Editor’s Note: If you didn’t read part one of this series, you can view the article here.
Success can take you in two different directions. It can help build your character towards remaining focused and persistent. It can also inflate your ego and make you become too eager to rest on your laurels.
Five consecutive winning seasons, including two division titles, from 2008 to 2012 put Thomas Dimitroff on a pedestal as a general manager. His craftiness and ambition to build a championship-caliber roster made him highly-regarded across the league. Two years after the Falcons nearly made it to the Super Bowl in 2012, he was on the verge of being fired along with Mike Smith. Dimitroff managed to survive the 2013-2014 crash, but he would lose his role as the man overseeing pro and college scouting duties with Scott Pioli being hired as the assistant general manager in January 2015.
Dimitroff’s partnership with Dan Quinn yielded a stunning 2016 season and spirited 2017 season. Although both seasons had their major letdowns, it was clear they rebuilt a championship-caliber roster. Dimitroff continued to pull some strings with Quinn by trading up in the first round and acquiring multiple late-round picks in attempting to find potential overlooked gems. Unfortunately, things badly unraveled across the entire organization in 2018. The team was in need of a stronger identity and more innovative ideas.
They understandably addressed the offensive line woes by using two first round picks on Chris Lindstrom and Kaleb McGary in 2019. Despite having limited cap space, they managed to sign two experienced guards in James Carpenter and Jamon Brown. The sight of Matt Ryan taking 42 sacks had a damaging effect on the organization. They wanted to make sure their franchise quarterback didn’t endure an alarming amount of punishment ever again.
Nearly all of the offseason investment went towards the offensive line. That left some concern on a defense who seemed to be relying on the return of Deion Jones, Keanu Neal, and Ricardo Allen as the biggest change from an abysmal 2018 season. Outside of signing decent rotational pieces in Tyeler Davison and Allen Bailey, the most exciting defensive move from the off-season was bringing back fan-favorite Adrian Clayborn. That didn’t seem enough for a defense that struggled to generate pressure and allowed completions over 20 yards at an alarming rate.
The idea of practically putting everything into upgrading the offensive line didn’t seem like a sensible decision, even if it was one Arthur Blank clearly wanted. Investing another year into hoping high draft picks elevate their respective games without any suitable backup plan was concerning. Hope isn’t a plan.
You can give Vic Beasley, Takkarist McKinley, De’Vondre Campbell, and Isaiah Oliver every opportunity to prove they can play at a high level. If they don’t meet those standards, how does the coaching staff make adjustments? The same can apply to the coaching staff with Koetter’s underwhelming body of work and Quinn taking control of the defensive play calling. There were several unsettling aspects about the Falcons going into the 2019 season. That said, who would have thought their frailties would force them to unravel so quickly?
Quinn has always been beloved by his players. He will spend hours trying to help them improve their skillset. When the team loses, Quinn never criticizes an individual player at a postgame press conference. He takes accountability for the poor performances. No matter how critical a question was, he doesn’t shy away from responding to it. There are countless players who have spoken highly of Quinn. They mention how inspired they are to play for a leader like him. That’s one of the main reasons why their drastic decline was so perplexing.
The Falcons went from a playoff hopeful to a hopeless walking punchline in a span of one month. They faced double-digit deficits in the first half of three out of their first four games against Minnesota, Indianapolis, and Tennessee. Each deficit came from the team either starting off slow or simply not showing up. The offense looked sluggish and out of rhythm. Matt Ryan threw several baffling interceptions to put an overmatched defense in difficult scenarios. The defense got torched by opponents due to their lack of discipline, complete disorganization, and pitiful technique on all three levels. Kirk Cousins only attempted ten passes in Minnesota’s opening weekend victory. Marcus Mariota went from playing like a prime Steve McNair against the Falcons to being permanently benched two weeks later in Denver. If it wasn’t for Nelson Agholor dropping a likely game-winning touchdown, the Falcons start the season winless instead of 1-7.
Quinn looked baffled in watching his defense allow easy-access big plays on nearly every drive. Some players weren’t fulfilling their gap responsibilities. Defensive backs struggled to make open field tackles, which was a terrible look considering the Falcons had their own commercial talking about the importance of tackling. If they weren’t missing tackles, they were likely blowing basic zone coverage assignments. A team that supposedly loves playing for their head coach didn’t look like they were prepared to compete at times. Was Quinn’s ultra-positive approach starting to become stale? Many were questioning if his methods weren’t working anymore. What was for certain was his preferred scheme had become easily exploitable.
The Seattle-styled Cover 3 defense was starting to be exposed across the league. Offensive masterminds like Kyle Shanahan and Sean McVay set the blueprint on how to tear apart the coverage alignments. Teams were able to find soft openings without much resistance. It wasn’t challenging for opposing offenses to produce explosive plays when not many disguises or blitzes were being thrown at them. Keke Coutee talked about how easy it was to attack Quinn’s simplistic defense. When you constantly run the same thing without many top players on your roster, you are fighting a losing battle. You see your team at the bottom of major statistical categories. Players like Will Fuller start having historical performances that put your defense to further shame.
Not making any substantial changes to the defense in preparation for the 2019 season was the biggest mistake in an offseason filled with them. Despite McKinley and Beasley failing to step up in 2018, they didn’t bother signing or drafting anyone that could seriously push them for reps. Not signing a corner after releasing Robert Alford and not re-signing Brian Poole was another fatal error. Besides experimenting with 3-4 and 5-2 looks up front, they essentially ran the same vanilla defense with the same talent level outside of losing Neal to another cruel season-ending injury against Indianapolis. These personnel mistakes led to embarrassingly painful streaks from not producing a sack for four games to not intercepting a pass for six games.
The defense’s weekly implosions took the attention off a maddeningly, inconsistent offense. For all the playmakers at his disposal, Dirk Koetter’s game plan left everyone puzzled rather than impressed. The running game moved away from their zone blocking scheme to a more traditional power look. That didn’t translate into much success, especially with Carpenter and Brown being colossal disappointments. Calvin Ridley became too much of an afterthought in certain games. Koetter’s wishes to run the ball more didn’t translate on the field with Ryan attempting more than 40 passes in most games. The offense did find themselves in difficult circumstances with the defense unable to get stops or create turnovers. Koetter’s inability to scheme up high-percentage looks forced Ryan to take several risks, which ultimately played a major role in him throwing seven interceptions in the first five games.
At 1-7 going into the bye week, Arthur Blank had every right to fire Quinn and Dimitroff. A team that was built to win now struggled to stay competitive in games, let alone put themselves in a position to win. Significant adjustments had to be made in order for Quinn to retain his position for the remainder of the season. There was no denying the roster had major flaws, but they were talented enough to be competitive. The alarming slow starts where they found themselves down three possessions in the first half had to stop. The coverage breakdowns from players not being prepared and organized needed to be addressed. It was time for everyone to start taking accountability. It had become clear the entire organization was complacent in how they entered the season. They needed to show urgency in learning from their mistakes after becoming one of the biggest punchlines in the league.
Revival for survival
Quinn removed himself from defensive play calling duties. It was a respectable move on his part to come to terms with his shortcomings. While the damage was already done for the season, Quinn started taking steps towards being more open-minded. It had become evident that he was stubborn in his overall approach. Allocating play calling duties to Raheem Morris and Jeff Ulbrich appeared to be an encouraging step in the right direction. It allowed two respected defensive minds to help organize a discombobulated unit and create new looks to disrupt their opponents.
To face the New Orleans Saints on the road coming a bye is the worst possible matchup you could ask for. The Falcons seemed destined to be on the receiving end of another humiliating blowout, especially with Drew Brees returning from injury. They ended up playing the game of their lives by sacking Brees six times and not allowing a touchdown. Brees was hesitant for most of the game. The big plays you’d normally expect from Sean Payton’s offense never materialized. The Falcons’ front four caused havoc all game long, while the secondary remained disciplined and compact. A convincing win over their bitter rival, who were fighting for home-field advantage, set the tone for the second half of the season.
Winning six out of the last eight games was an impressive feat. Regardless of the circumstances and favorable matchups, it was proven that the coaching staff can make adjustments and the players are behind Quinn. To beat arguably two of the best NFC teams in New Orleans and San Francisco on the road was a notable accomplishment. It’s something Blank couldn’t ignore when assessing the team’s outlook going into 2020. They managed to persevere when it seemed like they were a broken team. They imposed their will against vulnerable teams such as Carolina and Jacksonville. They stepped up and challenged two of the sharpest offensive minds in Shanahan and Payton when nobody expected them to be competitive. While some viewed this late-season surge as meaningless, it was far from the case within the organization. Blank was impressed enough to give Quinn and Dimitroff another opportunity. It was announced two days before the season finale against Tampa Bay that they would return next season in their respective positions.
The late-season success didn’t erase the cloud of complacency over them. Losing seven of the first eight games is unacceptable for any team. It was another year wasted in the prime years of Ryan and Jones. For Quinn to make changes significant changes at 1-7 rather than 1-4 left a bad taste in everyone’s mouth. Allowing underachieving players like Beasley, Campbell, and Oliver to start every game without any repercussions was a troubling sign. It was one of many bad precedents of how the Falcons were operating as a team. Not being able to execute basic zone coverage concepts made you question not only what type of players were they drafting, but also how were they developing them.
The NFL is a rapidly changing league with new trends being established every season. If you don’t evolve, you become complacent. If you become complacent, you find yourself eliminated from playoff contention by Thanksgiving. That’s something the Falcons experienced in the previous two seasons. It was time for the entire organization to become more decisive and objective to make sure what happened in 2019 never transpired again.
Running it back to ineptitude
Shortly after the season concluded, Quinn announced that no major coaching changes were going to be made. That meant Koetter would remain as the offensive coordinator. There was no evidence to suggest that this was a logical decision. The much-maligned play caller failed to produce much excitement or stability in his first season back. His play calling hindered Ryan far more than enhanced his biggest attributes. The decision to bring back Steve Sarkisian after a disastrous first season proved to be detrimental. All indications were pointing towards the same disappointing results happening again with Koetter’s archaic philosophy at the helm.
This decision indicated that the Falcons felt Quinn’s decision to be the defensive coordinator was the reason behind their dismal season. Although it was certainly one of the primary reasons, the Falcons weren’t one the worst three teams in the league during the first half of the season solely because of Quinn’s shortcomings. It takes a collective effort to get blown out. It falls on the shoulders of both units when a team is down 24-3 in the first half. Not making any major changes following a second consecutive disappointing season represented what had become a common notion around the league.
The Falcons garnered a reputation over the years for thinking they are much better than what they really are. How they rated their personnel surpassed what most scouts and analysts thought of them across the league. While “not listening to outside noise” is a popular phrase around the locker room in Atlanta, the outside noise can’t be ignored when the noise becomes factual. It doesn’t matter how many first-round picks you added in the trenches. If you are being regularly manhandled on both sides of the ball, you have failed to do your job at assessing and assembling talent.
During Dimitroff’s entire reign, high-round draft picks would be given endless opportunities to the point where they became genuine liabilities on the field. Sam Baker, Peria Jerry, Peter Konz, Akeem Dent, Ra’Shede Hageman (who was briefly brought back in 2019 for no apparent reason), Vic Beasley, Duke Riley, and Isaiah Oliver are all players who fall into that category. These are players who were given too many opportunities when their on-field performance didn’t justify them playing as starters. Due to their draft status, these players either started nearly every game or managed to play despite making costly errors every week. Not disciplining or removing underperforming players from the lineup entirely not only cost them games. It took away their identity.
Quinn’s constant push in building a brotherhood was very popular in his first three seasons as a head coach. What fan wouldn’t want to see a charismatic head coach build a strong bond with his players? What you don’t want to see is a team getting comfortable. That’s exactly what happened to the Falcons. The Athletic’s Jeff Schultz wrote an enlightening piece about the Falcons’ implosion last season. His story seemed to emphasize how much players were being coddled rather than challenged. The impact of building a brotherhood becomes non-existent when problems aren’t being addressed. It shouldn’t take losing seven out of the first eight games for major adjustments to be made. It shouldn’t take a head coach on the verge of losing his job for a team to respond on the field.
There were also problems off the field behind the scenes. How the organization handled Beasley’s contract situation is a prime example of how much players were at ease under this regime. Deciding to bring Beasley back on an option costing $12.81 million was partly due to maintaining a positive relationship with CAA. CAA (Creative Artists Agency) is a talent and sports agency that represents Beasley, Jones, and Grady Jarrett. With Jones and Jarrett due for contract extensions in 2019, they felt bringing back Beasley would benefit their relationship with them. This is a player who never came close to replicating his impressive 2016 season. The decision to bring back Beasley resulted in minimal production and salary cap conflict. The team itself announced they wouldn’t pursue negotiations with Beasley in early February 2020. That’s how desperate the organization was to sever ties with him.
As the team was prepared to run it back with the same coaching staff, it’s important to pinpoint some of their missteps in making coaching decisions. To see Shanahan and Matt LaFleur as the head coaches in the NFC Championship had to sting within the organization. While Shanahan was destined to become a successful head coach in 2017, LaFleur was someone who appeared to be ready to become an offensive coordinator. The organization reportedly wanted someone with more experience to replace Shanahan. That person was Sarkisian who had one year of NFL coaching experience as the quarterbacks’ coach of the Oakland Raiders in 2004. LaFleur is currently the head coach of one of the best teams in football, who had recently blown out the Falcons in primetime. Not keeping Bryan Cox because he was reportedly too intense was another poor decision. Beasley, Hageman, Courtney Upshaw, and Brooks Reed had the best year of their respective careers when Cox was the defensive line coach. Firing him after the Super Bowl always seemed like a harsh move. Outside of a solid 2017 season, the defensive line hasn’t come close to meeting expectations as an overall group since Cox’s departure.
Quinn came to Atlanta as a fiery coach. In his third game as a head coach, he called a timeout as the defense was getting shredded by the Cowboys. Quinn gathered the players and started getting in their faces. After seeing how mundane Mike Smith had become as a head coach, it was refreshing to see a head coach show spirit in wanting players to correct their mistakes. That spirit slowly vanished with a shocked look on his face after every defensive breakdown from the previous two seasons. Quinn was slowly becoming Mike Smith 2.0 in terms of how he wasn’t able to evolve after finding initial success as a head coach. Unlike Smith, he received an extra opportunity to prove himself worthy of being at the forefront of a team.
A painful ending
For the first time since 2016, the Falcons entered a season without any significant buzz. They weren’t being labeled as Super Bowl contenders or even potential darkhorses. They were viewed as a pedestrian team that didn’t have the pieces to compete in an ultra-talented NFC South. Despite being somewhat aggressive in the off-season, it was difficult to see how they could prove critics wrong. Todd Gurley brought some much-needed excitement, but it was well-documented that he isn’t the same dynamic running back he was in 2017. For the first time since 2011 when they signed the illustrious Ray Edwards, the front office decided to spend heavily on an edge rusher by signing Dante Fowler. Trading a second-round pick for Hayden Hurst seemed like a misuse of value, but there was no denying the intrigue of seeing what Hurst can do in an expanded role.
They entered the season with numerous question marks across the defense. The decision to release Desmond Trufant was a nonsensical one. Quinn and Dimitroff were entering a season where they knew they needed to win. Not wanting to keep one of your most consistent defensive players raised major eyebrows. An extremely inexperienced cornerback group with an unsettled defensive line had all the makings of a disaster waiting to happen. As encouraging as it was to have Raheem Morris as the defensive coordinator, the talent level across the board simply wasn’t good enough to compete with the most prolific teams. That was proven in early-season defeats to the Seahawks and Cowboys.
Russell Wilson didn’t have to make one tight-window throw on 35 pass attempts in their matchup. When Foye Oluokun wasn’t forcing fumbles, the defense had no answer for Dak Prescott and his array of weapons. The defense desperately needed young players to emerge as difference makers. Outside of Oluokun, not one young player has shown noticeable improvement. Although injuries prevented McKinley and Marlon Davidson from playing regularly, young starters like Isaiah Oliver and Damontae Kazee are repeatedly caught out of position and allowing game-altering plays. It was more of the same from a defense that looks disorganized and incapable of producing stops.
Not being able to close out games was the breaking point for Quinn. The losses to Dallas and Chicago signified the end was near. To have a two-possession lead with six minutes to go in two consecutive games and fail to win either game represents a deeply-damaged team. It was going to take an extraordinary effort to recover from the onside kick debacle against Dallas. Allowing Nick Foles to torch you off the bench after not playing for almost a year made it a foregone conclusion that Quinn was going to be fired. Two uninspiring, lackadaisical showings against Green Bay and Carolina sealed Quinn’s fate. There was no reason for Quinn to remain as the head coach any further. It was also time to move on from Dimitroff.
Dimitroff brought great success to the franchise over the years. Unfortunately for him, the blunders have exponentially risen over the past three years. The inability to properly address issues at edge rusher and cornerback will haunt both Quinn and him. They never seemed to get it right in the draft or free agency with those particular positions, even if A.J. Terrell is looking very promising right now. The risk of signing Fowler was paying a premium for a player who is more of a contributor than lead asset on a defensive line. He was able to be a valuable contributor on stacked defensive lines in Jacksonville and Los Angeles. Atlanta needed him to be a difference-maker. Fowler hasn’t been anything close to that. Trading up in the first round for McKinley clearly didn’t work out. The same can be said at corner with Oliver and Jalen Collins being massive letdowns. It will be fascinating to see if the new coaching regime will move away from drafting long, physical corners. Only Brian Poole can be deemed as a success when it comes to selecting and adding young corners.
There seemed to be a disconnect when it came to the off-season strategy in 2019. The total emphasis on investing in the offensive line when the defense desperately needed talent up front left a lot to be desired. They had to know they wanted to rebuild the offensive line in the draft. What was the purpose of signing Carpenter and Brown to sizeable contracts then? Re-signing Ty Sambrailo to a three-year, $18 million-dollar deal was another bizarre decision. They spent a considerable amount of money on offensive lineman who were never expected to be in their long-term plans. That left them without much cap space to add defensive players. Dimitroff will have to be held culpable for these dreadful decisions. Outside of drafting players in the first round alongside Quinn, there isn’t much positive to say about his last three seasons as general manager. The time was right for the Falcons to start completely fresh.
Quinn’s rise and fall is reminiscent of Smith. While Smith had more success and longevity, Quinn made a bigger impact with his success. His playoff teams in 2016 and 2017 were better than any of Smith’s teams. They weren’t reliant on Ryan to bail them out on last-minute drives. They knew how to finish games (for the most part) and put together more consistent stretches of excellent play. What makes Quinn’s downfall similar is his coaching methods were no longer effective. The catch phrases and lovable personality doesn’t connect when the team can’t win games. Not being to alter his defensive philosophy will also be heavily criticized when assessing his legacy in Atlanta. These were all topics that were discussed when analyzing Smith’s tenure.
Complacency is a silent killer. You don’t feel it until you’ve witnessed the same mistakes made on a weekly basis. You fully recognize it when those mistakes are happening the following year. Quinn gave his all to the team. He should eventually be fully acknowledged for what he brought to Atlanta. That could take years for fans to do. The lack of attention to detail from roster building to game planning can’t be forgotten. Quinn never came close to replicating what the great Seahawks’ defense did. These are disappointments that he will have to live with.
When complacency strikes, you have to defuse it as quickly as possible and strengthen your identity. That’s what Quinn was never able to do in his quest to bring a championship to Atlanta.