Falcons football structure looks strange again

Dan Quinn and Thomas Dimitoff at the end of the year press conference. (By D. Orlando Ledbetter/dledbetter@ajc.com)

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Dan Quinn and Thomas Dimitoff at the end of the year press conference. (By D. Orlando Ledbetter/dledbetter@ajc.com)

Four years ago Falcons owner Arthur Blank hired Dan Quinn as head coach and de facto head of football operations and retained Thomas Dimitroff as general manager. It was a seemingly awkward fit that produced very good results. The Falcons were 8-8 during the rebuild of Year 1, NFC champions in Year 2 and won a road playoff game in Year 3.

Those returns diminished in Year 4, Quinn’s first with a losing record. Winning three games in row to get to 4-4 was a mirage. The five-game losing streak was a reality that “hit you right square in the face,” Quinn said Thursday.

“You’ve just got to do better,” he said. “But it’s way deeper than that. How do you do it, and what changes need to be made?”

That’s the crux of the matter. Quinn’s answer was to fire his three coordinators and put himself in charge of the defense. He said he did it because “new direction and voices” are needed to re-establish his team’s style and identity.

And this is when Quinn and Dimitroff as “co-team builders” starts to look awkward again.

The Falcons are built in Quinn’s image. His voice and direction matter more than any other, including the GM. Yet Quinn stays while his coordinators go. That means Blank is counting on the same voice and direction producing better results.

That makes me wonder how Blank evaluates the football operations overall and his head coach specifically. Blank has more information about his football team than anyone else but he’s a businessman, not a football man. His expertise isn’t in picking players and coaching them.

He can ask his coach and GM for their blueprint, but then who will tell Blank if their plan is feasible? How does he know if his head coach is doing what he should? He can tell him the results must improve but, as Quinn said, “it’s way deeper than that.”

Blank can’t ask the GM about the head coach because the head coach is in charge. There is no football executive senior to Quinn that Blank can rely on for an evaluation of the coach’s methods. I suppose Blank could ask the four ex-GMs in the building, but good luck getting honest answers about their boss on the football side.

Blank is putting his faith in Quinn to right what’s wrong with the Falcons. Blank has been steadfast in supporting Quinn publicly. The owner hasn’t offered much detail on his views of Quinn’s performance or his plan to improve the results.

After the Falcons started 1-4, Blank said they “have to make adjustments” to right their season, adding: “Nobody wants to hear any excuses.”

After the Falcons dropped to 4-7 with a loss in New Orleans, Blank told ESPN: “Our coach is not the problem.”

After the Falcons lost again the next week, virtually eliminating them from the playoff contention, Blank said he thinks back to the past success of coach and GM and declared: “They’ll figure out the answers.”

It’s true that Quinn had a good track record before this season. But, as they say with stocks, past performance is no guarantee of future results. The Falcons just haven’t been the same since 2016, and their bad injury luck this season followed remarkably good luck over the previous three.

The 2018 Falcons got good on offense just when they got terrible on defense. Then their offense was bad once the defense improved.

“The wheels never fell off,” Quinn said Thursday.

He can rightly say that after the Falcons won their final three games. But by then it no longer mattered for their playoff chances. Their fate had been sealed by the five-game losing streak.

That fade followed the season’s high point, the victory at Washington. The Falcons had new life and better health. They responded by losing their next five, four by two-score margins, starting with the fiasco in Cleveland.

The Falcons offense sputtered for five weeks despite Matt Ryan and Julio Jones suiting up. Steve Sarkisian, not Quinn, paid the price for that. Quinn said the next coordinator can add his own wrinkles but must adapt to the scheme in place.

The defense fell apart after three key starters went on injured reserve, then performed reasonably well over the season’s final half. I think coordinator Marquand Manuel got a raw deal. Quinn’s explanation: He wants to get the defensive style back to his standard, and he enjoys calling the plays.

Blank gave Quinn and Dimitroff three-year contract extensions in July. The owner said Quinn and Dimitroff’s “shared vision and long view plan” had worked and would continue to work. Firing Quinn five months later would mean abandoning that plan and starting over.

Blank decided to stick with Quinn. He had better be right. The Falcons can’t afford any more setbacks because their timeline correlates with Ryan’s prime.

“Not all resets take place on teams that are struggling,” Quinn said. “In this case, with this team, hopefully the lessons learned get applied real damn fast to make sure we play to our capabilities.”

Blank believes Quinn still is the head coach to make that happen. He’s done it before, after all. Blank can ask his head of football operations if the head coach’s plan is sound, but how can he be sure when that’s also the head coach?

How awkward.