It was January 2017. We’d assembled in Flowery Branch during the off-week between the NFC championship and the eight days in Houston, and we’d just heard Dan Quinn give his latest state-of-the-Falcons briefing. As we walked from his briefing to the locker room, someone who has been around this team as long as I have – and that’s saying something – asked, “How long do you figure this Brotherhood stuff holds up?”
“Three years,” I said. We both laughed. But I wasn’t kidding.
I’d seen it before, several times in different sports. A new coach arrives with a new message. The players like him because he’s not their old coach, who got fired for losing, and the thing pro athletes hate most is losing. The team starts winning. The players begin to think, “Hey, this stuff is OK.” (They “buy in,” as the argot has it.) They win even bigger. Now they LOVE their coach. To his many bromides, they ascribe the ring of greater truths. All for one, one for all, hip hip hooray.
And then, a few years down the road, they stop listening.
They’ve heard it all, every week, every practice. A coach can only say the same thing so many times – as we know, Quinn says the same thing pretty much every time – before a saturation point is reached. If the team wins big without quite winning it all, which is exactly what happened here, the players can’t glance at the championship rings on their fingers as proof of their coach’s eternal wisdom. And if the winning should stop … well, Katie bar the door.
Some will read this as another criticism of Quinn as coach, and I suppose it is. But it’s not meant as a dismissal of the methods that brought this team to the Super Bowl. To reach the Super Bowl in the span of two years, you must do everything right. This is, however, to note the Falcons’ record since that infamous night in Houston is, counting playoffs, 15-15.
Yes, they’ve had multiple injuries this year. But they were mostly healthy last season and were clearly undercooked, X-and-O-wise, and this year they’ve had a three-game losing streak and now a four-game slide. They have the same record as the Giants, who started dumping players in October. They have a worse record than the Buccaneers, who fired their defense coordinator – Mike Smith, whom Quinn replaced here – seven weeks ago. They have a worse record than the Browns, who shed their head coach and offensive coordinator and who are, after all, the Browns.
The Falcons believed this could be another Super Bowl team. If the season ended tomorrow, they’d be drafting sixth come April. Absolutely no one saw this coming, and there’s absolutely no excuse for it.
The Ravens saw three starting offensive linemen lost to injury, triggering consecutive losses as they hit their bye week. “The biggest thing we need to do is get healthy,” coach John Harbaugh said, and he gave the team a full week off. Then quarterback Joe Flacco got hurt in a loss to Pittsburgh. Reports swirled that Harbaugh’s job had been rendered insecure. But look now.
Baltimore has risen from 4-5 to 7-5 and trails Pittsburgh by a half-game in the AFC North. On Sunday, the Ravens beat the Falcons 26-16 behind a rookie backup quarterback. Baltimore outgained its opponent – this defies belief – 366 yards to 131. As hurt as the Falcons are, Matt Ryan and Julio Jones aren’t among the missing. On Sunday, the star-spangled offense mustered as many touchdowns as the depleted defense.
Back in September, the Falcons were losing shootouts. They’ve since been reduced to shooting blanks. Their point totals in these latest four losses – 16, 19, 17 and 16. That cannot happen, but it has happened four weeks running. Harbaugh has taken what he has and made it work. The Falcons have contrived to minimize their greatest resources. (I know they’ve lost both starting guards, but come on.)
Quinn took the Falcons to the Super Bowl, which merits the benefit of every doubt. He must, however, find help. The past month has reinforced what was obvious last season: If Steve Sarkisian can’t muster more points with this offense, he’s not a top-shelf coordinator. Quinn had to wrest the defensive controls from Richard Smith to make the Super Bowl happen; Marquand Manuel has done little to suggest he’s much better than his defrocked predecessor.
That said, this collapse – Quinn has presided over a few, has he not? – isn’t entirely a function of coaching. The non-effort in Cleveland was shocking, coming as it did after three wins in a row and the brief revival of playoff hope, and everything since has been awful.
Players will pay attention so long as they believe coaches know what they’re doing. When A.J. Green goes uncovered in the end zone inside the final 10 seconds of a vital September game, something isn’t getting through. Even with players missing, you can impart technique. What does this staff impart beyond the need to run fast and hit hard?
This is the NFL. Nobody wins big for long by playing harder than the other guy. The other guy is playing hard, too. The determinant is execution. Apologies for using this line again, but how many times over the past two decades has Bill Belichick had the NFL’s best talent? Five? And how many years has he won at least 10 games? (This will be the 17th in succession.) Belichick’s pet phrase isn’t “Iron sharpens iron.” It’s “Do your job.”
NFL players are pros. They’re not out there for the glory of State U. They’re playing a dangerous game to provide for themselves and their families. If theirs is a happy locker room, great. Happiness, though, can be overrated. The Raiders of yore hated one another, but they just won, baby. Players loathe losing above all else, and if they decide that those in charge can’t make them winners, they’ll tune out.
Pro Football Focus rated the Falcons’ roster the NFL’s second-best. That roster, admittedly missing some key pieces, cannot have a winning season. For the Falcons under Quinn, this is the nadir. For anything to get better again, he’ll need better assistants, better technicians.
The Brotherhood was a noble concept, but its expiration date has come and gone. Forget being a “family.” The Falcons should try becoming a team.