How did the Falcons go wrong? Glad you asked

Who saw this coming? Nobody. If you claim you did, I’ll insist on a polygraph. As bad as last year was, the Falcons were 7-9. Now they’re 1-6, and the “1” required a fourth-down conversion, a fourth-down stop and a Nelson Agholor drop.

Everyone asks: How did this happen? As a public service, I offer these observations/guesses.

Theory No. 1: The coach's credentials. Dan Quinn began coaching in 1994. Until 2011, he'd been a defense coordinator only at Hofstra, and then only for the 2000 season. That team went 9-4-1 and lost to title-bound Georgia Southern and Paul Johnson in the FCS quarterfinals. PJ's offense hung 48 points on DQ's defense.

Quinn was Pete Carroll’s defensive line coach/assistant head coach with the Seahawks in 2009 and 2010. Will Muschamp, chosen to succeed Urban Meyer at Florida, tapped Quinn as defensive coordinator. The Gators ranked eighth nationally in total defense in 2011, fourth in 2012. Though Quinn -- who knew Muschamp when the two were Dolphins assistants under Nick Saban -- was a key figure, the belief in Gainesville was that the head coach ran his own defense.

Quinn returned to Seattle and was part of consecutive Super Bowl seasons – the Seahawks won the first and should have won the second – that featured the NFL’s top-ranked defense. That stamped him as the NFL’s hottest assistant. The Jets made a pitch, but Arthur M. Blank got what he wanted, as Arthur M. Blank invariably does.

One reason Quinn came here was that Blank offered control of the 53-man roster, basically making him czar of football. Mike Smith had reported to general manager Thomas Dimitroff; Quinn would report to Blank. This isn’t quite a second-guess, seeing as how we raised it at the time, but granting such sway to someone who’d never been a head coach at any level was unusual if not unprecedented.

And the Seahawks didn’t just learn how to defend under Quinn. They were the NFL’s ninth- and fourth-best defense in 2011 and 2012 under Gus Bradley, who left to coach the Jaguars. After Quinn left, they were the NFL’s second- and fifth-best defense under Kris Richard. Those Seahawks were a harmonic convergence of defensive excellence: Richard Sherman, Earl Thomas, Kam Chancellor, Bobby Wagner, Michael Bennett, Bruce Irvin. Quinn did great work there, but he wasn’t the only one.

Theory No. 2: The Shanahan factor. The best season under Quinn took the Falcons to the Super Bowl -- this despite them ranking 25th in total defense. Indeed, Quinn seized the defensive reins from coordinator Richard Smith after Thanksgiving.

That team scored 540 points, tying for the eighth-most in NFL annals. It scored 80 more in playoff victories over Seattle and Green Bay. After the opening loss to Tampa Bay until the final quarter of Super Bowl 51, Kyle Shanahan had one of the greatest play-calling seasons ever. Matt Ryan was MVP. Julio Jones caught 83 passes for 1,409 yards. Devonta Freeman rushed for 1,079 yards. The line blocked liked thunder. Everything worked.

Nothing has worked as well since. Shanahan left to coach the 49ers. Quarterbacks coach Matt LaFleur took a job as offensive coordinator under Sean McVay with the Rams, Quinn having hired Steve Sarkisian as OC here. Sarkisian lasted two seasons and was among three coordinators fired on New Year’s Eve. Shanahan’s 49ers are 6-0. In Year 1 as the Packers’ head coach, LaFleur’s team is 6-1.

Theory No. 3: Nobody to say no. Dimitroff's job changed with Quinn's arrival. The GM's mission became to acquire players of the coach/czar's liking. When the coach/czar reaches the Super Bowl in Year 2, his power is absolute. Quinn's concept of Brotherhood became boilerplate on official team releases. One of his many bromides – "Iron sharpens iron" – adorned the lobby at 4400 Falcon Parkway.

Only once under Quinn has the Falcons’ defense ranked among the league’s 10 best in yards against. That was in 2017, when Marquand Manuel (since fired) was a rookie coordinator. Last year the Falcons ranked 28th in total defense, sixth in total offense. Their top two draftees, both in Round 1, were offensive linemen. Did not the defense require more immediate help?

The guess is that Quinn believed that, with him again running the defense and injured guys presumably healthy, he’d coach everybody up. Almost all these players were of his choosing – DQ Guys. Heck, he might re-light the fire in Vic Beasley, the 2016 NFL sack leader who’d done little since. Quinn announced his intention to make Beasley his personal project. Duly enthused, Beasley skipped OTAs.

Sometimes total control leads to tunnel vision. Shouldn’t somebody – Dimitroff, or even Blank – have said, “Are you sure you can get more from these guys just because you like them? Are you sure there’s more to get?” Or, going bigger-picture: “In trying to keep all these guys happy, aren’t we spending ourselves into salary-cap hell?”

Sometimes a GM needs to tell his HC, “Whoa.” Can a GM who serves at the pleasure of this HC do that? Was there anybody in Flowery Branch to say, “Maybe trying to be HC and DC isn’t the greatest idea”? (In a nod to reality, Quinn revealed last week that defensive play-calling is now a communal process.)

This isn’t to suggest that Quinn was a bad hire. Twenty-four months after he took the job, his team led the Super Bowl by 25 points. But from the first, the Falcons have treated Quinn as if he wasn’t just a coach but a magic man. The cold truth is that, after 71 regular-season games, he has been worse than his predecessor. His record is 37-34. Mike Smith’s was 50-21.

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