The practice music is different. The vibe is different. The pace is different. Everything moves faster and, yet, strangely it seems easier.
“It’s not complicated,” Roddy White, the Falcons’ elder statesman, said. “He just wants you to go out there and not be thinking. Fast football players play fast when they’re not thinking. It’s a beautiful thing.”
We will find out soon enough just how beautiful things are in the Dan Quinn regime. He has never been a head coach before at any level — never — so Friday night’s exhibition opener against the Tennessee Titans represents his first exam, or at least a practice quiz.
It can be a strange transition from career assistant to head coach. George Seifert, San Francisco’s long-time defensive coordinator, once told me when he first got the head coaching gig as Bill Walsh’s replacement, “I went out to practice and I didn’t know where to go. I didn’t know what to do with my hands. I just kind of wandered around.”
Quinn hasn’t run things beyond the down-and-out-to-Chevy games in the streets and that’s been a while.
“Unless you count pick-up basketball,” he said. “I guess I was player-coach. The last time I did that was the summer of 2014.”
Did you win?
“Yes. No doubt.” (Laughter follows. There’s no videotape to confirm the claim.)
We know this much: Quinn has the Falcons’ attention. That represents a significant improvement over the last two seasons under Mike Smith, when it became clear the message had either grown stale or players merely stopped listening to the messenger. That’s not to dismiss the obvious personnel deficiencies and injuries Smith and his coaching staff had to deal with. But it was equally apparent that Smith did not maximize the talent he was given. At 4-12 and 6-10, nothing is being maximized.
Quinn will have to deal with some of the same roster shortcomings that Smith did. All of the problems can’t be fixed at once. There are holes on the offensive and defensive lines, a thin group of running backs, uncertainties at safety, nickel back, tight end, linebacker. The pass rush, the area most in Quinn’s wheelhouse, should be better, but will it?
Quinn will be on the sideline Friday night for the first time since he coached Florida’s defense in 2012. He had a press box view of Seattle’s defense the last two years.
“It’ll be different,” he said. “But more than anything, I’m just totally pumped to get going with the guys, seeing the attitude and the style that we play with.”
Preseasons aren’t about wins, although aesthetically things might seem more appealing at practice next week if the Falcons defeat Tennessee. Quinn is looking for something more important than a victory written in invisible ink.
“I want to see our ability to take care of the ball offensively and go after it defensively,” he said. “Can they ball-hawk? I want to see real effort — you know, coming off the ball. I want to see it on both sides of the line of scrimmage. And I want to see them finish — plays, series, two-minute drills.”
Everything has been up-tempo, a philosophy he brought with him from Seattle. The idea is to better prepare players for the up-tempo pressure situations that more often than not decide games.
“It’s one thing to be able to do it out here,” Quinn said following Thursday’s practice. “But who is this (game) too big for, and who manages it just right?”
His normal practice frumpy training camp attire has been a short-sleeve T-shirt over a long-sleeve T-shirt. Head coaches in the NFL tend to be dressed differently from the assistants so Quinn will step it up a little: golf shirt over a long-sleeve tee.
In practices, the Seifert-esque wandering has been keep to a minimum. He has been hands-on with the defense in general and pass rushers in particular.
“It took me a while to get into a rhythm in practices and kind of find my balance,” he said of the transition to head coach. “I’m sure I’ll have to find that rhythm in the games, too.”