Editor’s note: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution catches up with former Atlanta sports figures in this occasional series. Today: Marquand Manuel.
At the end of the disappointing 7-9 season in 2018, the Falcons cleaned house.
Offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian, special-teams coordinator Keith Armstrong and defensive coordinator Marquand Manuel were let go.
The departure of Manuel, who didn’t have his one-year contract renewed, was stunning. His unit had been marred by injury in 2018 after a strong 2017 season.
“I always say that life’s obstacles always make you better in the end,” Manuel said recently in a phone interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “The cool part for everything that transpired, I was on a one-year contract. It was perceived that I was fired. That part of for me was disappointing. However, it was revealing.”
Manuel took over the defense in 2017 after the Falcons reached Super Bowl LI.
The Falcons improved immensely on defense during the 2017 season under Manuel. The defense improved from 27th to eighth in scoring defense, 25th to ninth in total yards, 17th to ninth in rushing yards and 28th to 12th in passing yards.
He noted that in 2018, the defense was marred by key injuries to linebacker Deion Jones, strong safety Keanu Neal and free safety Ricardo Allen. Also, defensive tackle Grady Jarrett, cornerback Robert Alford and defensive end Takkarist McKinley all missed at least one game.
“To not give me the regard (for) changing it and making it better, but (they) gave me the total blame,” Manuel said. “It was a maturation point in my career, coaching. It was huge.”
Manuel, 40, a former player (2002-09) who was an assistant coach on Seattle’s Super Bowl XLVIII-winning staff, sat out the 2019 season.
“I had to get away because when you’re as passionate as I am and you bring everything to the table every single day to make everybody in the organization better,” Manuel said. “Not just the men that you’re dealing with. That’s every man that you come in contact with.
“I had to make sure that I was prepared spiritually, mentally and physically ... wherever God was going to land me next.”
Manuel said he would not have been himself if he had coached in 2019.
“Me and Dan (Quinn), we have made our amends,” Manuel said. “We have had our conversations as men since then. That’s the regard that I have for him and understanding that. It was bittersweet (because of) the things we have accomplished together professionally came to such an abrupt end. … I got regarded as I never did anything.
“That was the statement that from me, he understood. I wished him the best.”
Manuel was not surprised that the 2019 Falcons defense struggled mightily over the first eight games as the team sank to 1-7.
“But I understood in the end that my effect was going to be shown on what I did,” Manuel said. “It wasn’t just the mental standpoint from what I brought to the game not only on the field, but the daily progression every day. Like I said, I wish him the best.”
The Falcons had to move former wide receivers coach Raheem Morris to the defense to straighten out the unit in the middle of the season. He was named the defensive coordinator after the season.
“I still have high regard for (Quinn),” Manuel said. “Dan knows how I feel about him personally and professionally. I’m not just saying that because it sounds good. He understands that.”
While out, Manuel enjoyed time with this family and helped coach his son’s 9-year-olds youth football team, the Pembroke Pines (Fla.) Bengals.
“After my playing days, after I retired, two months later I was at Florida coaching with Dan,” Manuel said. “I never really had family time.”
He enjoyed that grass-roots football experience with his son’s team.
“My son played football for the first time, so I went to the park,” Manuel said. “He played with the 9-year-old group at Pembroke Pines. I’m in Florida. I just went and dedicated my time to that.”
Manuel didn’t want to be the head coach. He helped with the fundamentals for all of the age groups.
“For me it was refreshing because I’ve always known that I’ve had a calling to want to give back to the community,” Manuel said. “That’s why I am as passionate as I am. So, I did clinics for the coaches. Helped out with all of the guys. It was refreshing to be around people that love football again.”
While out, Manuel noted that Armstrong got him into golfing, and he’s still working on his game.
“It was really refreshing to take the foot off the pedal,” Manuel said.
His fellow youth-league assistant coaches uplifted Manuel’s spirits, too. When the Falcons were off to their shaky start in part because the secondary was a hot mess, they pointed it out to Manuel.
“They kept telling me, ‘Man, they are missing you,’” Manuel said. “Somethings in life have to be taken away for people to have regard for them. That’s the reality of it.”
Also, Manuel knew he had to stay on top of things in the NFL. When the kids went to school, he did film work as if he were a defensive coordinator getting ready for imaginary games.
“I had a chance to sit back and study what was going on,” Manuel said. “Instead of you getting studied. That was really cool man.”
Manuel watched film of the league’s top defenses.
“From (New England coach Bill) Belichick on down the list,” Manuel said. “I had the opportunity to study (Minnesota coach Mike) Zimmer. I had the opportunity to study guys that I really hadn’t had the opportunity to really go back and study. I had the chance to do that.
“I looked at the top-10 offenses and broke them down from the standpoint of what are they doing and what they are the excelling at. That was cool. That part for me helped me transition right into this move.”
He shared some of findings with then-Dallas defensive play-caller Kris Richard and San Francisco defensive coordinator Robert Saleh.
With the Falcons experience behind him, Manuel was able to accept his new position as defensive backs coach with the Philadelphia Eagles with what he called a “pure heart.”
“I got a call to go to Philly,” Manuel said. “I had a couple of other options, but I couldn’t go anywhere last year … not just because my heart was hurting, (but) I wanted my heart to be pure. That’s where I am now. My heart is pure. It’s been refreshing.”
Because of the coronavirus pandemic, Manuel has yet to meet his new players in person.
“The pandemic has changed everybody,” Manuel said. “It’s altered a lot of different things.”
Like the Falcons, the Eagles are holding a virtual offseason program via the internet.
“I’m excited,” Manuel said. “I’m walking in, and the first thing I told them is I’ve won championships. You guys have as well, but we haven’t done it together.”
Manuel looks forward to working with Philadelphia defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz.
“He’s as sharp as they come,” Manuel said. “From that standpoint, I’m coming in to bring the details and enjoy the fine things of these moments of getting everybody on the same page as fast as we can even though we are doing it virtually.”
An unintended consequence of Manuel’s departure was that it took him, an African-American, out of one of the coveted coordinator positions, the spots where owners sometimes look to hire head coaches.
Under Arthur Blank, the Falcons have hired three defensive coordinators in Jim Mora, Mike Smith and Quinn. His only offensive hire was Bobby Petrino.
Manuel likes the recent changes to the Rooney Rule.
“It’s a conversation which is positive,” Manuel said. “That’s the first thing that we can ask. It’s a conversation that being started.
“It’s going to take a lot of due diligence. It’s going to take a lot of ‘Seeing it Through’ in order for it to progressively get better. It’s a conversation that has started, and it’s progressively going in the right direction. That’s the good part about it.”
Manuel can’t wait to return to the field.
“Once, (Bears defensive coordinator) Chuck Pagano told me when I first got in it, you know you’re in the getting-fired business, right?” Manuel said. “As long as you accept that, you’ll be all right. The opportunity just to lead men, that has not changed for me.”
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