We’d been led to believe that the man who began this season as the Falcons’ head coach/defensive coordinator had managed not to get fired when his team reached the season’s midway point having won one crummy game. Turns out that was half-true. Turns out Dan Quinn, head coach, has decommissioned Dan Quinn, defensive coordinator.
Rip the Falcons all you want. But as you’re ripping, ask yourself this: Are you not entertained?
No NFL team, maybe no team in all of sports, can match this for convolution. You can't tell who's doing what without a scorecard, and even then you're unsure if the duty roster from one week will hold until the next. The Falcons, who spent half a season beating almost nobody and looking awful doing it, showed up Sunday in the Superdome and routed the 7-1 Saints. How'd that happen? More to the point, who did the coaching? And therein hangs a tale.
Asked Wednesday if he was still coaching the defense, Quinn said: "I'll hear every call, obviously. But we definitely lean on (linebackers coach) Jeff Ulbrich through all the first- and second-down calls, and we moved Raheem Morris over to the secondary, and he's working through a lot of the third-down and red-zone calls. Through all the planning, (secondary coach) Jerome Henderson is a big part of the pass game on all downs. That's how we've moved it up."
Then: “During the game, (someone might ask) ‘Dan, what do you think?’ If there’s a call I think we should change, we’ll do that. We’re definitely collaborating, but I’m definitely leaning on Jeff and Rah more, and why wouldn’t I? Those guys are capable and ready and doing a good job — so definitely more than at any other point.”
As we know, the Falcons' org chart has long been laden with chutes and ladders. Three former NFL general managers work here, a number that once reached as high as five. Thomas Dimitroff, the longstanding incumbent GM, continues to cling to his job like grim death. Of the past six men to serve as offensive coordinator — this dates to 2004, Jim Mora's first and only good season — three are on staff. Dirk Koetter is in his second tour as O.C., the first having gone better. Then there's Morris, who's 43 and who has had himself an intriguing career.
He was set to move from defensive assistant to defensive coordinator at Tampa Bay for the 2009 season. When Jon Gruden was fired, Morris was bumped way upstairs to head coach. His first team started 0-7. He lasted three seasons. He came here in 2015 to coach defensive backs and serve as assistant H.C. under Quinn. Before the 2016 season, Morris — a career defensive man — was shifted to wide receivers coach. Until last week, that’s where he stayed.
Coming off the bye, Quinn announced Morris had been reassigned to coach defensive backs, prompting a Wait/What moment. If Morris was, as Quinn gushed, the greatest communicator since Walter Cronkite, why hadn't he been given more responsibility over the past four years? Why, when Quinn fired Marquand Manuel as defensive coordinator, didn't he make Morris the D.C.? (In another of those twists endemic to this organization, Morris' switch to offense had been prompted by the urgent need to make room for Manuel on the defensive staff.)
Instead of hiring an actual defensive coordinator, D.Q. the H.C. decided he needed to be D.Q. the D.C as well. Of all the choices he has made these past five years, that might be the worst. The Falcons' defense, bad last year, got worse. After losing 53-32 in Houston, Quinn did some rethinking as the team trained in Arizona. (Where it would lose again.)
He later conceded that, as of the Arizona game, defensive signal-calling had become more of a collaborative effort, with Ulbrich and Henderson lending hands. Two more losses followed. Then came the bye, which saw the Falcons at 1-7, but Quinn remain in place. Though not, as it turned out, exactly or entirely in place.
He remains, he said Wednesday, connected with the defensive line, which managed six sacks of Drew Brees on Sunday. In eight previous games, the Falcons had mustered seven sacks. Quinn likened the communal self-scouting to a group of mechanics "looking under the hood to see what's not working … 'Shut the hood. Start it up. That sounds better.' "
What happened in New Orleans might well have been a dead-cat bounce. Ulbrich, however, is thinking bigger. "Everything we want to accomplish is still out there for us," he said of the 2-7 Falcons. "We're setting up an opportunity to create a story people are going to want to hear."
Should such sudden optimism be attributed to coaching machinations? Said Ulbrich: “There’s a big deal being made about nothing there. (Quinn is) still a big part of meetings. He’s still a big part of game-day decisions.”
Something, though, was different about the Falcons on Sunday, and the role of an NFL head coach can never be dismissed. By not trying to micromanage the defense, Quinn believes he’s better able to assess the bigger picture.
“I didn’t feel like our entire team was where I wanted it to be, so I’m able to be in the spaces where maybe I wasn’t able to be,” he said. “I wanted to recognize me first. Certainly I don’t have an ego that’s anything bigger than our team.”
Then: “That’s the most important thing — how I can do the best job for our players. That’s what I felt was best at this time. That’s why I asked Jeff and Raheem specifically to take on a larger role. And, like you expected, they answered the challenge very strongly.”
And there’s this week’s organizational update: The head coach is pretty much the head coach again. What will these folks think of next?