No way Arthur Blank could believe Dan Quinn would turn around Falcons

Falcons owner Arthur Blank walks on the sideline in the remaining minutes of the Falcons' 23-16 loss against the Carolina Panthers Saturday, Oct. 11, 2020, at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta. (Jason Getz/For the AJC)

Credit: Jason Getz

Credit: Jason Getz

Falcons owner Arthur Blank walks on the sideline in the remaining minutes of the Falcons' 23-16 loss against the Carolina Panthers Saturday, Oct. 11, 2020, at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta. (Jason Getz/For the AJC)

The Fox broadcast tried to portray Dan Quinn as the positive force rallying his downtrodden Falcons. It didn’t work. The play on the field Sunday undermined the story the producers wanted to tell on the sideline.

At one point the cameras showed Quinn clapping after Carolina’s Mike Davis caught one of the easiest touchdowns passes you’ll ever see.

“Dan is looking up at the replay and he is going to try to be as encouraging as he can be,” Fox commentator Brock Huard said. "But when you’ve got a running back and no defender within 10 yards of him ...”

Huard’s voice trailed off. What else was there to say?

Quinn can encourage the Falcons, but he can’t coach them to a win. He led them to a Super Bowl once and blew it. It’s been diminishing returns since then. Team owner Arthur Blank finally decided it won’t get better.

Blank fired Quinn and general manager Thomas Dimitroff hours after the Falcons lost 23-16 to the Panthers at the Mercedes-Benz Stadium. The Falcons are 0-5 for the first time since 1997. No one who’s been paying attention believed Quinn could engineer a turnaround.

Quinn got another chance after consecutive losing seasons. Blank brought Quinn back and sold his customers on the idea that a 6-2 finish to last season would carry over to this season. In his statement announcing the firings, Blank acknowledged the obvious by saying that hasn’t happened. The Falcons are a bad team going nowhere.

Falcons president Rich McKay is in charge of football operations on an interim basis. Blank didn’t say who will coach the team. An announcement is expected on Monday.

Blank welcomed fans into the stadium Sunday for the first time in three games there this season. They got to witness the results of his decision to retain Quinn. Blank couldn’t keep Quinn and keep the faith of his constituents. He already tried that once.

The 2017 Super Bowl was a long time ago. This will be the third straight Falcons season with no playoffs. Blank said his franchise has fallen short of his commitment to fans in those years. That’s what team owners always say in times like these but Blank’s team has reached a point where only results will be convincing.

After the loss to the Panthers, Quinn faced awkward questions about whether Blank would fire him. What else was there to say?

“That’s the furthest thing from my mind,” Quinn said. “It’s his job to evaluate. For me, it’s coaching.”

Credit: D. Orlando Ledbetter

Falcons coach Dan Quinn was not happy that the offense didn’t score on two red zone trips in the second half.

Blank gave Quinn another chance to do his job this season. The results are bad again. This is (was) a win-now season for the Falcons. The turnaround will be challenging.

The Falcons are closer to the No. 1 draft pick than the playoffs. Their 2021 salary cap is bulging with top-heavy contracts. There aren’t many promising young players on the roster to replace the veterans the Falcons will cut loose. Even a good coach would have a lot of work to do to make the Falcons a winner.

Quinn once was a good coach for the Falcons. Those days were over. That was always the most likely outcome. Bill Cowher is the only coach of seven to take his team to the Super Bowl, later post consecutive losing seasons, and then make it back to the big game. Most didn’t come close to their past glory.

Quinn had one playoff win since going to the Super Bowl. Since that January 2018 victory at the Rams the Falcons are 14-23 with one six-game losing streak and two five-game skids. For two-plus years the Falcons can’t stop losing once they start.

Blowing games against the Cowboys and Bears in back-to-back weeks this season was more evidence that Quinn’s teams couldn’t finish. Watching the Falcons struggle to stop Carolina’s limited offense was another reminder that Quinn, a defensive guy, has rarely coached a good Falcons defense.

Quinn’s theme last week was that nothing had been decided for the Falcons because they hadn’t played an NFC South game yet. It was the last motivational message for the coach who had a lot of them. The Falcons believed in the “Brotherhood" during their Super Bowl run.

It took a big hit that night in Houston. Kyle Shanahan, coordinator for an all-time great offense, went to San Francisco. Less than four seasons later Quinn’s Falcons are among the NFL’s worst.

After the loss to Carolina, Quinn’s players stuck up for him like you’d expect. Quarterback Matt Ryan said he hoped Quinn wouldn’t lose his job.

“I think Dan has been nothing but a great head coach since he’s been here,” Ryan said. "We just haven’t done a good enough job as teams and players. It’s a tough business, that’s for sure.

“We all love and respect what Dan has done. We have to find a way to be better as players.”

It’s never just the coach when teams lose. Yet the Falcons have paid big money to retain their top players in recent years. They’ve got former first-round draft picks all over the field on both sides of the ball. The Falcons aren’t adding up to what their parts say they should. Quinn and Dimitroff billed themselves as co-team builders and so with the team collapsing both of them are gone.

A worrying sign for the Falcons, other than the losing, is the recent form of franchise cornerstones Ryan and Julio Jones. The Falcons have gone all-in to win while their quarterback and wide receiver still have prime years left. Both have looked older in recent weeks. Each lost season increases the urgency to win with with Ryan and Jones.

Jones, 31, usually plays through ailments but didn’t suit up for this game because of a hamstring injury. That same problem limited him to 15 snaps at Green Bay in Week 4. Jones has long described his legs as all fast-twitch muscle so it’s concerning to see him hobbled by a lingering soft-tissue injury

Ryan, 35, made some throws so ugly at Green Bay that I wondered if his arm is tired. He spent much of Sunday running away from Carolina' pass rushers and holding the ball waiting for someone to get open. But Ryan had a clean pocket when he threw one of his trademark inexplicable interceptions.

Trailing 20-15 in the final period, the Falcons pounded away at Carolina’s yielding run defense. They moved from their 24-yard line to a first down 11 yards from the end zone. Ryan tried to thread a pass to Russell Gage, who wasn’t open.

Safety Juston Burris simply had to catch it.

Carolina Panthers safety Juston Burris (left) celebrates with teammates cornerback Troy Pride Jr. (25) and safety Tre Boston intercepting a pass intended for Atlanta Falcons wide receiver Russell Gage (83, right) in the fourth quarter Sunday, Oct. 11, 2020, at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta. The Panthers won 23-16. (Jason Getz/For the AJC)

Credit: Jason Getz

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Credit: Jason Getz

“I just have to throw it away and live to fight another down,” Ryan said. “We didn’t really have anything there. Not the time to kind of lob one up.”

That left it to the defense to give the Falcons another chance. They’d forced consecutive Carolina punts after giving up four straight scores in the first half. Expecting a third straight stop was too much.

The Burris interception gave the Panthers the ball at their 20-yard line with 8:49 to play. They methodically marched 76 yards in 14 plays and kicked a field goal. The drive lasted 7:39, one of three for Carolina that went longer than seven minutes.

Soon after that the Falcons kicked a field goal that didn’t matter. The Panthers recovered an on-side kick, which the Falcons didn’t know how to do against the Cowboys. The Falcons, Jets and Giants are the last three NFL teams without a victory.

The Panthers seemingly offered a chance for the Falcons to get right, like last season. Beating Carolina twice over the final eight games of 2019 helped Quinn save his job. The Falcons won those two games by a combined score of 69-23. The aggregate score of the other six: 147-126.

Carolina fired coach Ron Rivera in the days before the rematch with the Falcons. He’d guided the Panthers to the 2016 Super Bowl. The Panthers replaced Rivera with Matt Rhule, formerly of Temple and Baylor. Carolina moved on from ex-MVP quarterback Cam Newton and signed journeyman Teddy Bridgewater.

This was to be a rebuilding year for the Panthers. Instead, they’ve moved forward with a new coach while the Falcons fell further behind with Quinn. Carolina has won three games in a row and snapped a four-game losing streak in Atlanta.

The Panthers couldn’t save Quinn this time. He might have still been good at encouraging the Falcons. He was no longer good at coaching them to win. Even Blank finally saw it.