Tested by failure, Dan Quinn doubled down - and won

Atlanta Falcons coach Dan Quinn greets his players on the sidelines in the second half against the Carolina Panthers in Charlotte, N.C., on Saturday, Dec. 24, 2016. The Falcons won 33-16. (AP Photo/Bob Leverone)

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Atlanta Falcons coach Dan Quinn greets his players on the sidelines in the second half against the Carolina Panthers in Charlotte, N.C., on Saturday, Dec. 24, 2016. The Falcons won 33-16. (AP Photo/Bob Leverone)

The Falcons’ new head coach was a career assistant, a defensive coordinator by trade. He arrived with great enthusiasm and a detailed plan. (His binder of organizational schemes convinced Rich McKay and then Arthur Blank he was the man for the job.) His Falcons went undefeated over the first month of his first season. It was the worst thing that ever happened to him, or to them.

The head coach was Jim Mora. Take away the 4-0 start in 2004 and his record here was exactly .500. He was fired after three seasons. He’d come bearing Plan A with assistants of his choosing, and at 4-0 after a month – and after a rookie season that saw the Falcons play for the NFC title – nobody thought to ask, “Are we winning because what we’re doing is right for our personnel, or did we just start hot and ride that wave to a playoff victory over an 8-8 opponent?”

Eleven years later, the Falcons had hired another new head coach who’d been both career assistant and defensive coordinator. He, too, had a plan. He’s as enthusiastic as any man who has yet lived. His Falcons started 5-0. Then they missed the playoffs. It might be the best thing that ever happens to him, or to them.

That head coach is Dan Quinn. There were times late last season when he appeared overmatched; when his bromides – he has many – seemed all he had to offer; when his schemes were failing and when even his franchise quarterback was at sea, something this quarterback hadn’t been even as a rookie.

We note that Quinn wasn’t just charged with coaching players; he’d been given the license to pick the players he wanted. Technically it’s a collaborative thing with Thomas Dimitroff and Scott Pioli; in reality, Quinn is football czar of Flowery Branch.

The speed with which last season unraveled took your breath. A player and an assistant coach shoved one another on the sideline during a 38-0 loss; a highly decorated receiver was at odds with the new offensive coordinator and it was whispered that the franchise quarterback was, too. Then the offseason commenced. The decorated receiver was cut. The Falcons had to apologize twice for their actions at the NFL combine. Quinn’s major staff adjustment was to move a defensive coach to offense.

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Falcons coach Dan Quinn has no plans to sit any players against the Saints with the chance to earn the No. 2 seed. Video by D. Orlando Ledbetter

Full disclosure: In the chill of winter, this correspondent wondered if Quinn was in over his head. But then spring came and the draft arrived, and we saw the first hint that the czar’s belief hadn’t been shaken. With the 22nd pick of Round 1, the Falcons took safety Keanu Neal of Florida.

The immediate outcry: “Nobody projected this guy that high! We could have had him in Round 3!” But if you stopped for two milliseconds to think about it, the Neal pick wasn’t just a pick – it was a mission statement. It was Quinn saying, “We didn’t fall apart last year because my plan was wrong; we fell apart because the players weren’t right. This is a guy I have to have.”

As much as we might try to resist it, human nature holds that immediate success is a terrible motivator. What happened with Quinn never happened with Mora and Co. The latter bunch saw no need for a Plan B, or even a tweaked Plan A, because they’d gone 11-5 against a tepid schedule and played for the NFC championship in Year 1. Quinn’s Year 1 contained both the giddy highs of a flying start and the crashing lows of an epic collapse, also against a weak schedule.

His Year 1 forced him – and everyone else at 4400 Falcon Parkway, though he’s the one who matters – to ask: “Were we wrong for doing what we did, or were we not yet ready for this to work?” For our answer, we return to Quinn’s remarks after the bitter-but-rousing loss in Seattle on Oct. 16. In his most forthright comments as Falcons coach, he spoke of what hadn’t occurred in 2015 but was, that day’s defeat notwithstanding, transpiring now.

He said: “We so desperately wanted that (across-the-board commitment and aggressiveness) to happen last year. I believe that’s where we were going with some of this, but it didn’t in terms of all the way. I wanted that to happen overnight, but it didn’t. But I feel like this group is growing, quite a bit different from last year’s group.”

Part of it had to do with finding better players: Center Alex Mack, receiver Mohamed Sanu and above all the rookie defenders Neal and Deion Jones and De’Vondre Campbell. Much has to do with the decision to make Vic Beasley Jr. a linebacker, this after previous assertions that he was a hand-in-the-dirt defensive end. But the biggest difference between then and now was that Quinn took a hard look at everything, the kind of look that comes only after failing, and he saw that the real failure would be in waffling.

He doubled down on everything. These Falcons are playing the way they tried to play a year ago, only they’re faster and stronger and more capable of doing the stuff Quinn and Kyle Shanahan want. This isn’t yet a top-tier team in terms of talent, but the talent on hand has been elevated by scheme. (As opposed, say, to Michael Vick being forced to work in Greg Knapp’s West Coast offense under Mora.)

A year ago, Quinn-as-coach/czar could have gone either way. Rex Ryan, whom the Falcons considered for this job, was just fired by Buffalo. Todd Bowles, also a candidate, is 4-11 with the Jets. Gus Bradley, Seattle’s defensive coordinator before Quinn, was canned by Jacksonville. The best plan in the world cuts no NFL ice if W’s aren’t attached.

What happened was that Quinn decided that if he was going to fail, he’d fail his way. Then as now, he’s Dan with a plan. Tested by last year’s reversals, that plan has been validated by this year’s advances. As has he.