Among the questions Arthur Blank must ask himself: Is the guy who has coached the Atlanta Falcons for five seasons the right guy to coach the 2020 Falcons and beyond? Because next year’s Falcons will be different. Next year’s Falcons will have to pare down, as opposed to gear up. For two seasons, Dan Quinn has done less with more. Can he somehow be expected to do more with less?
The Falcons’ post-Super Bowl strategy has been to throw money at everybody. Over the space of three years, they made Devonta Freeman, Matt Ryan and then Julio Jones the highest-paid at their positions; they sprang for re-ups of Jake Matthews, Deion Jones and Grady Jarrett. That spending hasn’t really worked – they’re 24-25 since squandering that 28-3 lead – and it’s about become unworkable. Owing to salary cap constraints, some of these familiar names won’t be Falcons next season: Freeman, Austin Hooper, Vic Beasley, Desmond Trufant, De’Vondre Campbell.
To date, Quinn has managed to keep every player he really wanted. Consecutive losing seasons tell us he hasn’t exactly maximized resources. His history doesn’t suggest he’s the kind who can take his’n and beat your’n and vice versa. As defensive coordinator in Seattle, he had four Hall of Fame types – Richard Sherman, Earl Thomas, Kam Chancellor, Bobby Wagner – at his disposal. Here he inherited Ryan and Julio Jones in their estimable prime. He’d still have those two next year, when the younger of the two will be 31.
Even after that 25-point lead was gone with the wind, it was possible to envision the mostly young and hugely gifted Falcons making repeated Super incursions. That hasn’t happened. A path opened after they upset the Rams in January 2018. Then it closed: They lost in Philadelphia to a backup quarterback while mustering one touchdown against the first-ever No. 1 seed to be a home underdog in the Divisional Round. They haven’t had a playoff sniff since.
They started last season 1-4. On New Year’s Eve, Quinn fired his three coordinators. This reset enabled the 2019 Falcons to start 1-7. If you’re keeping score, the Falcons of DQ are on their third offensive coordinator and, depending on how you count, their third, fourth or fifth defensive coordinator – or even the sixth if you count Quinn twice, a la Grover Cleveland. Once more, with feeling: How many times since the first three quarters on Feb. 5, 2017, have the Falcons appeared well-coached?
Sometimes good players will override uninspired coaching. (Though with this team, not often lately.) What might happen if these same coaches are handed a leaner/lesser roster? Will Blank still be, as he proclaimed this summer, thinking of rings? Or will the billionaire owner be content to dial down expectations?
That’s something he hasn’t often had to do. Blank’s purchase of the Falcons was approved on Feb. 2, 2002. He inherited Dan Reeves, who’d taken the Falcons to a Super Bowl, and Michael Vick, the sport’s hottest property. Reeves lasted two more years. He was succeeded by Jim Mora, who took the Falcons to the NFC title game but was gone after three seasons. Bobby Petrino, imported from Louisville for the express purpose of coaching Vick – who’d soon be headed to prison – bolted after 13 games. Mike Smith took the Falcons to the playoffs four times in five years and to a 17-point lead in the NFC championship on Jan. 20, 2013. He was fired on Dec. 29, 2014.
No coach under Blank has kept his job after back-to-back losing seasons. Reeves was allowed only one, that bearing the considerable asterisk of being without Vick for the first 11 games. Mora after going 8-8 and 7-9. Smith was dumped after five consecutive winning seasons – before him, the Falcons hadn’t managed two in succession – followed by 4-12 and 6-10.
Quinn’s winning percentage, counting playoff games, is .536. Mora’s was .540. Smith’s was .573. On the record, the incumbent is the second-worst coach hired by this owner. He’s also the only one granted control over the 53-man roster. He’s also the one liked best by this owner. If Quinn keeps his job – and this could go either way – that last part will be a massive reason why.
There’s a chance Blank will assess alternatives and decide Quinn is better than anybody else he can find. (Though it’d be hard to imagine any card-carrying coach taking this roster and starting worse than 1-7.) The belief here is that viable options are available. Mike McCarthy -- just picking a name -- has a winning percentage of .613. He also has one of those rings Blank lacks.
Above and beyond any personal affection, that should be the bottom line: Is Quinn apt to do better than he already has? We say again: He’ll be working with lesser talent. We say again: The best he has managed these past two seasons has fallen short of .500. Cosmetic surges can’t obscure the greater truth. The Falcons are on the decline. The Brotherhood, seldom invoked anymore, has splintered. Home games are staged before smaller and smaller gatherings, and the team is – nice timing – raising ticket prices for 2020.
I know the owner is struggling with this. I know he loves Quinn. (The two hugged after Sunday’s game. They hug after every game.) The answer, however, seems no less clear than it did two months ago. Were this going to work, it would have by now. It’s time to let someone else try.
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