Falcons coach Dan Quinn believes the team’s defense will be significantly improved next season from the one that collapsed in the Super Bowl loss. (Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com)

As anger from Super Bowl lingers, Quinn driven to fix Falcons’ defense

Still angry?

“Yeah,” he said. “But I’m past it. I mean, I’m not passed it. But … I’m passed it.”

The Falcons’ coach showed up at the team’s minicamp this week wearing two black wrist bands. Each read, “Embrace The Suck.”

It wasn’t a reference to the misery of the Super Bowl loss. It was a reminder to himself and players of the daily grind it would take to get back there in nine months. Talking about another Super Bowl in May as some potential emotional cleansing is counterproductive when there are miles to run, weights to lift, practices, film study, minicamps, OTAs, training camp, missed tackles, blown coverages, dropped passes, hard times, blown leads, cold weather and pain ahead.

“Embrace The Suck,” Quinn repeated after he and his staff took rookies and first-year players through Friday’s minicamp. “Eat a crap sandwich with a smile. This is going to be hard. Your choice: It’s a victim’s mentality or a warrior mentality. It’s like, ‘I know this run is going to be long, and it’s going to be really hard. But here I go again.’”

It’s the perfect rallying cry for the season after.

Quinn is the point man for this organization, and he knows he needs to get everybody in the building refocused for a new season. But the anger will linger and the anger will drive him, and it’s not just about the loss and or what became the primary talking point, offensive decisions. It’s about the defense.

The Falcons almost certainly would have beaten New England if former offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan had down-shifted the offense in the final quarter, run some plays, taken time off the clock and attempted a field goal when he had a chance. Or if Quinn had instructed him to do so.

But equally important: They led 28-3 lead and Quinn’s defense collapsed.

This is the defense Quinn took control of in the 12th game at Kansas City, after the Chiefs drove to a touchdown on their opening drive.

Quinn turned to defensive coordinator Richard Smith after that and said, “I’m going to take this for a while.”

“For a while” turned out to be the rest of the season.

Quinn called every defensive play. He ran every defensive practice. He kept it in-house to avoid obvious distractions. When the season ended, he blew up his coaching staff, firing Smith and defensive line coach Bryan Cox, promoting secondary coach Marquand Manuel and adding line coach Bryant Young.

Some took it as the Falcons’ second-year coach overreacting to the Super Bowl loss. But it had been decided weeks earlier. “I was going to do this regardless of when the season ended,” Quinn said.

“(Smith) is such a good fundamentalist, and as you’re building a program I thought, what better than having a good fundamentalist?” Quinn said. “But the vision I had didn’t come through and I thought, ‘OK, a change has to be made.’”

The Falcons are an offense-centered team, but defense is what’s most important to Quinn. He spent his entire 14-year career as a defensive assistant before coming to Atlanta in 2015. It’s why the defensive roster has undergone so much change in three years. It’s why the final game last season so … crushed him.

They led 28-3 late in the third quarter. Tom Brady and Bill Belichick and the New England Patriots managed only a field goal on their first seven possessions.

It was Atlanta heaven. It was Roger Goodell heaven.

Then, this happened on New England’s next five possessions:

  • 13 plays, 75 yards, 6:25, touchdown.
  • 12 plays, 72 yards, 5:07, field goal.
  • 5 plays, 25 yards, 2:28, touchdown (following a fumble).
  • 10 plays, 91 yards, 2:33, touchdown (57 seconds left).
  • 8 plays, 75 yards, 3:58, touchdown (overtime, game over).

Five New England possessions.

Five scoring drives.

Not one stop.

Not. One. Stop.

Everybody piled on Shanahan. Understandable. But Quinn looked elsewhere.

“It wasn’t about one play,” he said. “Those (defensive series) are the ones I evaluated over and over. When you go back and sit through it over and over, you know, ‘I damn sure can’t get a do-over. But I can learn from it.’ I won’t apologize for how aggressive we play and our style and attitude of where we’re headed. But I have learned from that experience.”

He didn’t get specific, but said, “I could have made it easier on them with design (changes). I could’ve changed the scenarios.”

I told Quinn that, as the fourth quarter unfolded, it appeared his young defense had become traumatized by the moment. He disputed that.

“That wasn’t it. The guys were gassed. We had never played in the 90s (snap count). We were not traumatized at all. You could tell there was nothing left in the tank. They would come to the sideline in the fourth quarter and nobody was talking because there was nothing left.”

(Injured cornerback Desmond Trufant might have helped, too.)

History hasn’t been kind to losing Super Bowl teams. The last losing team to return the next season was Buffalo (four straight from 1990-93, all losses).

But if the Falcons’ don’t make it back, it won’t be because of last season’s hangover, it will be the usual reasons: injuries, playoff matchups, luck.

Quinn feels good about his defense now, players and coaches. Speed was added at linebacker and the secondary in his first two seasons. This offseason the Falcons added draft picks Takk McKinley and linebacker Duke Riley, and free-agent end Jack Crawford. Manuel’s secondary background will help a unit that spends 70 percent of the snaps in nickel.

So the defense should be closer to the unit Quinn has envisioned. Better defense, better chance of holding leads, whether it’s the third game in September or the final game in February.

“Stay with what’s in front of us,” Quinn said of Super Bowl talk, past or future. “Everybody in your profession is going to want to keep going there, but I’m kind of going the other way. To get there, you’ve got to strain.”

He knows looking forward doesn’t make the pain or anger go away. It just enables you to move on.

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