Falcons leave ‘Brotherhood’ behind and start building something new
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Training camp time for Falcons: Running back Mike Davis takes questions from the media with his belongings in a backpack upon arriving at the Falcons' headquarters in Flowery Branch Tuesday. Davis, the Atlanta native signed as a free agent in the offseason, and the entire squad will have its first training camp practice on Thursday.
FLOWERY BRANCH -- It’s easy to mock Dan Quinn’s “Brotherhood” now, but the coach really did forge a team togetherness that elevated the Falcons beyond their talent. It peaked with the 28-3 lead in the 2017 Super Bowl. The Falcons collapsed — Quinn’s strategic acumen wasn’t nearly as good as his people skills — and never recaptured that spirit. Their best chance at redemption ended in next year’s playoffs with four failed plays from Philadelphia’s 9-yard line.
The Falcons finally have left the “Brotherhood” behind for good. Quinn is gone, and so are most of the players who embraced his philosophy. Falcons players trickled in for training camp Tuesday looking for a new message to rally around. It’s on new coach Arthur Smith to give it to them.
That’s no small task. I used to shrug off the intangible aspects of team building. Quinn’s Falcons, and the recent run of division titles for the Braves, helped to broaden my perspective. Player talent is the most important ingredient for winning, but there’s something to good team synergy. Just because it can’t be measured doesn’t mean it’s unimportant, and it might matter more in football more than any other sport.
Said new Falcons safety Duron Harmon: “There is nothing like football. It is the ultimate team sport. You look at basketball, you can have two superstars, maybe three, and have a chance of winning the NBA Finals. In football you’ve got 22 starters ... you’ve got special teams.
“It really takes a full team to come together with everybody doing their jobs to be a champion. You can’t get that camaraderie anywhere else. Everybody who has been a part of it will tell you that.”
There are different ways to develop it. Quinn got a team of professionals to pull in the same direction while spouting a motto more that seemed better suited for college. It worked because Quinn wasn’t faking it. He really is an enthusiastic and relentlessly positive guy.
Harmon played seven seasons in New England, where coach Bill Belichick did the impossible by building a dynasty in the parity-fixated NFL. Belichick’s unemotional mantra: Do Your Job (notice how Harmon echoed it). It evokes images of co-workers punching in, performing their tasks with single-minded efficiency (and no excuses) and then punching out. A slogan isn’t the main reason why Belichick’s Patriots have won six Super Bowls and made it to three others — Tom Brady just won a ring without him — but no one doubts the coach’s no-nonsense approach has something to do with it.
We don’t know how Smith will go about getting the Falcons to believe they can be winners again. He’s never been a head coach. Smith had success running Tennessee’s offense and will call plays for the Falcons. His responsibilities are much broader now. Smith must get Falcons players and staff to buy into his program.
I’m guessing that Smith’s message is more likely to be on Belichick’s side of the spectrum than Quinn’s. He started developing it at offseason camps, but a first-year coach can only do so much during that limited time. Smith can really build a foundation now that Falcons players are checked into their rooms on the opposite side of the practice fields from team headquarters.
Watching Falcons players show up for work Tuesday was to be reminded of the joy felt by every player at every level of team sports on the first day. These guys play for pay, but as Quinn used to say, the goal is to get them to play for one another.
“You talk to older guys that retire and step away from the game, and the thing they miss the most is the locker room,” Falcons safety Erik Harris said. “Just being in that locker room, joking with guys, goofing around and then come out here and sweating and putting in the work and grinding with guys. Then, on Sunday or Thursday or whichever day you play, it’s rewarding.”
It’s surely more satisfying when the work leads to winning. Quinn earned immediate credibility by guiding the Falcons to a 6-1 start in his first season after they were 6-10 in Mike Smith’s final season. The Falcons faded to an 8-8 finish in 2015. Then general manager Thomas Dimitroff drafted more players who fit the coach’s mold, and center Alex Mack joined up to become a key piece for Kyle Shanahan’s all-time great offense.
Falcons owner Arthur Blank kept Quinn around too long with the hope he could rekindle that 2016 feeling. Blank finally dumped Quinn and Dimitroff in October. Just four players who started for the Falcons in the 2017 Super Bowl remain on the roster: Matt Ryan, Grady Jarrett, Jake Matthews and Deion Jones.
Smith can lean on established players as he builds a new culture. These will be Ryan’s Falcons until he’s gone. Jarrett’s all-business approach helped him rise from fifth-round draft pick to two-time Pro Bowl pick. Harris is among the arriving veterans who can help the Falcons figure out how to win again.
“Just bringing leadership and my character within the locker room and out on the field, communicating and making sure everyone is aligned,” Harris said. “Just having fun, man. Bringing the energy and accountability here.”
It’s not as catchy as “Brotherhood” but “energy and accountability” sounds like a good place for the Falcons to start as they move on from the Quinn era.