The Dan Quinn who stood before the media here Sunday wasn’t the DQ we’d come to know. He spoke quietly. He spoke slowly, which is a departure for a man who attacks every sentence as if it’s a sprint. He looked chastened, almost dazed. He used the word “disbelief” to describe this season. He used the word “identity” a half-dozen times, as if to suggest his Falcons are no longer the Falcons he’d created.
The last part is no small thing. For the folks based in Flowery Branch, it’s everything. When the Falcons hired Quinn, they made him king of football. General manager Thomas Dimitroff, twice the NFL’s executive of the year, became subservient to a man who’d never coached an NFL game. The Falcons were no longer looking for good players; they were seeking “DQ guys” – fast and furious and all that jazz.
Such was Pete Carroll’s model in Seattle, where the Seahawks won one Super Bowl and nearly a second. Quinn, who’d been Carroll’s defensive coordinator, arrived at his new posting as its most ardent apostle. Pre-Quinn, the Falcons’ brass hated facing Carroll’s Seahawks, believing they played beyond the letter of the law. Now those same folks were charged with remaking their organization in that footloose image.
Sure enough, Quinn’s transplanted way took the Falcons to the Super Bowl in Year 2 and to a 28-3 lead therein. That fateful date was Feb. 5, 2017. We’re not yet done with calendar 2018, and already that lost lead seems a haunted memory, not unlike the green light on Daisy’s dock in “The Great Gatsby.”
Since losing that lead, the Falcons have been, on the record, a losing team. The 34-20 defeat against Green Bay dropped them to 4-9, which means this will be their first losing season under Quinn. (His first team finished 8-8 after starting 6-1.) His record in regular-season games is 33-28. After 61 games under Mike Smith, the Falcons were 41-20.
When the reveling in the championship won by one of his football teams begins to wane, Arthur Blank must wrestle with the issue that has smacked his other footballers in the face: What if the rock on which the Falcons have built their organization was really just gravel? What if the shelf life on Fast & Furious has run out? Let’s be honest: Every team wants guys who can run and hit. The teams that tend to win in the NFL – a league where free agency and a hard salary cap flattens the difference in talent – are those that sweat the details.
The Seahawks were good enough that they could get away with their excesses. In both Super Bowl seasons, they led the league in penalties. The Falcons under Quinn have never been so profligate – by year, they’ve ranked eighth, 10th, 12th and 11th in fewest flags – but they lost to the Packers largely because 13 penalties cost 101 yards. Maybe that was a function of subs playing because of injuries. Maybe it was due to the dulling effect of a season gone improbably south. Whatever the cause, the Falcons have become the team that can’t get out of its own way.
Blank gave Quinn the keys to the kingdom because the owner believed in both man and message. The DQ-ism “Iron sharpens iron” is inscribed in the foyer at 4400 Falcon Parkway. But if Quinn concedes that his team’s “identity” has been lost, what assurance is there that it will be found? What if 28-3 will stand as the reminder of a dream almost realized but, at the last possible moment, snatched away? Not to turn this into English Lit 101, but Jay Gatsby remade himself – changed his name, bought the clothes – and didn’t live happily ever after.
What Blank must ask now is whether Quinn, the man with the message, is also the man with Plan B. Can DQ the motivator become DQ the taskmaster? Are his assistants up to snuff? Have his players had enough of the sloganeering? (The belief is that these Falcons haven’t quit on him, but a sense of fatalism has descended. That’s what losing does.) And if Quinn can’t turn these players back into winners posthaste, where do the Falcons turn? He’s not just the coach, remember. He’s the architect of all this team has come to be.
Quinn was the right guy to hire. (Got the Falcons to the Super Bowl, didn’t he?) From all public utterances, Blank has apparently decided he’s the right guy to keep. I take no issue with that. Because I’ve criticized this coach a time or two, I hear people say, “You must really hate Quinn.” I don’t. I like him a lot. I might characterize him as “the single most hopeful person I’ve ever met.” I’d also note that those are the words Nick Carraway used to describe Jay Gatsby.
For the Falcons to write off this season as a blip would be a grievous error. Injuries had much to do with it, but injuries can’t explain away 4-9. Something has been lost, something more than games. Quinn built the Falcons according to specifications. Four years later, he needs a new blueprint. But having said that, I also wonder: Is it fair to expect a coach to become something he’s not?
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