FLOWERY BRANCH -- Sometimes it’s not, to borrow one of Dan Quinn’s many bromides, all about the ball. Sometimes iron – here’s another – no longer sharpens iron. Sometimes a team needs its coaches not to lead cheers but, you know, to coach.
The Atlanta Falcons should have won Super Bowl LI. That they didn’t had much to do with another Quinn-ism: You’ve got to be true to yourself, and the Falcons’ self-styled mode is to be aggressive, even at the expense of blowing a championship. We’ve seen this – here’s the latest slogan – all-gas-no-brakes approach rear its head the past two weeks, when Quinn’s men have squandered two interceptions for the tactile pleasure of smacking a quarterback too late.
The good news: Quinn has built a fast ‘n’ furious team in his quick-talking image. It’s an approach borrowed from Pete Carroll in Seattle, and it worked there well enough to win a Super Bowl title. Only one, though. A second consecutive championship was lost when the Seahawks blew a lead a 10-point lead with eight minutes left – as defensive coordinator, Quinn was part of that – and then threw the ball on first-and-goal from the 1-yard line. Malcolm Butler intercepted.
Butler plays for the Patriots, who don’t have many slogans, unless you count Bill Belichick’s non-speak. (“We’re on to Cincinnati” and, especially, “It is what it is.”) What the Pats have is five Super Bowl rings and a coaching staff that puts whatever players it has in position to win. In the aftermath of that lost 28-3 lead on Feb. 5, it was easy to forget that New England made it that far and then outscored the Falcons 31-0 without benefit of Rob Gronkowski, their second-best player. He’d been lost to injury in November.
Through two seasons plus six games, this we know: Given the keys to this franchise, Quinn drove it really far really fast. This we also know: His first team finished 8-8 after starting 6-1, and his second team blew a 25-point lead with a championship in sight. His latest edition is 3-3, having managed 41 points in its past three games – it averaged 33.8 last season – and been outscored 43-0 over 91½ minutes spanning two Sundays.
Quinn is the coach, but not just the coach. He was handed final say over this roster. General manager Thomas Dimitroff works to serve Quinn, not the other way around. The Falcons have remade their organization to find players this coach wants – “DQ guys,” as they’re known in-house.
On the field last season, the Falcons were mostly great. On paper, this bunch looked even more imposing. Pro Football Focus deemed this roster the NFL’s best , and why not? The reigning MVP, the league’s best receiver and center, its highest-paid running back and its top sack man from 2016 – what opponent can match that?
And yet: These Falcons are 3-3, two of their victories being hairbreadth things. The defense hasn’t taken the expected leap. The famous offense has crashed. Some of this, maybe most of it, is due to the Falcons having coordinators who’d never coordinated in the NFL. (And, to be fair, Kyle Shanahan was the toughest act to follow.) But Steve Sarkisian and Marquand Manuel are Quinn’s hires. This is his team. In every way regarding the football product, this is his franchise.
“I am surprised by the results,” Quinn said Monday, just after exiting what he called a state-of-the-team meeting with his players. Also this: “We’re not where we expected to be, not where we want to be.”
The Falcons are too good to have been outscored on the season. They’re too good to have lost back-to-back home games to Buffalo and Miami. They’re too good to have no-showed the hyped-to-the-heavens Super Bowl rematch in Foxborough. They have, alas, managed all the above. And if the talent isn’t in question – and it isn’t – that leaves coaching.
We’re not just talking about not running the ball on fourth-and-1 against the Bills and running wide with Taylor Gabriel on fourth-and-goal Sunday night, though those are egregious examples. We’re talking about Matt Ryan becoming the first opposing quarterback not to throw for 300 yards against the Patriots, possessors of the NFL’s 32nd-ranked pass defense. We’re talking about Julio Jones going five games and 55 minutes of a sixth without a touchdown catch. (The aforementioned Butler was positioned to intercept this one.) We’re talking about a defense that entered Sunday’s game, as ESPN’s Bill Barnwell noted, with the 28th-best adjusted sack rate .
In sum, we’re talking X’s and O’s. (Toward that end, Quinn mentioned that he’d be adding practice periods to address failings on third down and in the red zone.) Bromides are fine and dandy, but they carry a limited shelf life. Full credit to him for changing the ambience at 4400 Falcon Parkway, but that hay’s in the barn. His ballyhooed Brotherhood – to invoke the biggest DQ bromide – doesn’t need him to be Daddy Dan. His Falcons need him to coach them out of this mess.