It was shortly after the draft when Arthur Blank, the Falcons’ owner and chief counter of all wins and PSL sales, declared his 2016 team to be playoff-bound.
These are comments that sometimes keep coaches up at night because some would equate those words as a mandate, even if Blank artfully denied as much: “I’m optimistic and hopeful that would be the case, but I wouldn’t say there’s a mandate.”
I have no doubt that Blank is “optimistic and hopeful.”
I also have no doubt that, barring a series of catastrophic injuries, if the Falcons miss the playoffs for the fourth consecutive season, Blank will hold one or more individuals responsible, just as he did with former coach Mike Smith and several assistants, because that mindset is what enabled demanding, self-made billionaires to achieve self-made billions.
So, yeah: It’s go time for the Falcons.
They’re entering the second season under coach Dan Quinn, with players reporting to training camp Wednesday. Quinn wasn’t expected to make the playoffs in his first season, given the carnage of the previous two years (10-22). But he and general manager Thomas Dimitroff have had two offseasons to get on the same page, draft and sign the right players for new schemes, jettison the others and implement new philosophies.
So as much as some people will want to make this about past personnel mistakes, the Falcons should be past that now. If this team self-immolates like it did a year ago with a six-game losing streak and a 2-7 butt slide after a 6-1 start, that’s on everybody.
Quinn was non-committal when asked if he believed the Falcons were a playoff team. It’s what you would expect from someone who wants his players focused on a practice in July, not games in November and December.
“We certainly listen to the owner,” he said, smiling, when asked about Blank’s comments. “It’s a really strong group. We don’t want to put so much out there that’s so far ahead. When you’re right here right now, this is what we can control.
Later, away from the dais of a pre-camp news conference, Quinn amplified on his comments: “People ask, ‘Are we going to make the playoffs?’ I just know we’re going to be a good contending team. But it’s so far out there, I don’t allow myself to go there very often. I have to have contingency plans for certain situations,but generally speaking I like staying in the moment.”
So Blank’s comments didn’t unnerve him?
“No. I would much rather embrace pressure.”
Last season was Quinn’s first as a head coach. He self-evaluated. Mistakes were evident.
Running down the list: “Managing the players. In-game situations. Communicating with Thomas on the roster. Having the vision for the toughness of the team. Getting after the ball.”
Which pretty much covered everything except the salad bar in the dining hall.
This season will be better, he believes, because of a better knowledge of his players’ strengths and weaknesses, and he learned the hard way in Year 1 that asking individuals to play a certain way doesn’t ensure anything through 17 weeks.
Quarterback Matt Ryan said recently the Falcons didn’t get worse on offense as the season went on — results notwithstanding — as they merely got away with some things in the first seven weeks. That also existed on defense, particularly in the area of takeaways and the way the Falcons tackled.
“The thing that surprised me the most was why didn’t stay consistent with the ball, taking it away and taking care of it,” Quinn said. “We spoke about it, but we didn’t live it. I’m talking, but are you believing. I think I’ve done a better job of articulating that to the team.
“It’s like, when (an opponent) was going to the ground, we’d just tackle him. But are we going in, ‘Bam!’ There’s a deeper spot we can go to.”
Quinn recalled his first season in Seattle when coach Pete Carroll brought a similar philosophy from USC.
“We were like a minus-9 in Pete’s first year in Seattle, and he had sold it like crazy,” Quinn said. “He came from SC where his record was like 63-1 when he was in the plus. But he sold it, and it resonated with me so much. The turnover ratio went up to like plus-9, plus-14, plus-18. So I’ve lived it.”
Quinn said he has a “vision about the toughness we’re going to play with this season” that is “so much clearer” than a year ago.
If they do that and don’t seem to be handling the ball with oven mitts, they’ll win a lot of games. This much is certain: Assumptions at any point would be a mistake.