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Michael Cunningham’s ramblings from the world of sports
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It’s a bad idea for Dan Quinn, shaky game manager, to add to his Falcons duties 

It was an addendum to the big announcement. Falcons coach Dan Quinn dismissed his three coordinators, and by the way, “Quinn will assume the responsibility of defensive coordinator.” 

That shouldn’t be an aside. It is just as significant as Quinn’s decision to can coordinators Steve Sarkisian, Marquand Manuel and Keith Armstrong. It’s also a bad idea. 

Quinn obviously can do the job. He proved himself as a top coordinator in Seattle, where his 2013 defense was an all-time great unit. The Falcons played better defense once Quinn took over the play-calling during their Super Bowl run. 

But Quinn as coordinator is bad for the Falcons because it adds to his responsibilities during games. Managing games is Quinn’s greatest weakness. He’s adding more to a plate that already seems too full for him. 

Most of his game-management miscues came when he wasn’t coordinating the defense. Can we really expect that to improve when he’s got more to think about? I suppose he can enlist an assistant to feed him information or make suggestions, but in the end, Quinn makes the decisions.

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A consistent theme of Quinn’s is that he will, at some point, botch those decisions. There inevitably comes a time when the Falcons must overcome their head coach’s sub-optimal strategy. That’s happened at least once in each of his four seasons, too often for this level of football. 

Close Falcons observers probably can rattle off from memory the list of Quinn’s game-management goofs. 

In November, Quinn’s timeouts gave Dallas extra time to set up the winning field goal. They also gave the Cowboys four extra yards, which proved crucial when Brett Maher’s fading kick barely slipped inside the right upright. Dallas coach Jason Garrett also tried his best to botch the endgame, but Quinn was relentless.

In 2017, the Saints trailed by three points late when Quinn declined a penalty that would have resulted in a third-and-11 34 yards from the end zone. The Saints converted a fourth-and-short, no surprise because they were (and are) a great power running team. Quinn got away with that one because Drew Brees ended up throwing an interception in the end zone. 

There was that time in 2015 when the Falcons, down four with three minutes to play, kicked a field goal at San Francisco’s 1-yard line. Quinn didn’t get away with that one. The Falcons never got the ball back and lost by a point. 

Then there was the Houston Super Bowl. Considering the stakes and the circumstances, it goes down as the most egregious game mismanagement in NFL history. Quinn will own 28-3 forever. 

Those games reveal major flaws in Quinn’s decision-making process. He’s thinking about the best possible outcomes: getting the ball back after a big stop or scoring a touchdown when a field goal will do. He’s not managing the immediate situation: decreasing the chances the opponent will score or, you know, doing everything possible to ensure his team can kick a field goal to win the freakin’ Super Bowl. 

Every coach makes mistakes. But Quinn’s explanations for those choices suggest that he doesn’t recognize them as mistakes. He tends to focus on outcomes rather than percentages. After bungling situations that scream out for caution, Quinn sticks to his mantra of being aggressive. 

Why did Quinn call that timeout before Dallas converted the key third down? “We were going in with the mindset we're going to stop it and give our offense a chance,” Quinn said. That’s wishful thinking about the future taking precedence over playing the odds in the present. 

Quinn expressed regret about declining that penalty against the Saints but said: “Had they kicked it, it would have been the right call.” No, had they kicked it then Quinn would have benefited from a bad decision by Saints coach Sean Payton, who I’m sure couldn’t believe his luck when Quinn gifted him a good chance to win the game. 

Quinn eventually said he regretted not going for the touchdown in San Francisco. But his lament was that he sent the team the wrong message by not being aggressive (of course). Math was the real reason that was the wrong call: the Falcons would have had a better chance of winning even if they failed to convert the fourth down. 

Kyle Shanahan took the brunt of the blame for the Super Bowl collapse. But Quinn should have overruled his coordinator at any of the many points when it was obvious that the Falcons were being too aggressive with a big lead. Quinn didn’t do it because he tends to think that being aggressive always is the right approach. 

About the worst decision in that game, trying to pass when the Falcons were in position to kick the winning field goal, Quinn said: “I don’t disagree with the call. As it turns out, the outcome (a sack) is what gets you.” Once again, Quinn was talking about bad results when his bad decisions were the obvious issue. 

Quinn is an aggressive coach by nature. He likes for his players to “totally go for it” and he wants to do the same as a coach. That’s fine as a guiding philosophy, but it leads to bad decisions in specific situations. 

Quinn has said that game in San Francisco made him coach more aggressively going forward. But making sound decisions when circumstances call for is smart, not conservative. You cannot blow a huge lead in the Super Bowl with over-aggressive game management and sincerely believe that the “outcome” was the only issue. 

Game management is hard for NFL head coaches, who must process a lot of information in real time. They are thinking about what’s happened before, what’s happening now and how it impacts what they will do next.  It’s crucial to get it right because margins are so thin in the NFL, which engineers parity in player talent among its teams.

Quinn’s history shows that his circuits can get fried by so much responsibility. Now, on top of those duties, he’ll run the defense during games. This is a bad move for Quinn and the Falcons.

About the Author

Michael Cunningham has covered the Hawks and other beats for the AJC since 2010. 

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