Falcons coach Dan Quinn and general manager Thomas Dimitroff discuss the decision-making process behind firing all three coordinators following the season. (Video by D. Orlando Ledbetter/AJC)

Have the Falcons’ many changes made them better?

The Falcons have gone from all shook up to shaken out. They have a new offensive coordinator, who’s technically their old offensive coordinator. They have a new special-teams coordinator. They have a new defensive coordinator, and he’s … Dan Quinn! Who’s still technically the head coach! 

Say what you will about the Falcons, but they remain the team with a more fascinating org chart than depth chart. Remember the arc of Marion Campbell, who went from Falcons head coach to Falcons defensive coordinator to Falcons head coach? Remember when Thomas Dimitroff, twice the NFL executive of the year, was rendered subordinate to a man who’d never been an NFL head coach? Remember when they took Raheem Morris, a career defensive man, and moved him to offense

The man who was crowned football czar of Flowery Branch while holding a career record of 0-0 is still in place. Quinn’s updated record, counting playoffs, is 39-30. (Since winning the NFC title Jan. 22, 2017, his Falcons are 18-17.) After firing Marquand Manuel, Quinn conceded he considered making Morris, Mr. Defense-to-Offense, the new DC. Then he decided, “Nah, I’ll do it myself.” Or maybe someone above DQ — there’s only one such person; his initials are AB – decided for him. 

Dirk Koetter is back as OC. Mike Mularkey, the OC before Koetter, is back, this time to coach tight ends. Counting quarterbacks coach Greg Knapp, the Falcons now have three former Falcons OCs on staff. Was there no room for June Jones?

Ben Kotwica, charged with shoring up special teams will, per Quinn, “bring an attacking attitude to our units.” (Because, we can only assume, placid ol’ Keith Amstrong would tell his men, “Just go out and make some fair catches.”)

The new DC will be coaching to save the incumbent HC’s job. And, wouldn’t you know, they happen to be the same guy. 

And now you’re asking: What does this all mean? Regarding these Falcons, the safest answer is, “Who the heck knows?” But that’s a cop-out, and we’re here to perform a service. (No fair catches for us!) The early guess is that the Falcons, X-and-O-wise, have improved themselves on offense and defense and gotten no worse on special teams. So: Definite progress? 

Um … maybe. Is Koetter better than Steve Sarkisian? Yes. Is Koetter apt to be as adroit as Kyle Shanahan was in the Super Bowl season until he forgot to run the ball in the fourth quarter of the Super Bowl? No. That was among the greatest examples of OC’ing in the history of football. Were Shanahan still around, we’d have spent the past two seasons saying, “The offense just isn’t quite the same, is it?” 

Yes, Koetter will inherit – in his case, re-inherit – Matt Ryan and Julio Jones. The latter turns 30 next month; the former will be 34 come May. Neither is in any way decrepit, and the best quarterbacks tend to last, but still: To expect either to be better than he has already been – Ryan was the 2016 MVP, and Jones just led the NFL in receiving yards for a second time — asks too much. 

There are still good pieces around Ryan/Jones. Mohamed Sanu, likewise about to hit 30, just had his best statistical season as a Falcon. The rookie Calvin Ridley caught 10 touchdown passes. Austin Hooper will grace the Pro Bowl. But Devonta Freeman missed most of last season because of injury, and not long ago the Falcons made him the NFL’s highest-salaried back. Tevin Coleman, who might be better than Freeman, is about to become a free agent. There’s no way to afford him and Freeman. 

For all the huzzahs afforded Ryan/Jones/Freeman/et alia in the Super Bowl run, the offensive line was the hidden hand. Until Alex Mack got hurt in the NFC title game and then Ryan Schrader was dinged two weeks later, those five guys essentially played every snap in tandem. Guard Chris Chester retired after that season, and the Falcons haven’t yet found a suitable replacement. Schraeder fell off so badly this year that he was benched. Mack, the anchor, is 33. The offense that Koetter will be handed isn’t quite the offense of 2016. 

After Thanksgiving that year, Quinn cut in front of titular DC Richard Smith and began calling defensive signals. We didn’t know that had happened until after the Super Bowl, but in hindsight it made sense: Those Falcons had defended better in December and January than in September and October. Two years later, DQ the HC has again become DQ the DC. If you’re a Falcons’ fan, you’ve noticed that, in Quinn’s only two seasons as an NFL coordinator, his units ranked No. 1 and No. 1 in yards against. Instant upgrade, right? 

Slight caveat: Those were vintage Seattle defenses, the Legion of Boomsters. In the two years before Quinn became DC, the Seahawks ranked No. 9 and No. 4 under Gus Bradley; the two seasons after Quinn exited saw them rank No. 2 and No. 5 under Kris Richard. It wasn’t as if those defenders only stopped anybody when the Baron of Bromides was whispering platitudes in their earholes. When you’re a top-10 defense under three different DCs, it has something to do with the players. 

The Falcons have sought to collect such defenders. If they had fully succeeded, Manuel wouldn’t be out of work. Injuries were a factor, yes. (Injuries invariably are.) But the Falcons have had Vic Beasley for four years and still aren’t sure what to make of him. Desmond Trufant and Robert Alford, both drafted before DQ was here to have his say, were overmatched last season. There’s talent, but it’s not the top-end talent Quinn had in Seattle. 

The Falcons have changed their coaching staff, which needed to happen. Unknown is whether this team, which isn’t young on offense and has no in-his-prime defender apart from Grady Jarrett and Deion Jones, has seen its window close over the two years of granting auditions to rookie NFL coordinators Sarkisian and Manuel.

The young Rams, who’ll be readying for the Super Bowl in Flowery Branch next week, have stamped themselves as the NFC’s new power, a tag once affixed to the Falcons. No matter how much Quinn fiddles with his staff — and he’s fiddling like Charlie Daniels on a hot night – he can’t get 2017 and 2018 back.

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About the Author

Mark Bradley
Mark Bradley
Mark Bradley is a sports columnist and blogger for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. He has been with the AJC since 1984.
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