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The evolution of the Falcons coaching staff, 2008-2018

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The Falcons have only had two head coaches, but their coordinator changes have been legion.

Atlanta Falcons Minicamp Photo by Paul Abell/Getty Images

This has been a golden age of stability for the Atlanta Falcons, a sentence that is sadder than I thought it would be when I started it. Let’s continue.

The Falcons have had just two head coaches since 2008, with Mike Smith at the helm from 2008-2014 and Dan Quinn at the helm since. That stability has been underwritten with coordinator changes, with Smitty nudging out his offensive and defensive coordinators once and Dan Quinn turning over his by firings and hirings twice now. Keith Armstrong is the lone constant in all those years, and heading into 2019, even he’s gone.

Let’s look at the staff over the years.

Falcons Coaches

Year Head Coach Offensive Coordinator Defensive Coordinator Special Teams Coordinator
Year Head Coach Offensive Coordinator Defensive Coordinator Special Teams Coordinator
2008 Mike Smith Mike Mularkey Brian Van Gorder Keith Armstrong
2009 Mike Smith Mike Mularkey Brian Van Gorder Keith Armstrong
2010 Mike Smith Mike Mularkey Brian Van Gorder Keith Armstrong
2011 Mike Smith Mike Mularkey Brian Van Gorder Keith Armstrong
2012 Mike Smith Dirk Koetter Mike Nolan Keith Armstrong
2013 Mike Smith Dirk Koetter Mike Nolan Keith Armstrong
2014 Mike Smith Dirk Koetter Mike Nolan Keith Armstrong
2015 Dan Quinn Kyle Shanahan Richard Smith Keith Armstrong
2016 Dan Quinn Kyle Shanahan Richard Smith/Dan Quinn Keith Armstrong
2017 Dan Quinn Steve Sarkisian Marquand Manuel Keith Armstrong
2018 Dan Quinn Steve Sarkisian Marquand Manuel Keith Armstrong

With the passage of time, that first staff doesn’t seem so bad. Smith and company were exactly what a transitioning Falcons team needed, and while there isn’t a single playoff win in those four seasons, they went to the playoffs three times and managed the first back-to-back winning seasons in team history. That seems ho-hum now that this team has had bigger playoff successes, but it was a huge deal at the time, and rightfully so.

Mularkey rode Michael Turner and Tony Gonzalez to a ton of success, keeping Matt Ryan reasonably well-protected and building a balanced offense that was tough to stop. When Turner started to slow down in 2011 and the personnel got a little shakier, that offense crashed and burned in the playoffs, and Mularkey bolted for a Jaguars head coaching gig before the axe could fall. A similar story played out with Brian Van Gorder, who got something approaching decent play out of a pretty ragtag group, but never quite was able to build something better.

The next duo had a shorter run that featured a higher high but also many, many lower lows. Dirk Koetter coaxed the best season of Matt Ryan’s career to that point out of him in 2012 and did a frankly astonishing job of getting the offense to produce at a high level with Michael Turner struggling mightily, but a major injury to Julio Jones in 2013 and nightmarish line play in 2013 and 2014 helped to doom his side of the ball to less-than-elite performances the two years after that. Considering the number of self-inflicted personnel wounds—this was a team that signed Jeremy Trueblood, Steven Jackson, and went into a year with Levine Toilolo and Bear Pascoe at tight end—Koetter’s offenses fared pretty well. They came so very close to being Super Bowl-worthy in 2012.

Mike Nolan’s defense followed the same trajectory, but less successfully. Nolan did a nice job of disguising looks and sowing confusion in 2012 with a solid group on that side of the ball, and that defense was nearly good enough to push the Falcons into a matchup against the Baltimore Ravens. Alas, they fell short, and in 2013 and 2014 the personnel got worse and Nolan’s schtick could not compensate for that. While Koetter got the head coaching job in Tampa Bay, Nolan has not been an NFL coordinator since, which shows the dangers of coaching this Falcons defense.

This all came under Smitty, mind you. The 2014 season was the right time to move on from Smith, both at the time and in hindsight, given how fatally flawed the roster had come to be and the team’s astonishing inability to even try to develop young talent. But he was absolutely the right man to lead the team in 2008, and he is tragically close to being an all-time hero, if not for 2012’s agonizing disappointment.

The next man the Falcons hired is no stranger to that! Dan Quinn has helped to infuse the roster with more talent, but the results have been uneven to this point, with one historically great squad in 2016, a quality but vaguely disappointing playoff team in 2017, and a pair of listless, injury-marred squads in 2015 and 2018. Quinn has been much quicker to turn over his coaching staff than Smitty, however.

That started with Kyle Shanahan and Richard Smith. Shanny had the offense trending in the right direction in 2015 and presided over the single greatest offense in team history in 2016 before getting the San Francisco 49ers head coaching gig, becoming the third of Matt Ryan’s offensive coordinators to move directly from that gig to HC. Smith was a solid coordinator who was secretly replaced by Dan Quinn partway through 2016, which saw better performances from the defense and allowed DQ to take credit for that transformation.

Fatally, the Falcons did not follow up the departure of those two coordinators with experienced options, as Smith sought to do when he moved on from Mularkey and Van Gorder. Instead, Quinn took a risk on Steve Sarkisian and promoted rising defensive coach Marquand Manuel to defensive coordinator. Sark was reviled more or less from the jump despite quietly presiding over an above average offense in 2017—albeit one that struggled against good defenses when it mattered most—and a distinctly above average one in 2018 that didn’t have Devonta Freeman or, eventually, either of its starting guards. The trend line that doomed Sark was those consistent, maddeningly poor games against quality defenses, but the decision to push him out after two seasons almost certainly involved the optics involved with pushing forward on a decision nobody loved in the first place.

Manuel was different, in that the hire was met with at least some level of approval. The defense was shockingly good at times in 2017 but largely fell apart under the weight of an unbelievable spate of injuries in 2018, but DQ found himself not loving scheme and personnel choices Manuel was making, with the defensive line apparently being a huge sore spot. Like Sark, Manuel was a guy you could make a strong case for keeping, but Quinn is under pressure and is betting on himself, as he is wont to do.

And Armstrong? He’s been one of the most respected special teams coordinators in football all these many years, and despite the shakiness of the return game in Atlanta these past couple of seasons, he played a pivotal role in getting Matt Bryant to the Falcons and helping to further unlock the great kicker’s potential, got a lot out of Eric Weems and Devin Hester alike, and consistently unearthed terrific contributors like Kemal Ishmael and Russell Gage our of the team’s late round choices and undrafted free agents. It’s sort of weird to think that he won’t be on the sidelines this year.

Now we’re back to Koetter and Quinn in the coordinator spots with Ben Kotwica joining as Armstrong’s replacement, and we’ll have to see if this turns out to be a new, multi-year run of success, or if for the first time in recent memory the Falcons put a trio of coaches out there who only last a single season.