When Arthur Blank had to replace Mike Smith after the 2014 season, there was a clear emphasis on building a stronger identity in Atlanta. Smith’s idea to build a bigger and tougher roster failed to translate into sustainable success. They needed a head coach who was more in step with the times, especially because the NFL was changing.
Rex Ryan and Todd Bowles were two of the most popular head coaching candidates. With not many offensive coaches available, Blank was set on hiring another defensive-minded coach. Bowles was hired by the Jets, while Ryan decided to remain in the AFC East by going to Buffalo. That left the Falcons patiently waiting for their next ideal candidate. Quinn was on his second straight Super Bowl run with the Seahawks, forcing the team to wait until February to officially hire the highly regarded defensive coordinator.
After Pete Carroll decided not to give the ball to Marshawn Lynch at the one-yard line, Quinn had to quickly get over the devastating loss and get ready for the opportunity of a lifetime. The opportunity to become a head coach in the NFL.
The decision to hire Quinn generated plenty of excitement in Atlanta. To get someone from one of the best teams in the league is one thing. To hire one of the key figures behind The Legion of Boom’s success brought credibility back to an organization that desperately needed it. After five consecutive winning seasons, the Falcons became one of the bigger punchlines in the league.
Smith didn’t appear to be on the same page with Thomas Dimitroff. A once fairly decent defense turned into the worst unit in the league. They were devoid of talent across the board outside of Desmond Trufant and Robert Alford. A defensive-minded coach like Quinn was required to not only instill his philosophy, but to identify young talent and develop them to help rebuild a languishing defense.
Instead of trying to sign high-profile free agents, Quinn worked with Dimitroff to allocate their money wisely. They used “prove it” deals to their benefit by signing Adrian Clayborn and O’Brien Schofield. In an attempt to bring much-needed versatility to the defense, Brooks Reed and Justin Durant were signed to mid-level deals. Adding hard-working, versatile veterans was the first step. Selecting explosive, prolific prospects was the next step in revamping the front seven. Vic Beasley and Grady Jarrett were viewed as integral pieces to Quinn’s long-term project. Both picks were met with great approval in what proved to be a solid draft class, especially in the early going.
Quinn made an immediate positive impression going into his first year. Whenever he spoke to his players or the media, you instantly felt his passion and competitive spirit. His willingness to put in extra work with the defensive linemen excited the fanbase. Incorporating unique drills to improve their hand usage and speed created plenty of intrigue, especially when he brought in former UFC fighter and U.S. Marine Brian Stann to work with the team. Quinn’s various coaching methods was refreshing to a team that had grown stale under Smith. Nobody quite knew how good they could be. The roster still had plenty of question marks, given the state that Smith (and Dimitroff) left it in after numerous bad decisions from 2012 to 2014. What was going to be different is how they were going to play on both sides of the ball.
Quinn’s defense in Seattle was built on speed. Players must be quick, aware, and disciplined to play in his Cover 3 based scheme. While the back seven is mostly comprised of the same players, Quinn implemented a heavy rotation up front. Unlike Smith, he didn’t overly depend on four or five linemen. He used as many as eight players to win in the trenches. Figuring out ways to get the most out of high-priced signings from the previous regime like Paul Soliai and Tyson Jackson was crucial, and adding in the new guys mattered a lot as well.
The 2015 season will be remembered as more of a letdown than encouraging first step. Any team that doesn’t make the playoffs after a 5-0 start is going to be ridiculed to some extent. While losing eight of your last eleven games warrants major criticism, this was a transitional year for the Falcons. The defense still didn’t have reliable edge rushers or dependable linebackers on the roster. Other than Trufant, there wasn’t another top-level defensive player on the roster. Quinn did start putting together the pieces for what he wanted the defense to become. Young players such as Beasley, Jarrett, and Jalen Collins were the ideal players that Quinn viewed as long-term assets.
Quinn’s first major obstacle came on the offensive side of the ball. Many analysts viewed the decision to hire Kyle Shanahan as a huge coup for the Falcons. Shanahan had major success with Houston, Washington, and even Cleveland. None of the quarterbacks he previously worked with were as good as Matt Ryan. Those two weren’t on the same page, though, which resulted in several ugly losses.
Those weren’t the only issues. Between Roddy White’s drastic decline and the instability at the center position, the offense fell well short of expectations. Considering how badly they fell apart in the second half of the season, most anticipated them to make one major change. It was widely expected that Dimitroff could be fired following their debacle. The organization decided to remain firm and believe in them both. That proved to be one of the best moves in franchise history, as it helped set up a historic 2016 season.
Building a championship-caliber team
The front office was ready to become aggressive again in pursuing high-priced free agents. The personnel flaws were evident, yet they had to identify who were the best fits on the open market. As much as they needed talent at linebacker and a long-term replacement for William Moore, those players weren’t available. Addressing the gaping hole at center and signing a capable receiver to take pressure off Julio Jones were the best decisions that could have been made. Alex Mack and Mohamed Sanu were the first two marquee signings of the Quinn-Dimitroff era. It was the first of many excellent decisions in 2016.
After making multiple splash moves in free agency, the Falcons were ready to put together another stellar draft class. Keanu Neal, Deion Jones, and De’Vondre Campbell were all viewed as major reaches where they were selected. Selecting Jones stood out in particular, as practically every draft analyst claimed he was too undersized and not worthy of a second-round pick. Most websites lambasted the entire draft class and questioned Quinn’s thought process in valuing athletic specimens over actual good football players, but those sites couldn’t have been more wrong. They also couldn’t have been more wrong about the Falcons being an average team at best.
In a matter of five weeks, the Falcons were being viewed as one of the most formidable teams in the league. They started out 4-1, beating quality teams on the way. Ryan and Shanahan were in sync terrorizing defenses with a plethora of playmakers and creative play designs. Although the defense was still a work in progress, they were starting to make strides led by players from their previous two draft classes. They also showed great resilience as an overall team. From losing two in a row against Seattle and San Diego to Trufant tearing his pectoral, their memorable season was far from smooth. Young players had to elevate their respective games, while the coaching staff had to make the proper adjustments going into December.
Quinn took over defensive play-calling duties against Kansas City in Week 13. For him to take the initiative sparked something in a promising, yet wildly inconsistent defense. They started to play more composed, disciplined, and aware. That translated into getting their hands on the ball more often, which is one of Quinn’s several mottos. His vision came to plan in only his second year as a head coach, but it led to many players playing better.
The 2016 season felt like the start of something special. For the first time since Michael Vick was running the show, the city and organization appeared to be completely unified. There was genuine belief in the team. Quinn’s 2016 team felt different than the sometimes shaky Smith teams of the past. They knew how to put away teams. They showed they could maximize their offensive capabilities. The notoriously phrased “fast and physical” defense started producing turnovers and rattling quarterbacks on a more consistent basis. They had all the makings of being a championship-worthy team.
They proved it in January. Russell Wilson and Aaron Rodgers were left stunned watching their teams lose convincingly. Both quarterbacks were under duress for most of the game. Quinn utilized more twists to disrupt their rhythm. With the defense causing havoc, it left Seattle and Green Bay in a hopeless situation because they weren’t going to stop the best offense in the league. It also helped to have the most terrifying wide receiver in the league to create a near-unstoppable offense. The Falcons were establishing themselves as a legitimate powerhouse following two definitive wins over two battle-tested teams.
That would-be fairy tale ended in a nightmarish way. The worst collapse in Super Bowl history is something that will never be forgotten. It remains relevant to this day, as other fanbases won’t hesitate to mention it. They will make posters to remind you. They will order shirts or birthday cakes to remind you. It’s a painful memory that has scarred most Falcons fans.
The one-and-half quarters of complete disaster shouldn’t erase what was the best season in franchise history. Quinn established a terrific culture that most organizations crave. Using phrases such as “brotherhood” brought everyone together to believe something special was transpiring in a city starving for a championship. The belief came to fruition in 2016 by sending the beloved Georgia Dome out in style. Quinn was known as a true players’ coach during his time in Seattle. He brought that valuable skill to Atlanta, to go along with his growth at making personnel decisions and elevating a once putrid defense in two seasons. It was now time for him to take more control going into a 2017 season filled with major challenges.
Overcoming setbacks but still falling short
Every head coach faces adversity going into every season. There are always going to be new questions and concerns about each team. For the first time since becoming a head coach, Quinn felt added pressure and inherited greater responsibility. Replacing Shanahan was the major talking point during the off-season. Could he find the right replacement for one of the NFL’s true offensive masterminds? It wasn’t about matching the extraordinary stat totals from 2016. What the incoming offensive coordinator needed to do was be able to create an efficient game plan to utilize an offense filled with star talent and explosive playmakers. Jacob Tamme and Chris Chester were the only starters not returning from a historically great offense. That meant new offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian should be able to acclimate to the NFL rather comfortably with the talent at his disposal. Quinn’s decision to bring in the former USC head coach ultimately proved to be a colossal mistake.
The offense never came anywhere close to playing up to their capabilities. Besides multiple two-game spurts during the season, they looked discombobulated. Sarkisian admitted it took time for him to get a good grasp of calling plays in the NFL. That’s a troubling sign for any coach, let alone one with his experience. Not being able to fully utilize explosive weapons like Coleman and Gabriel hindered the offense, and they repeatedly fell flat against quality teams. They went from scoring an absurd 34.2 points per game in 2016 to a pedestrian 21.6 points per game in 2017. It was a staggering drop off for what was an electrifying offense.
What saved the season was the defense’s steady progression. While Quinn’s decision to bring in Sarkisian flopped, Marquand Manuel became a popular figure as defensive coordinator in Atlanta. Manuel worked with Quinn in Seattle before being hired as the Falcons’ defensive backs coach. Promoting him to defensive coordinator brought more aggression and different looks to the group. It led to the Falcons finishing in the top half of several defensive categories, which has been a rarity over the past decade. They were able to not only make up for the offense’s inability to score more than 20 points at times, but also essentially win games on their own.
Their home performances against New Orleans and Carolina propelled them back into the playoffs. These games showcased the rise of Jones, who was quickly being deemed as the prototypical inside linebacker across the league. His range, instincts, and coverage ability helped limit Alvin Kamara and Christian McCaffrey during these crucial divisional matchups. Jarrett and Neal were both outstanding as they developed into franchise cornerstones. The defense showed tremendous resilience as a unit in games where the offense couldn’t find a rhythm or score in the red zone.
For all the criticism about bringing in Sarkisian, Quinn deserves more credit for what was accomplished in 2017. The defense looked like a top-ten caliber unit for the first time in over a decade. To see players like Brian Poole, Clayborn, Campbell, Alford, Allen, and Reed have the best season of their respective careers showed how much their commitment paid off. Signing Dontari Poe to a one-year deal proved to be a savvy move in adding much-needed size up front. It wasn’t the only savvy move made up front, as trading up for Takkarist McKinley appeared to be a great move in adding another capable edge rusher. The defense was as talented as it had ever been. Quinn did an outstanding job of building a talented defense in all three areas. Opponents were no longer finding easy openings downfield or running the ball down their throat. It was a strong unit that nullified explosive offenses such as the Saints and Rams.
That said, it’s hard to look at the 2017 season without initially thinking of the wasted opportunity in Philadelphia. While Neal’s preposterous mistake in not intercepting an errant Nick Foles’ pass will be forever ingrained in everyone’s mind, the offense failed to deliver when it mattered most. Similar to most big games they played in 2017, Sarkisian fell well short of expectations. After getting the better of Wade Phillips in an impressive road win over the Rams, he looked completely overwhelmed by the occasion once again. Ryan took an absolute beating from the Eagles’ ferocious front. There were never any adjustments made to counter Jim Schwartz’s blitzes and coverage disguises.
Despite all their issues, the Falcons had a chance to come out victorious in the end. Instead of spreading the field and using their abundance of playmakers, Sarkisian became too reliant on Jones. That played into Schwartz’s hands in the red zone. On a make-or-break fourth down, the entire Eagles’ defense knew the ball was going to Jones. They even knew Sarkisian was calling a sprint right. An inexcusable play call led to another heartbreaking playoff defeat. Although Sarkisian was held culpable, Quinn had to face the harsh reality again of seeing his team falter in a high-pressured situation. His decision to hire Sarkisian outweighed everything the team had done in 2017. His stance on defending Sarkisian’s play calling only made things more complicated. Life as a head coach can be cruel, even when you win three playoff games in two years. That’s something Quinn realized even more in 2018.
Adversity proves to be too overwhelming
Due to Ryan’s well-deserved contract extension, the front office couldn’t make any major signings for the first time in Quinn’s tenure. They also couldn’t re-sign key players such as Poe and Clayborn. They had no choice but to believe in the continued development of their young players. With several defensive players coming off strong seasons, there was still plenty of optimism about the Falcons being Super Bowl contenders. Unfortunately, those ambitions were quickly squashed. Most of their key players either suffered long-term injuries or failed to take the next step in their development. Combine those issues with Sarkisian’s inconsistent play calling, and the Falcons were unable to compete with the NFC’s best teams.
To lose Jones, Neal, and Allen in a matter of three weeks is demoralizing. These are three players who are heavily depended on to fulfill key roles in Quinn’s defense. While it’s practically impossible to replace them, the coaching staff couldn’t have done a poorer job in attempting to do so. The decision to trade for Jordan Richards was largely criticized. When the former second round pick started to miss open field tackles and blow coverage assignments, Quinn remained committed to him. The same applies to Duke Riley, who is another player Quinn showed great faith in. Not replacing Richards and Riley with Sharrod Neasman and Foye Oluokun sooner played a major role in the defense’s poor showings. The cracks began to show across the defense with Quinn helplessly watching on.
His stubbornness had started catching up to him, as opposing teams started scoring on them at will. Questions began to arise about his Cover 3 based scheme being stale. Not bringing in an extra pass rusher to provide support for Beasley and McKinley greatly affected a suddenly weakened rotation up front. Both former first round picks had underwhelming seasons, along with Campbell and Poole who were major liabilities at points during the season.
It can be argued the amount of significant injuries and players underachieving left Quinn in a hopeless position. What was most concerning is how the team capitulated after winning three in a row to get back to .500 in November. An embarrassing road loss to the Browns started a five-game losing streak to New Orleans (on national television), Baltimore, and Green Bay, capped off with a narrow defeat to Dallas. To see a team known for their competitiveness crumble nearly every week during a long stretch was alarming.
They didn’t play fast or physical. They didn’t look unified. It seemed like an isolated group making the same mistakes every week. A three-game winning streak to end the season didn’t mean much. It was against three teams in worse shape than them in Arizona, Carolina, and Tampa Bay. The once-strong belief in Quinn started to dwindle following this season. Most coaches have a down year, which is why the notion he should have been fired was sheer lunacy. Quinn’s lack of self-awareness did bring some skepticism about him as a head coach.
Quinn believes in his rather simplistic defense to generate pressure with four, keep plays in front of them, create turnovers, and consistently tackle in the open field. Comprising a defense filled with terrific athletes and savvy players is what he always envisioned the defense to be, but not putting together enough coverage disguises or creative blitzes left a decimated defense in shambles. It wasn’t until Week 14 against Green Bay where they started running more blitzes. The increase in blitzes played an integral role in their three-game winning streak to finish the season.
Why couldn’t Quinn and Manuel recognize they needed to blitz more earlier in the season to make up for the lack of a consistent pass rush? Nobody will ever know. Although Sarkisian showed slight improvement, it was apparent that he didn’t belong as an offensive coordinator in the NFL, at least not against top shelf competition. Following a humbling season, it was time for Quinn to learn from his mistakes and be more aggressive than ever to get his team back in contention.
On the brink
At first, Quinn decided to start 2019 off fresh by letting go of all his coordinators. He decided to take the reins at defensive coordinator in an effort to get the best out of them. The steps towards a new beginning were halted by surprisingly hiring Dirk Koetter to replace Sarkisian.
It was a curious decision based on Koetter’s toxic tenure in Tampa Bay. For all of Tampa Bay’s impressive offensive production, most of their success was attributed to Todd Monken’s “Air Raid” system. For Quinn to hire a coach who isn’t known for being overly creative and hard-headed in his coaching style raised further questions about where the Falcons were headed.
They seemed to be moving away from their preferred zone-blocking scheme. Signing James Carpenter and Jamon Brown showed their emphasis on getting bigger up front to improve in short-yardage situations. They also looked to shore up their pass protection woes by drafting Chris Lindstrom and Kaleb McGary. The off-season objective was clear in giving their franchise quarterback all the protection he needs. While the offense underwent changes, there weren’t any major changes made defensively. Quinn seemed to be banking on the return of his core defenders (Jones, Neal, and Allen) to help bring solidity back to his unit. There was also hope players such as Campbell and Beasley, who badly underachieved in 2018, would bounce back in contract years. Quinn remained committed to the players he drafted. That decision, along with taking over full defensive play calling responsibilities, nearly cost him his job.
The Falcons’ defense was catastrophically bad during the first eight games of the season. They looked unprepared and disorganized at the start of games. The lack of communication led to countless coverage busts. The front seven lacked discipline, which allowed running backs to get into the open field without much resistance. They managed to play worse with their key players back than they did last season when their defense was decimated by injuries. Opposing players weren’t shy when talking about Quinn’s defense being basic. It allowed quarterbacks to complete high-percentage passes over the middle and find open receivers downfield. What was supposed to be a resurgent defense turned into the defense every team was salivating to play.
The Falcons didn’t produce a sack from Week 4 to Week 7. They failed to create a takeaway from Week 3 to Week 10. Without any semblance of a pass rush or organization in the backend, it was a struggle for them to keep teams below 30 points. To make matters worse, they didn’t have the offensive cohesion to stay competitive in many games. The offense languished under Koetter’s predictable, outdated system. His preference of running a long-developing, vertical based plays didn’t mesh well with an offensive line that struggled to win their individual matchups. Not being to muster up much of a running game enforced extra pressure on Ryan, who was playing below his high standards as well.
At 1-7 going into the bye week, Blank had to hold a press conference to address the state of the Falcons. Rumors were circulating about Quinn potentially being fired during the bye week. Blank showed his commitment to him for at least the upcoming two games. The message was clear from the press conference. The Falcons were at one of their lowest points as a franchise. As much as the players loved Quinn as a coach, there seemed to be a disconnect based on their appalling showings on the field. The body language on the field represented a defeated team. Quinn had to take drastic measures to reignite his group of players. The bye week gave him time to reflect and adjust going into a stretch of five consecutive divisional games.
Late-season revival rebuilds trust within the organization
To play one of the best teams in the league on the road is never ideal. For it to be against your bitter rival that looks well-equipped for another Super Bowl push makes it a nightmare scenario on paper. The Falcons had to travel to New Orleans coming off their bye week. With Drew Brees healthy, this had all the makings to be another debacle. The only positive entering the game was Ryan being healthy enough to make his return after a one-game absence. While Ryan did his part, he wasn’t the difference maker in one of the most shocking upsets of the season. The Falcons managed to hold one of the most potent offenses in the league to single digits. They didn’t even allow them to get in the end zone. Instead, they sacked Brees six times and forced him into being overly conservative with the ball.
It was a remarkable defensive showing that left everyone perplexed. How did a defense that couldn’t do anything right shut down a phenomenal offense? It was reported the next day that Jeff Ulbrich and Raheem Morris took over defensive play calling duties following the bye week. Quinn was clearly overwhelmed by handling head coaching and coordinating responsibilities. The decision to trust his two long-time, well-respected assistants proved to be a shrewd move. Ulbrich called plays on first and second down, while Morris took over on third down and during two-minute situations. It was a unique setup for a team already out of the playoff hunt. Considering the pressure Quinn was under, he needed to try something different in order to bring life back to a lifeless team.
The defense looked noticeably better following the bye week. They weren’t committing the same amount of reckless penalties or making the same mental mistakes. They were much improved in the open field tackling department, along with remaining better positioned in zone coverage. There was also much improved play from players who were horrendous during the first half of the season. Isaiah Oliver made significant strides after getting torched in the first seven games of the season. Along with impressive rookie Kendall Sheffield, they played vital roles in preventing fewer explosive plays. Beasley, Campbell, and Damontae Kazee stepped up in the second half of the season. Shifting Kazee back to free safety was another wise decision by the coaching staff. The dynamic defensive back never looked comfortable as a slot corner. Inserting him back into a deep-lying safety role paid off.
Although they capitalized on some dreadful quarterback play from Kyle Allen and Gardner Minshew II, the defense’s overall improvement deserves acknowledgement. How they fared against the potential coach of the year signified how much they worked on fixing their mistakes. In another stunning road upset against a top NFC team, the defense played exceptionally well against Shanahan’s 49ers. Unless George Kittle was catching passes or being schemed open, they failed to move the ball. Quinn, Ulbrich, and Morris did their part in not allowing their old friend to control the game with his wizardry and ruthlessness. To beat the best team in the NFC changed the landscape of the Falcons. What seemed like a nice fun comeback story turned into a serious discussion about Quinn’s job status.
A straightforward win over Jacksonville secured his future going into 2020. Blank was convinced that the belief is still there within the team. The locker room showcased they are completely behind him. For Quinn to let go of his stubbornness and admit his faults of taking too much responsibility was commendable on his part. Every head coach is going to have the self-belief that they can do it all. There comes a time where you can’t be in denial any longer. Not every head coach is able to address their flaws in the right manner. Quinn isn’t one of those coaches. Although the fiery head coach took more time than the team would have hoped for, he ultimately made the right decision to help get the team back to competing with the best teams in the league.
To beat New Orleans and San Francisco is an astonishing achievement for a team that lacked direction and focus earlier. Finishing 6-2 to end the season was far different than winning the last three games of the season in 2018. They beat elite competition, forced turnovers in nearly every game, and found promising young players such as Russell Gage that could be relied upon going into 2020. That’s how you make the most of being out of the playoff race in November and December.
Entering a make-or-break year
The Falcons are entering 2020 without making any major coaching or executive changes. It’s a decision that hasn’t been met with great approval. Opting to bring back Koetter is baffling based on how inept the offense looked at times during the season. It can be argued that missing Ryan, Freeman, Jones, Calvin Ridley, and Austin Hooper at times during the season greatly affected them. That doesn’t erase the lack of creativity, poor situational play calling, redundant formation usage, and failure to use play action or pre-snap motion enough. There isn’t much evidence to suggest Koetter is going to be able to bring the best out of the offense.
It makes bringing back Quinn slightly more questionable now. Although Quinn’s body of work from 2015 to 2017 outweighs what transpired over the past two seasons, some of his comments in the season-ending press conference were mystifying. Continuity is important to help build sustainable success. Continuity is only possible when everyone meets or goes above expectations at their respective jobs. Quinn and Koetter didn’t come close to meeting expectations. The big difference is that Quinn has been largely successful while Koetter has floundered for a good portion of the past decade.
The Falcons’ disappointing season doesn’t squarely fall on the talent. It also doesn’t fall on Quinn taking too much responsibility or them not being more efficient in the running game. To believe they will win double-digit games again by simply making Raheem Morris defensive coordinator and running the ball more effectively is nonsensical. It will take far more self-evaluation and roster upgrades to reestablish themselves as genuine contenders. Quinn must be more decisive in his personnel decisions moving forward. He also can’t be overly committed to certain players because he drafted them. Players such as Beasley and Campbell have regressed following excellent sophomore seasons. McKinley isn’t someone that can be relied upon as a main pass rusher. That leaves gaping holes across the defense. A greater emphasis on improving up front through the draft and free agency will be vital this off-season.
Quinn deserves this opportunity, because how he helped build a championship-caliber team should forever be valued. To craft together a top-ten caliber defense in 2017 was integral in getting back into the playoffs. His knack for hitting on high-round picks, along with finding value in the later rounds is impressive as well. Not many teams have drafted better than the Falcons since Quinn arrived in 2015. What also can’t be ignored is the strong relationship he has with the players. There are head coaches in this league who are too fixated on their scheme and fail to communicate properly. They can’t build a bond with players, which leads to players losing motivation and potentially requesting a trade. Not one player has ever requested a trade during Quinn’s tenure.
The past two seasons have been grueling. For the Falcons to not be in the playoff hunt in December, let alone not playing football in January is unacceptable for a team with their talent level. Quinn’s decision making has clearly dipped since 2017. There is no telling if it’ll fully recover, especially after confirming Koetter will be back in 2020. What is encouraging is that Quinn appears to be ready to be more authoritative and open-minded. He also knows there is a balance to both things following the early-season debacle. The organization is committed to him. The players are committed to him.
Although the fans may not be fully committed, Quinn has proven he can win over a restless fanbase. He knows there is no more margin for error. It’s time to get back on course and finish what they started back in 2016.