The Falcons are officially uncoordinated. They just fired Steve Sarkisian, who handled the offense; Marquand Manuel, who handled the defense, and Keith Armstrong, who handled special teams. Dan Quinn, who hired the first two and agreed on arrival to keep Armstrong, remains in place. Think about that.
We’ve said for a while – pretty much since they took that 28-3 lead in NRG Stadium on Feb. 5, 2017 – that this has been a poorly coached team. They just admitted as much, and yet they’ve kept the head coach. I’m not sure I understand, but I’ve been tracking this franchise for 35 years and I’ve often been bewildered.
For example: Why would Arthur Blank take a guy who’d never been an NFL head coach and make him not just an NFL head coach but head of all things football for an NFL franchise? That’s what the high-profile owner did with Quinn, who was then a career assistant, and I wondered, “Just what in this guy’s background makes anybody think he’ll be an ace administrator?”
About the administrative part, I was – full disclosure – wrong. Quinn has proved to be an able steward of the front office. He has succeeded in getting demoted-in-power-if-not-in-title general manager Thomas Dimitroff to find the sort of players DQ wants. (They’re known in-house as “DQ guys,” and these Falcons now have almost nothing but.) Trouble is, DQ the administrator has been better than DQ the coach, which makes little sense until you recall that these are the Falcons.
The Falcons’ roster was ranked No. 2 this season by Pro Football Focus; last year it was No. 1. The Falcons’ record over those two regular seasons was 17-15. That’s a fail.
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After the Super Bowl, Quinn had anointed two guys who’d never been NFL coordinators – Sarkisian and Manuel – and both are now gone. The season just completed could be broken into two: The first part saw the defense unable to stop anybody, which was semi-understandable given all its injuries, and the weird middle section that saw this famous offense go five games (all losses) without scoring as many as 21 points. This became a team that invented ways to lose, and that’s always down to coaching.
Sarkisian appeared overmatched from the first, and by this year it was clear Manuel was, too. Armstong’s special teams saw two Matt Bosher punts blocked in the first five weeks, which can’t happen. The Falcons can and should do better, coordinator-wise. That said, at what point does the tag of “badly coached” attach itself to, you know, the head coach? Drafting fast ‘n’ furious players is great, but isn’t the effect lessened when you can’t get those DQ guys to do the stuff NFL players should be doing?
It’s clear that Blank has fallen in love with Quinn. He has used that word, saying, “We love our coach.” And yes, DQ is likable and relentlessly upbeat. I’m just not sure how adroit he is at coaching. (Which is kind of a big deal, seeing as how he’ll serve as his own defensive coordinator.) How many other professional coaches couldn’t have held a 25-point lead with 17½ minutes remaining? How could he not ask of Kyle Shanahan, “Shouldn’t we be running the ball?” How could he look at the media and say, “We wanted to stay aggressive” and expect nobody to laugh out loud?
Within minutes of that mother of all collapses, we were suggesting that the Falcons might never recover. They haven’t. They’ve never looked as crisp as they did in the autumn of 2016. They were still too talented to be dismissed, but they were the sort of misdirected bunch a shrewd opponent loves to see coming.
Doug Pederson’s Eagles began their run to an improbable Super Bowl by beating the Falcons and opened their title defense by doing it again – both times with their backup quarterback. The Eagles, again without Carson Wentz, just qualified for the playoffs. John Harbaugh’s Ravens won the AFC North behind a rookie quarterback, having held the Falcons of Matt Ryan and Julio Jones to 131 yards on Dec. 2. Repeat after me: Coaching matters.
I understand that the Falcons have invested so much in Quinn that to fire him now would be akin to starting over, which isn’t what you’d want with Ryan being 33 and Jones about to hit 30. But can we interpret Monday’s mass exodus of coordinators as anything but starting over? Quinn spent two years expressing full faith and confidence in his assistants. Three of them just got the gate, and he gets a pass?
There’s a part of me that wonders if, for all DQ’s presumed power, this was really his call. Might we have seen the seldom subtle hand of Blank? Might he have said, “I love you, but lose those coordinators,”? (Four years ago, Blank dumped coach Mike Smith but kept Dimitroff; the high-profile owner does play favorites.) Might this be Blank conceding his team’s coaching failures while, in a bit of cognitive dissonance, ignoring that coaching nous tends to trickle down?
To be fair, the high-profile owner does have his moments. He kept Dimitroff in a lessened role, which seems to have suited him. Maybe something similar will happen here. Maybe a year from now the Falcons will announce that Quinn has been relieved of his coaching duties – to become the full-time chief of football operations. Or maybe they’ll hire slick new coordinators and go 19-0 and we’ll be hailing DQ as the better Belichick.
For now, we leave it at this: Not many organizations would effect such sweeping changes without making it a clean sweep. Not many businesses would dump the Nos. 2, 3 and 4 execs and leave the CEO in place. The Falcons just did. Then again, they’re the Falcons.