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Arthur Blank still believes in Dan Quinn and Thomas Dimitroff, but for how long?

Goober Pyle

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Friday’s practice wasn’t typical. Normally, an NFL owner doesn’t make his way to the field to deliver the news that the team’s head coach will be back for the 2020 season.

But when the final practice of the regular season wrapped up, Arthur Blank made his way to the practice field and had each player huddle around him. From a distance, it was unknown what words were said. Of course, those inside the circle seemed to appreciate the message as applause broke out. It’s unknown how many of the players saw the announcement during the course of the day of preparation. For some, like Ricardo Allen, Blank’s message was the first he heard that his head coach and general manager were safe.

Inside the building, the news was well received. Outside? If social media is an indicator, the sky has finally fallen and the sun will never rise again.

Even so, Blank believes it is the best course of action heading into 2020. He stressed the continuity between the coach and general manager, to go with the current cast of players — many of whom have played for Quinn since he arrived in 2015.

Blank said continuity alone isn’t necessarily enough to create a winning formula. While it helps, Quinn and Dimitroff will enter a prove-it year in 2020 with the goal of showing Blank’s gamble will pay off. There will be an added dynamic, with president and CEO Rich McKay overseeing Quinn and Dimitroff, which adds a layer between the previous working relationship in which the two reported directly to Blank.

Regardless, that an announcement about their future was needed would signal the pressure the two will face in 2020. Blank wouldn’t reveal specifics about what he wants to see, but it’s clear Quinn and Dimitroff will be under the microscope when the next season kicks off.

“I don’t have a set number (of wins) in mind,” Blank said. “I expect a different set of results, for sure. I haven’t sat down with the coach and said, ‘You have to win X number of games, etc.’ If we continue playing next year on the same basis, we’re playing this year over the second half of the year, which we have every ability to continue to do that. … We have the players, we have the same coaching staff. We moved some things around a little bit to make things more effectively. All of that is sustainable going forward and an opportunity to get better in free agency and the draft.”

‘He made (changes) too late in many cases’

Blank’s top critique of Quinn is one many people who have watched the Falcons hold.

As Atlanta’s losses began to pile up, appropriate responses didn’t seem to occur in an adequate amount of time. Quinn explained it wasn’t that he wasn’t trying to adjust. It’s just that his first attempts at fixing the situation were falling short. It wasn’t until the bye week that Quinn made a drastic change to the coaching staff, which was to move Raheem Morris from wide receivers coach to defensive backs coach. Since then, the defense has played much better. Players have said Morris played a major role responsibility in the defense’s turnaround. On Friday, Atlanta said Morris will begin the 2020 season as the defensive coordinator.

A lot of folks wondered why a career defensive coach was still coaching offense by the midway point of the season. It appears Blank was pondering the same thing.

“A number of these decisions were all within (Quinn’s) ability to make. He made them too late in many cases. Some of them he tried to tweak earlier,” Blank said. “If you’re pressing me hard, what’s the major criticism I would have of the coach, and Dan would say, ‘I probably should have made these changes sooner.’ The second-half record speaks to that and speaks for that. I think Dan is the kind of person who reads a lot, studies a lot, and he’s very self-aware. I don’t think he’s the kind of coach who will make the same mistake in that regard.”

Quinn basically was given a reprieve and must prove that the same mistakes won’t happen again. When visiting with Blank, Quinn assured his boss he will apply what was learned this season to correct what went wrong.

“With Arthur, I said, ‘The reason I am so fired up is this has been the hardest and most invaluable year for me as a coach ever,’” Quinn said. “I’ve made mistakes, and we get to fix them. I think that’s the important thing, to use these lessons here. Not everyone always has the chance to do that. I hate the results, but I learned a lot.”

Another mistake Quinn made was putting too much responsibility on himself after firing all three coordinators after the 2018 season. In addition to taking over play-calling duties as the defensive coordinator, he tried to spend extra time with the defensive ends while maintaining the day-to-day responsibilities of being a head coach. The early move to a diamond front on the defensive line didn’t seem to work too well, either.

At the bye and before the first meeting against the New Orleans Saints, it didn’t seem like Quinn was in a great place with his job security. But that’s the game in which things started to change for the better. A week later, a blowout win over the Carolina Panthers essentially gave him the remainder of the 2019 season. A victory on the road against the San Francisco 49ers may have been the final piece of confidence Blank needed to bring him back for another year.

Blank is placing a lot of faith in the fact that the 5-2 record the past seven games is a true indicator after the 1-7 start.

“The thing I’d like to see change is results,” Quinn said. “To not have the results go early on, I thought that was a big deal. Any time there is change that goes for the better, yeah, why didn’t we do it earlier? That’s a fair question. … Ultimately, the thing that worked the best was the biggest change.”

Demoted to overseeing his replacement, 13 years later

Perhaps the most interesting development is that McKay will serve as a de facto layer of management over Quinn and Dimitroff. While that’s not how the organization would prefer to put it, it does seem a bit odd to move McKay, who had very little to do with football operations the past 12 seasons, in charge of Quinn and Dimitroff. Under the previous arrangement, Quinn and Dimitroff reported directly to Blank.

Dimitroff replaced McKay as the Falcons’ general manager in 2008, with McKay sliding into the team president/CEO role he has held since. Almost 13 years later, McKay is, for all intents and purposes, a superior to Dimitroff.

In addition, it also seems odd that near the end of a disappointing season, the only management move that was made was a pseudo-promotion.

“Rich has a storied background in football for 25 years. Tampa Bay, 10 years. Fifteen years here,” Blank said. “Most of that time he functioned as a general manager. Rich, we’ve asked him to spend his time up here next year. He’ll be up (in Flowery Branch) at least four days a week working closely with Dan and Thomas.”

Blank and McKay said the new setup won’t have any factor on personnel determinations made between Dimitroff and Quinn.

“My job will not be to make any decisions,” McKay said. “My job is just to help them, support them and make sure that we do have a structure in which every decision we make has a good rhythm to it and a good purpose, including the salary cap, including player personnel and including coaching. They still make the decisions, but I’m charged with the job of making sure that our processes work and making sure that we’re giving them the support they need, and (I’m) happy to do it.”

If McKay truly isn’t taking part in football decisions, he has found himself in a position to receive a pat on the back when things go well while distancing himself from situations that go awry. For many football executives, it would seem to be an enviable position to land.

Quinn and Dimitroff are familiar with McKay, considering the number of years everyone has been with the Falcons. Now, they will all get a chance to work together a little more closely. How it actually plays out could be something to monitor down the road.

“We already have a good working relationship with Rich,” Quinn said. “So, this is not somebody Thomas and I already don’t spend a bunch of time with and enjoy doing so. … Rich is a good football guy. He has been for a long time. We lean on him already for a lot of things. To have him here for more is a good thing.”

‘The trial and error period, we have to get rid of that’

For the vast majority of the players, Friday was a wonderful workday.

The coach they have been fighting for during the second half of the season is set to return. Many fans might have been begging, and expecting, for the Falcons to part ways with Quinn and begin a coaching search. But the players wanted to keep Quinn. With the postseason out of reach, that has been the goal the past seven games.

“When you don’t have very much to fight for in the season, when you know you’re not going to the playoffs, the one thing is you don’t want the head man gone,” Allen said. “For us to be able to fight for him is a blessing.”

There are those who will question where the fight was during the first eight games. The answer to that is the willingness to fight for Quinn was always there. As Blank said, however, those early-season failures can be pinpointed on the coaching staff for not putting players in better positions and for not making the necessary coaching personnel adjustments that occurred after the bye.

While the Falcons started 1-7, the players held onto their admiration of Quinn. The necessary changes that led to winning football took a little too long to make.

And while the Falcons have played better the past seven weeks, there is nothing to suggest that performance will carry over. In fact, it would go against the usual coachspeak that each year is different and independent of another. The Falcons, up against a salary cap that McKay and Dimitroff are apparently not too concerned about, likely will need to unload some contracts during the offseason. The roster won’t be the same, and some key veterans will be a year older. Injuries are unpredictable. With a new season beginning with a fresh start, will the same sense of urgency be there by Week 1 as it has been the past few weeks?

Defensive tackle Grady Jarrett said a previous season’s victories do not determine future success. But he also expressed the need for his teammates to start the 2020 season with greater enthusiasm.

“The trial and error period, we have to get rid of that,” Jarrett said. “We have to start fast. We can’t have mulligans.”

Survive and advance

Dimitroff went through a similar situation in 2014 when it was assumed he would be fired alongside head coach Mike Smith. Smith was ousted, but Dimitroff held onto his job.

Once again, with questions of his job security buzzing through the year, Dimitroff is still the Falcons’ general manager.

But like after the 2014 season, it came with a cost. Whereas Smith reported to Dimitroff, Blank changed the structure, with Quinn and Dimitroff reporting to Blank independently. While Dimitroff remained over the personnel department, Quinn took control over the players.

But now, instead of Blank, it will be McKay, the person Dimitroff replaced as general manager in 2008, who oversees Quinn and Dimitroff. How McKay will actually improve player personnel decisions remains to be seen.

If one is to believe Blank when he says Atlanta has the players in place to win big, that seemingly would absolve Dimitroff of much of the blame for this season’s failures. Dimitroff drafted Matt Ryan and Julio Jones. He signed Alex Mack as a free agent. He drafted Allen, Jarrett, Deion Jones and De’Vondre Campbell. Most recently, it looks like the early returns on draft picks Chris Lindstrom, Kaleb McGary and Kendall Sheffield are positive.

Even so, Dimitroff found his way into a hot seat because a team built to win was getting blown out during a horrendous six-game losing streak. With his job secure for 2020, all Dimitroff, as well as Quinn, can hope for is to not be in the same position one year from now.

“Of course, your mind goes there every once in a while,” Dimitroff said. “I’ve been in this role for 12 years, going on 13, and there have been some tough times and some good times, of course. My focus and my goal through the season was, of course, to support Dan and to support the rest of the administration.”



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