Falcons won big once with Quinn. History says doubtful they will again

Consecutive losing seasons for the Falcons doesn't mean they can't win with coach Dan Quinn again. You've heard that disclaimer about past performance and future performance. But that cuts both ways for franchise owner Arthur Blank's decision to keep Quinn.

The 6-2 finish to this season isn’t necessarily more of a harbinger than the 1-7 start. Just because Quinn coached Blank’s team to a Super Bowl once doesn’t mean he’ll do it again, or even get close. Recent NFL history shows that it’s hard for a Super Bowl coach to rediscover the magic once it’s gone.

The NFL's parity era began with expanded player free agency before the 1993 season and a salary cap the next year. According to Pro Football Reference, 31 coaches since then have guided their team to the Super Bowl (New England's Bill Belichick hogged nine of them). Quinn is one of seven to subsequently post at least two straight losing seasons and keep their job.

The others: Tom Coughlin, Bill Cowher, Jon Gruden, Jeff Fisher, Sean Payton and Dan Reeves. Cowher is the only one of them to make it back to the Super Bowl. His Steelers lost the 1996 Super Bowl to the Cowboys and beat Seattle in the 2006 Super Bowl. Cowher retired after one more 8-8 season.

Quinn is the latest Super Bowl coach to post back-to-back losing seasons. After losing the 2017 Super Bowl, his Falcons won a Wild Card game at the Rams the next season. They lost 15-10 at Philadelphia the next week after failing to convert a first-and-goal at the end.

That started the downhill slide. Blank kept Quinn on his payroll after the Falcons went 7-9 in 2018. Quinn fired all three coordinators, and Blank said he was confident the Falcons would improve. The Falcons went 7-9 again this season. Quinn had fired himself as defensive coordinator, and Blank again says he's confident the Falcons will improve.

Maybe Blank is right this time. I often note that he has the most information about his football operations. I've also wondered if Blank knows what to make of that evidence. To help him interpret, I thought Blank the businessman needed a football executive senior to his coach and general manager. Falcons president Rich McKay is a strange choice for the role because he hasn't been a football man in more than a decade, but I digress.

Quinn will get his chance to return the Falcons to the Super Bowl after his program fell apart. It took Cowher 10 years to do it and he had to luck into getting quarterback Ben Roethlisberger with the No. 11 draft pick in 2004. Quinn’s Falcons are on a two-season losing streak with their franchise quarterback throwing to the NFL’s best wide receiver of the past decade.

Quinn’s one playoff victory post-Super Bowl puts him one up on Gruden. His Buccaneers won the 2003 Super Bowl, then were 7-9 in 2003 and 5-11 in 2004. Gruden didn’t win another playoff game over the next four seasons.

Coughlin and quarterback Eli Manning bested Belichick and Tom Brady to win Super Bowls in 2008 and 2012. That earned Coughlin enough goodwill to survive three straight seasons with no playoff bids, including a 7-9 finish in 2013 and 6-10 in 2014. The Giants finally pushed him out after a 6-10 record in 2015.

The Saints won the 2010 Super Bowl with Payton. He kept his gig after the league banished him for the 2012 season for his role in Bountygate. Payton stayed put after three straight 7-9 seasons from 2014-2016 (Drew Brees missed one game during that span). The Saints won a home Wild Card game in 2017, lost the 2018 NFC championship game (after an egregious no-call) and lost a Wild Card game Sunday in overtime to Minnesota at home.

Probably no coach has lived off a Super Bowl loss more than Fisher. The Rams beat his Titans in 2000 at the Georgia Dome (the ice storms and Ray Lewis Super Bowl). Tennessee lost the 2002 AFC championship game, lost in the division round the next year and then posted two straight losing seasons. Fisher coached the Titans for five more years and never won another playoff game (the Rams hired him and got a 31-45 record for that dumb decision).

The Falcons were between owners when Reeves’ run with the Falcons went bad. Blank’s purchase of the team closed soon after Reeves finished his third straight losing season. Blank kept Reeves. The Falcons returned to the playoffs the next season and earned an historic victory at Green Bay’s Lambeau Field. Blank fired Reeves when the Falcons were 3-10 in 2003.

Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Bill Cowher holds the Lombardi Trophy after a 21-10 victory over the Seattle Seahawks in Super Bowl XL on Sunday, Feb. 5, 2006, in Detroit.


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It’s not hard to figure how Coughlin, Cowher, Gruden and Payton got reprieves after losing seasons. They all won the Super Bowl when they made it (twice for Coughlin). Gruden and Payton won the first-ever Super Bowls for franchises that had suffered through years of futility.

As for Quinn, well, you know. His Falcons haven’t been the same since 28-3. Blank kept Quinn, anyway, hoping to recapture that magic.

Cowher did it for the Steelers. Coughlin, Gruden, Payton, Fisher and Reeves couldn’t do it for their teams. The circumstances were different for each of them. Some had more success than others. The ultimate outcome was the same, even for the four coaches who’d won the big game: no more Super Bowls.

Quinn lost his Super Bowl in historic fashion and didn't seem to know why. Defense is his specialty, yet he's never had consistently good one with the Falcons. The all-time great Falcons offense of 2016 is a hazy memory. Quinn and general manager Thomas Dimitroff have failed to build the offensive and defensive lines back up to championship standard.

That past performance doesn’t necessarily predict future results. But Cowher is the only coach in the NFL’s parity era to make the Super Bowl, face the abyss of consecutive losing seasons and pull himself back. Quinn has been a good coach, but he’s no Cowher. Blank is banking on winning a bet that’s only ever paid out once on a better entrant.