There’s an expiry date for anyone who cannot adapt in the NFL, and that time is coming for Atlanta Falcons head coach Dan Quinn.
The benefits of continuity often don’t apply in the NFL with a finite 16-game schedule and the limited length of the average player’s career. We don’t need to revisit 28-3 all over again, but since the Falcons collapsed in Super Bowl LI almost four years ago, they haven’t been the same and their inability to overcome this loss is largely the result of their head coach’s stubborn refusal to take accountability. Atlanta has blown three double-digit leads in as many games and at this point, their inability to close out contests can be directly linked back to Quinn.
Quinn became an intriguing head coaching candidate during his stint as the Seahawks’ defensive coordinator, overseeing the vaunted Legion of Boom in 2013 and 2014. After the Seahawks annihilated the Broncos 43-8 in Super Bowl XLVIII, they cemented their case as one of the greatest defenses of all-time, and after making another Super Bowl appearance the following year, Quinn earned a shot at running his own team.
In retrospect, giving Quinn credit for orchestrating the strings on an all-time unit may have been generous. Seattle rarely deviated from its base Cover 3 defense under Quinn in large part due to the singular talents of future Hall of Famers Richard Sherman and Earl Thomas. Here’s how Quinn’s defenses have fared during his stint with the Falcons.
Points Allowed Per Game (ranking)
Defensive DVOA ranking*
2020* (through three games)
*All DVOA statistics from Football Outsiders
Under Quinn’s watch, the Falcons have never posted a league-average defense by DVOA, a metric created by Football Outsiders that compares the success rate of every single play to a league average, taking into account down and distance, and opponent. Despite Quinn’s billing as a defensive mind, he’s rotating through his third defensive coordinator in four years — his fourth if you count Quinn installing himself in the role after firing Marquand Manuel in 2018.
If the defense continues to falter, Quinn is positioning Raheem Morris to fall on the proverbial sword. Morris, Manuel and Richard Smith all got the axe before Quinn did, and it can’t all because of their perceived incompetence relative to Quinn’s perceived stability.
When asked if he was coaching for his job recently, Quinn demurred entirely and in doing so built a clever notion that asking him about his corroding performance as head coach would detract from his team’s goals.
“Any time I take away from that, it takes away from the team and the focus for Monday night,” Quinn said via ESPN’s Vaughn McClure. “So, it doesn't do any value to discuss it much further than that.”
This is a clever half-measure, although it’s transparent Quinn doesn’t believe his team’s decline has anything to do with him. Much like Bill O’Brien, Quinn’s lone asset at this point is the confidence — or at least, the projection of confidence — that he’s won from his team.
"We've got his back," quarterback Matt Ryan said to McClure. "We've got to play better as players. That's what you have to focus on. When things aren't going well, it's easy to look around and see what everybody else is doing or where everybody else is screwing up. The only way we're going to improve as a unit is if we all kind of look in the mirror and find ways to improve individually."
It’s not like the Falcons are devoid of talent, but Quinn appears intent on wasting it on both sides of the ball. Julio Jones’ touchdown regression has been a nightmare for fantasy owners, but the Falcons don’t seem to know how to use him effectively, even though he’s the rare talent who can run through or around cornerbacks and safeties. Jones is coming off a 1,394-yard season with six touchdowns, but it’s a testament to his Hall of Fame talent. Calvin Ridley has also emerged as a bonafide star, and Todd Gurley was a low-risk, low-reward signing who has had mixed returns through three games. Atlanta averages 30 points per game and still can’t find ways to win.
It wasn’t long ago that Deion Jones, Grady Jarrett, Jalen Collins, Vic Beasley and Keanu Neal were considered the core of a promising defense. Jarrett, a second-team All-Pro in 2019, can be spared here while Neal suffered an Achilles injury last year and has yet to return. Jones is still a tackling machine but isn’t the perennial Pro Bowl candidate that his 2017 season appeared to indicate. Collins was suspended for the fourth time in 2018 and the Falcons cut ties with him, while Beasley, who led the NFL in sacks in 2016, never came close to replicating the same form and was allowed to test free agency.
The common denominator here is Quinn, who has failed to elevate his defensive talent, while doing little to support his talented offensive core. Quinn doesn’t want to hear it but he is now coaching for his life, as he’s run out of people to take the fall for him.
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