The only thing more difficult in sports than winning once is winning twice.
Sometimes everybody gets a little too drunk on success. Sometimes injuries happen. Sometimes players leave -- or, worse, they stay but they're thinking about their next contract, or endorsement, or car, or wife. Sometimes a coach’s message gets stale. Sometimes the general manager knows there's a roster weakness but he thinks, "We were OK last year, so we'll be OK this year." (Boom.)
Dan Quinn is familiar with the ugly history that the Falcons are going against this season. Of the 46 teams in the 23 Super Bowls before last season, only four returned to the championship game the following year. All four of those were the defending champions.
None of the past 23 teams that lost the Super Bowl from 1993 to 2015 made it back. Only two returned to the conference title game. Ten of the 23 missed the playoffs entirely.
Good teams get lazy. Lesser teams get motivated.
“When you’re playing in championship games and Super Bowls, the next year you’re not sneaking up on anybody,” Quinn said. “That can be a difficult challenge. In either case, you better mentally put yourself right into the next season because if you look too far down the line, whether you won it or you lost it, you can get your ass kicked.”
We can't know what kind of shape the Falcons' collective rump will be in come the end of the season. They did all of the right things, bringing in two veteran defensive linemen (Dontari Poe, Jack Crawford) for depth. They signed a competent fullback (Derrick Coleman) to replace the one they lost in free agency (Patrick DiMarco). Their draft was impressive (led by defenders Takk McKinley and Duke Riley). They shook up their defensive staff (needed) and made a likely successful hire (Steve Sarkisian) to replace former offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan (whose remarkable season nonetheless left a grease stain at the end).
So yes - they should win at a high level again. They're talented and young, and they score a lot of points. But the expectation level for the franchise is now higher than it's probably ever been in history. We in Atlanta are not accustomed to teams playing to that bar. More often than not, the bar clunks them on the head.
Stuff happens. Somebody gets hurt. A fumble bounces left instead of right. A player who overachieved in 2016 underwhelms in 2017.
Since emerging from their respect post-Super Bowl gloom, the focus of Quinn and general manager Thomas Dimitroff has been to do everything possible to ensure players "recapture the attitude and mindset” they had last season, Quinn said. Because those are the things in the Falcons' control.
Quinn sought counsel on how to rebound from devastating championship losses from a number of folks: Golden State Warriors coach Steve Kerr, Cleveland Indians manager Terry Francona, San Antonio Spurs general manager R.C. Buford and Seattle Seahawks coach Pete Carroll, one of his mentors.
He came away convinced of something he already knew: The Falcons' biggest challenge would be mental, not physical.
"It probably took me all the way to training camp this year to see really where our mindset was at," he said. "It was about the second day when I came and said: 'This team is going for it. We’re ready to leave that (Super Bowl) there and go for the here and now, even though the rest of the country is not.’ I know there’s storylines being made about us. But it was during the two-day block when I realized the work ethic here is something special."
What jumped out at Quinn?
"It was the speed at which we were practicing," he said. "It was faster. I had kind of an expectation of what training camp would look like, and it had surpassed it."
They will be tested. There are home games against Green Bay and Dallas, both cast as potential Super Bowl teams. There are road games at New England and Seattle, also obvious title contenders. (The New York Jets are mixed in for comic relief.)
But for Quinn, the Falcons' success this season hinges on the NFC South. Tampa Bay is on the rise, Carolina is only two years removed from going 15-1 and playing in the Super Bowl and New Orleans still has Drew Brees.
"We talked about what it's going to take, but we went back to the division," Quinn said. "We know the team that comes out of it will have played some good football to do it. So that’s really where our focus goes, as opposed to going to something all the way in February."
And then this: "We know the history of teams that haven’t done it. But we have lots to do prior to getting to that point."
The next game is as far ahead as they're looking. Probably wise
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