We ask: Are the Falcons a brand new team because of their brand new coach? The answer: No, but also yes. Meaning: “Kind of.”
Dan Quinn isn’t saying anything Mike Smith didn’t say in any of his seven seasons here. The stuff about “finishing,” about “playing fast,” about “being the aggressor” – that’s the football equivalent of a Tea Party candidate avowing he/she favors lower taxes. For a football coach, “finishing” is boilerplate stuff.
We forget now, but the Falcons under Smith were adept at “finishing” – assuming we define it as “winning a close game.” That incredible stat yet again: Over his first five seasons, Smith’s teams were 29-12 in one-score games. The sixth game of his first year produced the most astonishing rally in franchise history: The Falcons saw Chicago score the go-ahead touchdown with 11 seconds remaining; they won in regulation.That’s a finish.
In 2010, Smith’s third season, Matt Ryan authored six game-winning drives and five fourth-quarter comebacks in – pause for effect – the span of 10 games. Those were finishes. So what went wrong?
The offensive line got old. The defense never got good. Julio Jones got hurt in 2013. Maybe Smitty’s luck just ran out. The 2013 Falcons opened with four one-score losses in their first five games. Had that year’s theme been, “Let’s stop worrying about finishing and worry about where we’re going for dinner?”
Nah. As anyone who spent much time around him knows, Smith essentially said the same things every day for those seven years. But sometimes it’s not the message as much as the messenger. When you say the same stuff every day for seven years, it comes to sound tired and trite. Put the same words in different speaker’s mouth – and let him deliver them with a bit more oomph – and you’d be amazed how many ears perk up.
Back when Lombardi was urging his Packers to “finish,” the Rolling Stones cut a tune – the B-side of “Get Off Of My Cloud” – entitled “The Singer Not The Song.” It’s poppy and driven by acoustic guitars, a far cry from the famous fuzz-tone intro to “Satisfaction.” It’s no “Gimme Shelter” lyrically, but it does include these Jagger-written lines: “The same old places and the same old songs/We’ve been going there for much too long.”
That, I submit, is what happened with Smith and the Falcons. Too much time passed and, while there was much winning, the ultimate success never arrived. The Falcons fell 10 yards short of the Super Bowl in January 2013; nine months later, they started a new season 1-4 and were done.
By the end, it was sad to watch. Smith, still offering his bromides, was so uptight he was blowing games himself. A new singer was needed. A new singer was hired. And now we hear familiar words, but coming from this new voice but they don’t sound tired and trite. They sound new and true.
It hasn’t hurt that Quinn arrived off consecutive Super Bowls with Seattle. Everyone who cares about football knew how hard the Seahawks hit, and the guy who tutored those fearless defenders had come to right a franchise going wrong. Quinn passed – aced, really – the Credibility Test. And then, as luck and design would have it, his first two games as a head coach yielded two comeback wins over favored opponents.
You can’t write a better song than that. (Well, you can. But “Visions of Johanna” doesn’t apply to football.) The Falcons were inclined to give the new man every benefit of the doubt, and they’re 2-0 and there’s no reason to doubt. It doesn’t matter that Quinn is saying what exactly what his predecessor had said; it matters only that Quinn has hit the ground winning.
And when a team starts to win, who knows where it will end up? Jim Mora’s first Falcons team started 4-0 and played for the NFC title. Smith’s first team started 4-2 – the fourth win being the escape against Chicago – and went 11-5 and made the playoffs. It would be no great surprise if a NFC South title is forthcoming.
The song, to borrow from another colossus of classic rock, might have remained the same. But we’ve not seen nothing like the mighty Quinn.
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