potential downside.

So why did the Falcons keep Quinn and Dimitroff? Likely anticipating a fan backlash, they put together several videos that help tell the story. Let’s touch on the major reasons they likely kept them with the help of those videos, which feature interviews with Rich McKay, Blank, and others.

#1: The second half surge

This is the obvious answer. Blank was reportedly leaning toward moving on coming out of the bye, but Atlanta beat the Saints and Panthers, endured two tough but competitive losses to the Bucs and Saints, and then won three in a row against the Panthers, 49ers, and Jaguars. The defense has been an entirely different animal in the second half, specifically since Quinn surrendered play calling duties to Raheem Morris and Jeff Ulbrich, and the offense has made incremental improvements as rookie first rounders Chris Lindstrom and Kaleb McGary have gotten healthy and improved.

It goes without saying that it’s a considerable risk to bet on one half of a football over another, especially when your team is coming off of back-to-back losing seasons. It is also worth noting that the Falcons have played better over the last seven games, on balance, than they have since late in the 2017 season, despite a growing laundry list of injuries.

For Quinn, getting the players to keep playing hard and ceding control were obviously important factors in his return. For Dimitroff, seeing Lindstrom, McGary, and other recent draft gems like Kendall Sheffield and Russell Gage play well in prominent roles likely outweighed the disastrous free agent signings of James Carpenter and Jamon Brown for Blank and Rich McKay.

Speaking of those two...

#2: Owner’s remorse

I don’t know that Blank fingerprints were all over the offseason, but I strongly suspect they were. It was Blank who made it clear that the offensive line was a priority to the point where the Falcons overspent their resources to fix the unit, and the unit remained very fundamentally broken until Lindstrom returned. It was Blank (again, I suspect) who drove the Matt Bryant re-signing, which was not a bad move at all in a vacuum but was a costly capitulation after the team rode with a different kicker all offseason long. For Blank to fire Dimitroff in particular—and Quinn to a lesser extent, given that he also likely drove the mass coordinator changes—would be admitting mistakes and potentially punishing his GM and head coach for moves that they were nudged into.

Again, some speculation there, but I do think it’s backed up by the decision to pull Rich McKay into a more prominent role, one where he’ll be doing a thorough review of the entire football side of the Atlanta Falcons, per the interview below.

Getting McKay, who has extensive personnel and executive experience in the NFL, into this kind of role likely backs Blank out of those kinds of decisions, at least publicly. Out of all the moves the Falcons have made here, this might be the one I like best, because Blank’s well-meaning pushes definitely did not always work in the team’s favor this year. Even his promises to make Julio Jones a Falcon for life cut off leverage for this team as they negotiated with their star receiver, not that they had a ton of leverage to begin with, and McKay will likely avoid falling into those traps.

McKay also, by the sounds of it, will have the power to make big calls. If he talks to Quinn and the head coach expresses some discomfort with Dirk Koetter’s play calling in 2019—and he should—McKay sounds like he’s empowered to push for a new offensive coordinator. There’s no question that if Quinn’s back and Raheem Morris is taking over the defense, there are other pieces of this staff that need to be looked at with a very critical eye, and Quinn shouldn’t have the final say on any of that given his spotty record of coordinator hires.

Speaking of Morris...

#3: DQ’s willingness to adapt

I do think Quinn’s decision to take on the defensive coordinator role, while fine on paper given his history in that role—was a disastrous one. Quinn did not make a change fast enough to save the season, which is another reason why I think keeping him was a fraught move.

If you’re McKay and Blank, though, what you find most interesting is that Quinn did change, and that it did work. Ulbrich and Morris have effectively transformed the defense, getting the secondary back in shape and coaxing quality play out of the entire unit despite injuries. There are not a ton of head coaches in the NFL who would be willing to do that rather than just go down with the ship, and that flexibility had to be appealing to Blank, who praised the “ability and self-awareness” of Quinn in making the changes and getting the ship righted in the second half.

As suspected, the wins over New Orleans and the 49ers played a big role here, too, per the interview above. Blank has been looking for this team to play at their talent level, and when he saw it, he appears to have gotten stars in his eyes. The sample size worries me a lot, though.

#4: Stability

Blank wants to have a great franchise. He hasn’t gotten it, but he has seen this team achieve at a higher level over the last decade-plus than they ever had before, turning in winning seasons, an NFC Conference Championship berth, and a trip to the Super Bowl, though this team has obviously fallen short every time.

Blank also knows almost all the great franchises in the NFL today have continuity. The Ravens kept John Harbaugh around despite a downturn, the Saints famously endured three straight 7-9 seasons with Sean Payton, the Steelers have been successful thanks in no small part to Mike Tomlin, and so on. He wants that, and he thinks that the coach and GM who got him to the Super Bowl in 2016 can weather the current bumpy cap picture and squeeze successful years out of this roster.

The counterpoint to this is an obvious one. Sometimes teams hold on to coaches who can’t elevate the franchise for far too long, or at least past the point where their philosophies are relevant. The Packers stagnated under Mike McCarthy, Ron Rivera’s Panthers tenure was defined by a couple of brilliant high points and a lot of mediocre football, and the Bengals kept Marvin Lewis around because it was comfortable and enjoyed very little success for it. The right coach is the one you hold on to as long as possible, and Blank is betting big on DQ, a man with as many losing seasons as winning seasons in Atlanta thus far.

It’s a big bet, in other words, but it’s one that the highers up are comfortable with despite the obvious financial and public relations costs that come with it. Quinn and company simply have to win.

#5: The players pushing for it

This was not a small thing, but it’s probably the last item on the list because it interlocks with everything above. The players made it clear that they were playing for Dan Quinn’s job in the second half, and that fight and their success in the last seven games likely helped make this decision easier for Atlanta, given that by necessity big swaths of this roster will be returning next year.

It goes without saying that they need to play as hard—and achieve more—next year to keep Quinn around. The lingering concerns about locker room leadership that Jeff Schultz at The Athletic and others have mentioned throughout the season seemed to take a backseat to the revival.

Was it the right decision?

There were likely other factors both big and small that I haven’t mentioned here, but the bottom line is that Blank and McKay fervently believe that Dimitroff and Quinn can bring winning football back to Atlanta in 2020. Given that fans are busily revolting here, there, and everywhere and that the stadium is likely to be a ghost town in the early going next season, that was a big risk for them to take, and one that underscores their level of belief.

I’d expect uniform changes and new slogans and potentially a raft of other things meant to jazz up a listless fanbase ahead of the 2020 season, but the winning is the only thing that’s going to...well, win anyone over. It has to be the right choice, or the Falcons will be starting over in 2021 with their best players a year older and fans likely fully deranged from three straight seasons of disappointing football.

In light of all that, was it the right choice? Again, it depends on whether the Falcons win, and that’s obviously too be determined. I’m perfectly willing to look foolish in a year if this team returns to relevance in spectacular fashion, but I said I was on board with Quinn’s return this year if Atlanta got back to contending, something they very obviously failed to do. Quinn’s squads have been fatally streaky and prone to collapsing against AFC teams, twin faults that doomed them in a major way again in 2020.

It feels dangerous to bet that one truly good stretch of football in two years—maybe three, if you include 2017’s annoying but contending squad—is the true reflection of a team’s mettle. Quinn is obviously a great guy and Dimitroff is fresh off what looks like a good draft class, but the Falcons have real if navigable cap problems, big questions coming up for the likes of Keanu Neal, Takk McKinley, and Alex Mack, and a consistency problem that has appeared in every season under Quinn except 2016. This team could be gearing up to waste another year of Matt Ryan and Julio Jones’ prime if this improvement is yet another mirage, and I think anyone who isn’t worried about that possibility isn’t looking critically at this team’s recent past.

The move is made, however. All the reasons in the list above make it clear why Atlanta felt comfortable making the move, but the only thing that will convince me it was the right move is a big pile of wins in 2020.