I liked talking to Mike Nolan when he was Falcons’ defensive coordinator. He had the wry demeanor of a coach who’d been around the NFL forever and seen everything, which he had. Nolan’s father, Dick, played and coached in the NFL for nearly 40 years and the Falcons were Mike Nolan’s eighth NFL employer.
If you asked Nolan enough questions about coaching -- scheme, play-calling, strategy and whatnot -- he usually would return to the same theme.
“It’s about the players.”
He didn't mean that as an excuse for bad coaching. To the contrary, Nolan would say that when things went right for the Falcons. Coaching matters, but the players matter a lot more.
I’ve thought a lot about that as Falcons coach Dan Quinn explained why he made drastic changes to his coaching staff. The moves seem fine. It’s still about the players.
In the past week Quinn fired his three coordinators. He made himself defensive coordinator and hired Dirk Koetter to run the offense and Ben Kotwica to oversee special teams. Quinn added Mike Mularkey as tight ends coach and said assistant Kyle Flood will take on a new role helping Quinn manage games.
Each of the new coaches has a long, solid track record of success in the NFL. Two of them are former NFL head coaches. One of them is the head coach, and Quinn has the best track record of them all.
There may be something to adding new voices and ideas, as Quinn said. I say it won’t mean much if the Falcons don’t have the right players to put their big plans into action. Right now, they don’t.
The five-game losing streak that sank the Falcons revealed coaching issues. It also showed they have more roster holes than we thought. Bad injury luck played a factor, but the Falcons should not have been so bad as to lose four of those five by at least two scores. Their offense should not have fallen off so far with Matt Ryan and Julio Jones still on the field.
That explains why Quinn made the staff changes after he was spared. It won’t be enough. Go down the list of things Quinn said needs fixing for the Falcons — more offensive balance, stouter run defense, better kick and punt returns -- and they’ll need improved player personnel, not just fresh coaching perspectives, to do it.
To achieve offensive balance, Quinn said the Falcons must run the ball more frequently and make it part of their identity. Sounds good, but the Falcons tried to do that this season and couldn’t because their offensive line wasn’t equipped for it. Koetter will have the same problems as predecessor Steve Sarkisian if the Falcons don’t fix that.
This season, the Falcons pretty much abandoned stretch runs, once an effective staple. In short-yardage situations they ran direct snaps to wide receiver Mohamed Sanu. Toss sweeps and trickery were their identity in the run game. To change that they need at least two, maybe three new starters along the offensive line plus better depth.
Similarly, player-personnel issues on the defensive line contributed to the Falcons’ troubles stopping the run and rushing the passer.
Their 2017 run stuffer, Dontari Poe, signed with Carolina as a free agent in 2018. The Falcons saw their run defense decline from below average to probably the worst in the league.
Some of that was related to injuries suffered by safety Keanu Neal and linebacker Deion Jones, but the Falcons clearly missed Poe in the middle of their line. That's reflected by how they dropped from No. 17 in the NFL to No. 32 in the percentage of runs they stopped at or behind the line of scrimmage per Football Outsiders.
The Falcons also need better pass rushers (Poe helped there, too). They didn’t get enough pressure from a rotation that included Vic Beasley, Takk McKinley, Grady Jarrett and (later) Bruce Irvin. The Falcons need more help outside than inside, so they have a big decision to make: ride with Beasley and hope he improves, or let him walk and find a better replacement.
Quinn decided he needed to shake up his staff after so much went wrong in 2018. I get that and, as mentioned, the moves appear reasonable.
Koetter got pretty good results in his last go-round as Falcons OC, and Quinn is a proven championship-level coordinator. I still think it's a mistake for Quinn to take on more duties. At least he recognizes that means he'll need help with game management.
In Sarkisian’s first season the Falcons turned away from a big part of their offensive identity, play-action passes, before going back to it this season. Koetter can accentuate that element while adding his favored screens and deep passes, but it won’t be effective if he can’t fashion a functional run game behind an adequate line.
Quinn can say he wants to play the style that produced an all-time great Seahawks defense in 2013 and an improved Falcons unit late in the 2016 season. But it won’t work without a line that’s physical against the run and can get to the passer without help so the Falcons can play zone coverage.
Whatever new wrinkles Kotwica adds to the return game aren’t likely to pay dividends if the Falcons don’t have a talented returner. (Their 2017 return man, Andre Roberts, signed with the Jets in 2018 and went on to make the All-Pro team.) Kotwica’s Washington units were consistently good covering kicks and punts over his final four seasons, but the return game was up-and-down.
The Falcons revamped their coaching staff. The new coaches could help to make 2018 an outlier rather than the beginning of a decline.
But I’m with Nolan. It’s about the players.