Dan Quinn’s tenure in Atlanta ended last night. He finished his career with the Falcons one game above .500 in the regular season and 3-2 in playoffs, the second-best and tied-for-the-best mark in franchise history, respectively. In a vacuum, that’s a tenure that should result in significant appreciation, but nothing that’s happening now is happening in a vacuum.
As was the case with Mike Smith before him, Quinn leaves the Falcons under a cloud of pessimism and outright anger. Unlike Smith, whose tenure is appreciated more as time goes on, I suspect the DQ era will be remembered with more bitterness, both because the Falcons came so very close to winning a Super Bowl and because the team held on too long to the dream that he could get them back there again. At multiple points in the past few years, Atlanta’s brass saw a team that couldn’t get back to its winning ways and had the opportunity to make a decisive change, but their fondness for Quinn prevented and their thirst for another Super Bowl kept them from making a move, even when it was the only logical move left.
After 2017, as grim as the Eagles loss was and as clear as the team’s issues were, it was fair to feel like the Falcons were not so very far away from continuing When injuries piled up in 2018, the fanbase was pretty split over whether Quinn should get another shot, given that he had a blown Super Bowl and an ugly loss to Philadelphia on the docket. When he cleared out his coordinators, it felt like his very last shot, and I very erroneously thought a fresh offensive coordinator and Quinn seizing control of the defense himself might get the Falcons over the hump. Instead, they hired Dirk Koetter, Quinn’s defense fell apart entirely in the first half of the year, and the team capped off its second straight 7-9 finish. Those of us who had been optimistic about the team’s chances to turn things around were wary when Koetter came aboard and definitely out on this coaching staff at the end of 2019, and I think the assumption was that Arthur Blank and company would also be ready to make a move, or that the move was overdue.
Instead, the Falcons gave in to comfort. The same thing that sparked some fans to hope for Quinn turning things around in 2018 and 2019—past success, a belief in Quinn’s ability as a leader of men, and an unwillingness to turn the page and invite major change—ended up winning over Blank and company. As I wrote when the Falcons elected to keep Quinn last year, continuity is a hallmark of great teams but only when those teams have great staffs in place, meaning the Saints may have been right to ride out bad years under Sean Payton and the Patriots were definitely right to ride out a couple of so-so years under Bill Belichick, but other teams elect to stick with staffs that deliver mediocre results year after year simply because they like them, are comfortable with them, and squint hard enough to see a return to past glories waiting just around the corner. The Falcons saw the success the team had in 2016 and to a lesser extent 2017 and decided to just keep things going, chasing diminishing returns and letting every win streak tell them they were on the right path.
Again, that was easy to do because players loved Dan Quinn, Blank clearly loved Dan Quinn, and it’s always easy to rationalize that a man who took you to one Super Bowl can take you to another. As it became more and more apparent that Quinn either never was that guy and was aided by Kyle Shanahan’s brilliance or caught lightning in a bottle he couldn’t replicate in 2016, the Falcons needed to be able to make a clear-eyed decision that players and fans aren’t tasked with for a reason, and they found themselves unable to do it. Even the most optimistic Falcons fans has to reckon with the very real fact that the team appears to have wasted the 2020 season because of a 6-2 run and a belief in momentum, maybe the most nebulous concept in sports, and many of you have been out on Quinn going back to the end of the 2018 season or even longer. As a result, fans and Blank alike will be left to wonder what might have been this season (and yes, 2019, 2018, etc.) had the team been willing to get out of its comfort zone and make a tough choice sooner.
What can the Falcons learn from this? The best lesson is that it’s unwise, if you are the sort of organization that cares as deeply about winning as Blank often says this one does, to make decisions on a coach because of a single year’s success, especially when that success moves further and further into the rear view mirror. Blank mercifully did not stretch this out into Jason Garrett territory, but a coach who didn’t go to the Super Bowl in 2016 simply would not have gotten 2020 to sort things out, 6-2 finish to 2019 be damned. He may very well have not even gotten 2019. The second lesson is that comfort works against greatness in the NFL, and while you don’t and shouldn’t have to be a weirdo hardass coach or a psychotic Jerry Jones-esque owner to get results in this business, if “the players and I really like the guy” becomes a significant talking point for a team losing bunches of games and showing the same weaknesses annually, that’s a warning sign that winning is taking a backseat.
The Falcons will never be the kind of team that cycles head coaches by the year as long as Arthur Blank is the owner, and that’s not something any of us want to see. But the Falcons briefly believed they were on the cusp of becoming something more than a pretty successful team with one Super Bowl berth over the past decade, and they let the blinding desire to become a great team let them cling to a coach who proved thoroughly incapable of taking them there. In the years to come, as the Falcons first retool and then perhaps rebuild with an eye on becoming a great team, they’ll need to look back on the Quinn era and remember that they can’t prize one-off flashes of strength and their comfort level with coaches and players more than they prize the chance to become and stay one of the NFL’s truly elite squads.