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.
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.