Once Quinn’s slogans stopped working, there was nothing left

Year-by-year record for Dan Quinn as coach of the Atlanta Falcons.

It began with a blown lead, though not one of the blown leads we usually ascribe to the Falcons of Dan Quinn. This came on Oct. 15, 2017, against a Miami team tcoached by the notorious Adam Gase and quarterbacked by the toxic Jay Cutler. Those Dolphins would finish 6-10. The Falcons, playing their third regular-season game at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, were favored by 14. They led 17-0 at halftime. They lost 20-17.

They botched a punt snap that led to Miami’s tying field goal. With 47 seconds left and the Falcons down by three, Matt Ryan sought to squeeze a ball between defenders to Austin Hooper. The ball bounced off the tight end and was intercepted by Reshad Jones. This play occurred on first down from the Miami 26, well within Matt Bryant’s range of a kick that would have induced overtime. Afterward some Falcons suggested Hooper should have fought harder for the ball.

ExploreFalcons fire coach Dan Quinn, GM Thomas Dimitroff

That this blown lead came eight months and 10 days after 28-3 immediately recalled the dire doings of Super Bowl 51, but at least that historic loss had come on a neutral field against the greatest-ever coach and the greatest-ever quarterback having his game of games. This came at home against a team led by Gase and Cutler. The former would be fired 14 months later; the latter retired at season’s end.

The 2017 Falcons started their post-Super season 3-0, although only the middle victory — over Green Bay on Sunday night — impressed. They’d held on in their opener when the Bears dropped what would have been the winning touchdown at the pylon. They’d survived in Detroit when the Lions’ apparent winning score became, owing to replay, a 10-second game-ending run-off. They’d lost in Week 4 here to an unassuming Buffalo team, but that seemed one of those any-given-Sunday deals. Next was their bye week, when a good team could recalibrate and get rolling again.

Instead the Falcons fell to the Dolphins. This preceded a trip to Foxborough for the much-ballyhooed rematch of 28-3. This time they had no lead to blow. They trailed 17-0 at the half, 23-0 with five minutes remaining. The reigning NFC champs were uncompetitive in prime time. That marked the first time this typist suggested the Falcons of Quinn seemed poorly coached. It wouldn’t be the last.

The Falcons crept into the playoffs by beating Carolina in the regular season’s final week and upset the Rams in L.A. in what stands as the Falcons' one shining post-Super moment. They were favored over the top-seeded Eagles on the road, Philadelphia having lost quarterback Carson Wentz to injury. The path was again open for another Super Bowl run. The NFC title game would have been played in Minneapolis, where the Vikings were working behind Case Keenum. Moot point. The Falcons flopped in Philly.

ExploreFalcons name Raheem Morris interim coach

They were outfought by a desperate team. Mostly they were outcoached by Doug Peterson and Jim Schwartz. Steve Sarkisian’s play-calling on goal-to-go at the end is still being shown at coaching clinics as “What Not To Do.” The same offense that had broken records under Kyle Shanahan in 2016 managed 10 points, none in the second half, against the Eagles.

The next season began with the Falcons losing the exact same game in the exact same place. The 2018 Falcons started 1-4. They clambered back to 4-4. They lost in Cleveland to a Browns team that had just fired its coach. They slid to 4-9. They won their last three to save face, not to mention Quinn’s job. This wasn’t the greatest personnel decision in the history of football. The 2019 Falcons started 1-7. They again finished 7-9. Quinn’s services were retained nonetheless. This WAS the worst personnel decision in the history of football.

By then, it was obvious this coach was overmatched. He’d fired all his coordinators, charged himself with calling the defense, removed himself from calling the defense, redeployed Raheem Morris yet again — and the discordant song remained the same. (On cue, the Falcons named Morris, coordinator of the NFL’s second-worst defense, their interim head coach.) A talented team had become the opponent lesser foes couldn’t wait to see coming. Everyone in the NFL knew if you kept it close against the Falcons, they’d wilt at the end. Sometimes you didn’t need to be all that close. Twenty points down, 15 points down … no biggie, not against this clueless crew.

The reign of error is finally at its end. Even with a Super Bowl season included, Quinn’s Falcons were 43-42 in regular-season games. (Thank heaven for that 10-second runoff.) They were 24-29 over the past four seasons, 14-23 over the past two-plus. “Every opportunity was given,” Arthur Blank said of Quinn, speaking Monday, and the owner wasn’t lying. Every opportunity, plus another half-dozen.

Hindsight being what it, it’s astonishing that Blank turned the franchise over to someone whose career record was then 0-0. Quinn was given power Mike Smith — a better coach — hadn’t had. General manager Thomas Dimitroff went from being Smitty’s boss to DQ’s little helper. Everything in Flowery Branch became a Quinn slogan: “Iron sharpers iron,” is etched into the lobby; “Brotherhood” is splashed on the HQ wall overlooking the practice fields. What nobody seemed to grasp was that slogans were all Quinn had to offer.

For the record: I like Quinn. Everybody likes him. Had his team not blown a 25-point lead with the world watching, his career trajectory would surely have been different. (It’s hard to dump a coach who won you a Super Bowl, though not impossible.) Again making with the hindsight, it’s clear now that a garden-variety head coach, with the help of an extraordinary offensive coordinator, lifted the 2016 team to a height that HC, without that OC, could never sustain.

Water seeks its own level. So does mediocrity. Left to his own devices, Dan Quinn had none. All he had were slogans.

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