COVID-19 makes Dan Quinn’s critical Falcons season harder

Falcons coach Dan Quinn

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Falcons coach Dan Quinn

After last season, hardly anyone seemed to think Dan Quinn would keep his job. The only person whose opinion matters, Falcons team owner Arthur Blank, decided Quinn would stay. Quinn is one of four NFL head coaches still employed after back-to-back losing seasons. The others work for organizations that no one emulates: Lions, Jaguars and Raiders.

Quinn is under pressure to get the Falcons back to the playoffs. His team is, at least on paper, less talented than the two that finished 7-9. Then COVID-19 happened. Now Quinn must get his team ready with severe limitations to on-field practice time during training camp while hoping the novel coronavirus doesn’t run through his roster.

Presumably, Blank won’t be judging Quinn on a curve. The NFL is planning to have a full season. The injury list will look different with COVID-19 casualties, but injuries are part of football. The games will count. Quinn must win.

Quinn, a relentlessly positive coach, acknowledged that “two difficult years crushes you emotionally” but said he’s ready for this weird season.

“I’m definitely optimistic,” he said Tuesday, the deadline for all Falcons players to report to Flowery Branch. “But it’s not rose-colored glasses, either. I know where we are at and what we’re doing. I know it’s a difficult challenge.

“But my optimism, I guess, fires me up to say this is something we can do. I’m excited for the team because you want to prove it. You want that chance to prove it. That’s certainly how I feel.”

It wasn’t clear if Quinn was talking about making it through the season with a pandemic raging or turning the Falcons’ fortunes around. Like with everything else nowadays, it might be a bit of both. Navigating COVID-19 is necessary before taking on the other stuff.

There’s something to what Quinn said about proving it. Guiding this Falcons team back to the postseason under these circumstances would be evidence that he still can elevate them. This season won’t be just about X’s, O’s and motivation. It also means Quinn doing everything in his power to prevent COVID-19 from overwhelming his team.

The NFL’s workplace protocols will help. Players can’t enter facilities until they test negative three times and self-isolate for 24 hours. They’ll be tested every day for at least two weeks of camp. Buildings are set up to facilitate distancing. Team personnel will wear electronic contact-tracing monitors to aid with isolation after any positive tests.

“They know coming into the building that everybody here has tested negatively,” Quinn said. “Their time here is the safest time of the day in some regards because they know the population, and there are lots of guidelines. I’m not saying it’s perfect by any means.”

Away from the building is where problems can flare up. The NBA, WNBA and MLS so far have operated relatively smoothly inside their semi-permeable bubbles in Florida. But the NFL will have no bubble. MLB also has no bubble, and it already has a crisis.

At least 15 Marlins players tested positive for COVID-19. MLB shut down Miami’s schedule for at least a week. The Phillies, who played the Marlins at home over the weekend, had their three-game series with the Yankees postponed.

MLB tests players every other day. That’s the model NFL teams will follow if, after two weeks of daily testing, the positive rate is below 5%. The NFL and the players’ union took the extra step of prohibiting players from going to indoor bars, concerts or sporting events with violators possibly facing team discipline.

I suppose those rules will persuade NFL players to avoid activities that are high risk for COVID-19 infections. But, in the end, it’s going to be up to players to stay as safe as possible while not at work. Ultimately, Quinn’s fate might depend on how diligently his players do that.

Quinn is doing what he can to create a culture of compliance with COVID-19 protocols. Masks are a big part of it. Quinn said he wears one during meetings and plans to wear one on the practice field. He’s tried to personalize the impersonal effect of faces behind masks: players, coaches and staff can write whatever name they want to be called on them.

Quinn’s pitch to Falcons rookies: “None of you were born before seat belts were required. Now it’s normal. Wearing a mask, that’s our seat belt.”

The Falcons announced Tuesday they placed one player, rookie safety Jaylinn Hawkins, on the reserve/COVID-19 list (that doesn’t necessarily mean a positive test). It’s probably unrealistic to believe no other Falcons will eventually join him.

The NFL accounted for this by expanding practice squads from 10 to 16 players. Teams normally stash young, developmental players on that roster. Quinn said he expects to fill it with experienced players who can contribute immediately if needed.

NFL teams usually take extra precautions with their quarterbacks. They play the most important position and few teams have starter-caliber backups. COVID-19 adds a new element to that dynamic. A sick QB can sink the season.

Will the Falcons take extra steps to keep Matt Ryan away from large groups of teammates?

“Isolated from the club, that’s not Matt, that’s not us,” Quinn said. “What we will do is follow all the guidelines.”

There is a lot to consider even before getting to how COVID-19 has affected the football part of the equation.

The Falcons didn’t meet for OTAs or minicamps during the offseason. They essentially will cram those into training camp. The first practice isn’t until Aug. 12, with gradual increases for time on the field. There will be a maximum of 14 padded practices from Aug. 17 through Sept. 6. The Falcons open the season Sept. 13.

The Falcons are facing the same time crunch as every NFL team. They have more holes to fill than the good ones.

“Once we get on the field, make it just about football,” Quinn said. “I think everybody is looking forward to that.”

Once the Falcons leave the field, COVID-19 still will be out there. There’s nothing Quinn can do about that in this critical season for his future as Falcons coach.

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