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Year in review: Falcons plan to learn from early mistakes that cost them 2019 season


Goober Pyle
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https://theathletic.com/1507707/2020/01/03/year-in-review-falcons-plan-to-learn-from-early-mistakes-that-cost-them-2019-season/

 

It was quite the risk to make wholesale changes.

When the 2018 season wrapped up with a disappointing 7-9 record, there were things the coaching staff could point to — specifically injuries — as to why a potential Super Bowl contender failed to live up to expectations. Early in the season, the Falcons dealt with serious injuries to Keanu Neal, Ricardo Allen and Deion Jones. Grady Jarrett and Takk McKinley were forced to miss games. The defense, as a result, took a ton of time to find cohesion with so much star power out of the lineup.

That led to a 1-4 start. While the Falcons climbed back to 4-4, a five-game losing streak ended any hope of a postseason appearance. Three wins to close the season made everyone feel a bit better.

Well, almost everyone. A day after the regular season ended, head coach Dan Quinn made the call to fire all three of his top assistants — offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian, defensive coordinator Marquand Manuel and special teams coordinator Keith Armstrong.

In making those decisions, Quinn came to the conclusion that the Falcons weren’t physical enough in any phase. Before filling the offensive coordinator and special teams coordinator positions, Quinn decided it was time to take over defensive play calling himself.

In essence, he was betting on himself.

Throughout his career, Quinn’s previous two bets on himself worked out. He took a chance right out of college to take a volunteer position with William & Mary instead of taking a paid graduate assistant role at Kutztown. The second bet was when he left his position as the defensive line coach for the Seattle Seahawks to be the Florida Gators’ defensive coordinator. Going from the NFL to college was a risk but one he felt the need to take to further his career.

It worked out both times, with the latter resulting in Quinn returning to Seattle two years later as its defensive coordinator.

This time, however, much more was at stake. While Quinn did not enter the 2019 season on the proverbial hot seat, it was clear that if the Falcons took a turn for the worse, he could end up there.

The 2019 offseason

When reviewing the 2018 season, there were two obvious areas of need for 2019: offensive line and defensive line.

On the offensive line, the Falcons felt like they needed to improve at guard, specifically when it came to the position’s depth. In addition, there was suddenly a need at right tackle. After hiring offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter, the Falcons wanted to add size up front, as well.

The first move to aid this area was to re-sign tackle Ty Sambrailo to a three-year deal. The next was to sign guards James Carpenter and Jamon Brown in free agency. Keeping one offensive lineman and signing two others were signals the Falcons could be looking to bolster the defensive line in the draft.

Instead, the approach, by the time the draft rolled around, was to continue adding to the offensive line. But that came with a slight caveat.

According to league sources, the Falcons had three players at the top of their draft board, and two of them happened to be defensive tackles.

  • Ed Oliver was the player Atlanta coveted the most. In order to draft Oliver, however, the Falcons would need to trade up. But that wasn’t something Atlanta seemed inclined to do. If Oliver fell to No. 14, he would have been the pick. Oliver ended up sliding further than expected but was taken No. 9 by the Buffalo Bills.
  • The next two on the Falcons’ board were guard Chris Lindstrom and defensive tackle Christian Wilkins. Internally, the two players were ranked almost evenly. But after much discussion, it was decided that Lindstrom would be the preferred pick if both were available. Wilkins ended up selected one spot ahead at No. 13.

The Falcons did a great job of disguising who they wanted to take at No. 14 during the pre-draft process. While information leaked that Atlanta wanted to upgrade the lines of scrimmage, Lindstrom wasn’t on the media’s radar when it came to the 14th pick. He initially was seen as a late first-rounder or early second-rounder. But based on league information, the Falcons didn’t want to risk trading back for Lindstrom due to the fact that the Minnesota Vikings, selecting 18th overall, also were interested in the Boston College guard.

Therefore, when the Falcons were on the clock, there wasn’t any debate as to who would be picked. It was an easy choice at that point. But Atlanta wasn’t done. Feeling like it needed to add another top-quality player, Atlanta traded its second- and third-round picks to the Los Angeles Rams to move up to No. 31 while also acquiring a late-round selection. With that pick, the Falcons took right tackle Kaleb McGary.

For the rest of the draft, Atlanta punted on taking an edge rusher. The Falcons rounded out the draft with cornerback Kendall Sheffield, defensive lineman John Cominsky, running back Qadree Ollison, cornerback Jordan Miller and wide receiver Marcus Green. Of that group, only Green didn’t make the 53-man roster.

Dealing with some salary-cap concerns, the Falcons weren’t able to make much of a splash when it came to big-name players in free agency. They were able to sign Tyeler Davison, Adrian Clayborn and Allen Bailey to assist the defensive line.

It was clear in April that the goal would be for Lindstrom and McGary to start on the right side of the offensive line. But oftentimes in the NFL, goals never turn out according to plan.

First eight games

By the time training camp opened, which was earlier than normal due to the Falcons playing in the Hall of Fame Game, there was a ton of optimism. The defensive players loved the fact that Quinn took over as the unit’s play caller. Quinn also was spending more time with the defensive line, which was seen as a way to get more production out of edge rushers McKinley and Vic Beasley.

The Falcons also were getting Allen and Neal back from injuries. They were finally healthy and poised to get back to the playoff level of 2016 and 2017.

When the Falcons were set to take on the Minneapolis Vikings, it was seen as a tough challenge to open the season. Win or lose, the game was expected to be competitive. At least that’s what just about everyone thought. No one could have imagined the first four plays from scrimmage setting the tone for what would be a disastrous eight-game stretch.

After a touchback, quarterback Matt Ryan took a quick sack from Anthony Barr. On second down, Devonta Freeman ran for 4 yards. On third down, Ryan was forced to scramble and was 2 yards short of the first down. The subsequent punt was blocked, setting Minnesota up for a touchdown three plays later.

The Vikings won the game decisively 28-12.

A week later, and needing to feel better about themselves, the Falcons were in a tough game against the Philadelphia Eagles. Trailing by three and facing a fourth-and-2 late in the fourth quarter, the Falcons dialed up a screen to Julio Jones. Perfectly executed, Jones took the play 54 yards to the end zone for the winning touchdown.

From there, the first half of the season unraveled.

  • Atlanta trailed by 17 against the Indianapolis Colts before making it at least interesting in a 27-24 loss.
  • The Falcons lost 24-10 to the Tennessee Titans, who were quarterbacked by Marcus Mariota at the time. The 14-point differential didn’t speak to how soundly the Titans controlled the game.
  • The Houston Texans obliterated the Falcons 53-32, with Deshaun Watson carving up the secondary en route to a perfect 158.3 quarterback rating.
  • Facing rookie quarterback Kyler Murray, the Falcons were unable to record any sacks or quarterback hits as the Arizona Cardinals won 34-33. Matt Bryant missed an extra point that would have sent the game to overtime.
  • The Los Angeles Rams visited Mercedes-Benz Stadium and blew out the Falcons 37-10.
  • The Seattle Seahawks held on to defeat the Falcons 27-20 after holding a 24-0 halftime advantage. The second half was when many players and coaches said a change for the better began to occur.

During that stretch, Quinn tinkered with various tweaks. He ceded play calling to linebackers coach Jeff Ulbrich. It became apparent that Quinn put too much responsibility on himself as a head coach, defensive coordinator and extra defensive line coach.

Entering the bye week at 1-7, he decided to make a more drastic shake-up on the coaching staff. Quinn turned to Raheem Morris, an assistant head coach leading the wide receivers, and asked him to coach defensive backs. Morris agreed and returned to defense, where he spent the majority of his career. Almost simultaneously, Falcons players held some meetings of their own without coaches to stress better accountability.

The objective, even if the playoffs were essentially out of reach, was to play like the team the Falcons knew they had the potential to be.

“Any time there’s change that goes for the better, yeah, why didn’t we do it earlier? I think it’s a fair question,” Quinn said. “I think it’s pretty unusual to make the type of moves we made in that space not just defensively but position and player personnel to go through it. (Morris) had been helping some prior to that, and we had put some changes in order probably two or three games prior to that. I felt like when some of the problems came up, we addressed it.”

The next eight games

Before Atlanta’s loss to Seattle, The Athletic reported that Quinn would remain with the team through the bye week. After the game, owner Arthur Blank held a news conference to address his embattled coach’s job performance.

“We’ll take the next couple of weeks during this bye period and evaluate where we are, and whatever decision we make, it will be for the right reasons and long term,” Blank said.

That put the focus on the Falcons’ upcoming Week 10 game against the New Orleans Saints. It wouldn’t have been a surprise if an embarrassing loss to the Saints ended the Quinn era midseason.

Instead, the Falcons came out like a transformed team. While Saints wide receiver Michael Thomas finished with 152 receiving yards, no one else was able to make a play in the passing game. Alvin Kamara was held to 12 touches for 74 total yards. The Falcons sacked Drew Brees six times. With the defense holding the Saints to three field goals in three quarters, the offense finally was able to open the game up in the final quarter.

Leading by four, Ryan threw a touchdown pass to Brian Hill. Younghoe Koo, signed to replace Bryant, made his third and fourth field goals to give Atlanta a decisive 26-9 win.

If anything, that was the initial pause Blank had in any decision on Quinn’s fate. A week later, the Falcons blew out the Carolina Panthers. Although the Falcons lost their next two games, against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the Saints, they were much improved from where they were during the first eight games.

The Falcons were able to end the season on a four-game winning streak with wins over the Panthers, San Francisco 49ers, Jacksonville Jaguars and Buccaneers.

The win over the 49ers likely cemented Quinn’s standing for 2020. With Atlanta trailing by nine in the fourth quarter, the Falcons drove down the field and got a 1-yard touchdown run from Qadree Ollison. On the ensuing drive, San Francisco remained aggressive but was held to a field goal and only a five-point lead. With 1:48 to go, Atlanta drove to San Francisco’s 5-yard line and appeared to score a touchdown with four seconds left to play on a pass from Ryan to Austin Hooper. That play was overturned by the officiating crew, and one second was added to the clock.

On the next play, Ryan hit Jones, who contorted his body to get the football to cross the plane of the goal line. Originally, the play was ruled short. Replay overturned the call and gave the Falcons the lead. With two seconds to go, Atlanta got an extra touchdown in its 29-22 win after the ensuing kickoff resulted in a fumbled lateral that Olamide Zaccheaus was able to take into the end zone.

After starting 1-7, the Falcons finished 7-9 for the second consecutive season. And somehow, that record was good enough for second place in the NFC South. While the second half of the season was promising, the first half’s sting still lingered — especially considering the improved play during the final eight games.

“There’s no trophy for playing well in the second half,” Quinn said.

Looking ahead to 2020

Quinn and general manager Thomas Dimitroff were given the chance to fix the problems that plagued the 2019 season. But unlike the response following the 2018 season, it doesn’t appear Quinn is going to do anything too drastic from a staffing perspective.

Morris was promoted to defensive coordinator, and Ulbrich added a title as assistant head coach. Koetter will return to be the offensive coordinator and Ben Kotwica will once again be Atlanta’s special teams coordinator. Defensive passing game coordinator Jerome Henderson and assistant defensive line coach Travis Jones won’t be back with the Falcons next season.

“I learned it’s hard to change three big leadership positions in the same year — offensive coordinator, defensive coordinator, and special teams coordinator,” Quinn said. “To have the leadership positions in place heading into the offseason, that’s a big part for me. I certainly have learned that and know that’s not easy to do, and maybe I overlooked that in some spots because I think it’s important to make sure that you have the time and attention to spend with everybody that you need to.”

The offseason presents a great deal of unknown.

The 2020 season figures to be a make-or-break one for Quinn and Dimitroff. The pressure certainly will be felt throughout the offseason to ensure nothing goes awry once it’s time to kick off again.

“I think Dan is the kind of person that he reads a lot, he studies a lot, he’s very self-aware,” Blank said. “I don’t think he’s the kind of coach that will make the same mistake again in that regard.”

 

 

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2 hours ago, Goober Pyle said:

It became apparent that Quinn put too much responsibility on himself as a head coach, defensive coordinator and extra defensive line coach.

"I certainly have learned that and know that’s not easy to do, and maybe I overlooked that in some spots because I think it’s important to make sure that you have the time and attention to spend with everybody that you need to.”

I've been saying this for a little while now. DQ bit off way more than he could chew. Two new coordinators, him taking over as DC and DL coach, while also trying to be HC. The team had no HC the first half of the year. The second half, they did. We see the results. 

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2 minutes ago, vel said:

I've been saying this for a little while now. DQ bit off way more than he could chew. Two new coordinators, him taking over as DC and DL coach, while also trying to be HC. The team had no HC the first half of the year. The second half, they did. We see the results. 

What do you think about Bob Sutton and what influence he may have had on the defense in the first half of the season?

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I have too much to say about Dan Quinn to write it all out at the present time (given that I'm supposed to be working, ha), so for now, I'll just stick with this.

We HAVE to win our first game in 2020. After these terribly slow starts the last two seasons (and a particularly embarrassing start against the Vikings last year), for purely psychological reasons, we need Game 1 badly.

Quinn didn't have his team close to ready to play in Game 1 or really the entire first half in 2019.

If he's going to win back any of my goodwill, that needs to change instantly and dramatically as we start the next season.

You say you've learned? Great. Show us.

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1 hour ago, vel said:

I've been saying this for a little while now. DQ bit off way more than he could chew. Two new coordinators, him taking over as DC and DL coach, while also trying to be HC. The team had no HC the first half of the year. The second half, they did. We see the results. 

I give him credit for admitting this. It is so easier to see the big picture when you are not in the weeds. A head coach should be mostly removed from the small details so they can sit back and advise on all aspects of the team. Quinn is a very smart coach that doesn't get enough credit because of his facial expressions on the sideline and boring press conferences. You don't gain the respect of players like Richard Sherman, Michael Bennett, Wagner, Thomas, etc. if you aren't a really good coach. Those guys are not afraid to speak their mind and are not the types to blow smoke up someone's ***. I would love for him to get more involved with our offense as well. As a defensive coach, I guarantee he has ideas that can help this team.

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1 hour ago, FentayeJones said:

What do you think about Bob Sutton and what influence he may have had on the defense in the first half of the season?

I said it early on I thought Bob Sutton was brought in to help with the variability of the defense and the different fronts. I don't think it landed because DQ was stretched too thin and it was not his wheel house. It aided in the chaos, although it may have been good natured. 

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47 minutes ago, Jpg428gggg said:

I give him credit for admitting this. It is so easier to see the big picture when you are not in the weeds. A head coach should be mostly removed from the small details so they can sit back and advise on all aspects of the team. Quinn is a very smart coach that doesn't get enough credit because of his facial expressions on the sideline and boring press conferences. You don't gain the respect of players like Richard Sherman, Michael Bennett, Wagner, Thomas, etc. if you aren't a really good coach. Those guys are not afraid to speak their mind and are not the types to blow smoke up someone's ***. I would love for him to get more involved with our offense as well. As a defensive coach, I guarantee he has ideas that can help this team.

Exactly. Those guys go hard for DQ. He's not a complete idiot. Being HC is hard. There is a reason he's the 9th longest tenured HC in the league and he's only been at it for 5 years. The churn is real. Guys can't handle it all. Especially on their first go. I think Payton is the longest tenured HC in the league on his first stop. Belichick, Reid, and Carroll are all retreads. Even look at McCarthy, he had to take a long hard look at what he was doing wrong and how to adapt to the new league. 

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8 minutes ago, vel said:

Exactly. Those guys go hard for DQ. He's not a complete idiot. Being HC is hard. There is a reason he's the 9th longest tenured HC in the league and he's only been at it for 5 years. The churn is real. Guys can't handle it all. Especially on their first go. I think Payton is the longest tenured HC in the league on his first stop. Belichick, Reid, and Carroll are all retreads. Even look at McCarthy, he had to take a long hard look at what he was doing wrong and how to adapt to the new league. 

And lets face it...if Payton was in any other place than NO he would have been fired years ago.

Especially after the whole bounty thing

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7 minutes ago, vel said:

Exactly. Those guys go hard for DQ. He's not a complete idiot. Being HC is hard. There is a reason he's the 9th longest tenured HC in the league and he's only been at it for 5 years. The churn is real. Guys can't handle it all. Especially on their first go. I think Payton is the longest tenured HC in the league on his first stop. Belichick, Reid, and Carroll are all retreads. Even look at McCarthy, he had to take a long hard look at what he was doing wrong and how to adapt to the new league. 

Yep. Also, he worked for some of the best coaches of our generation: Pete Carroll and Nick Saban. Add in the fact that many ex head coaches have come to work for him as well as up and coming coaches such as Shannahan, Lafleur, etc. He is obviously very well respected in coaching circles. 

I was of the opinion that we should get rid of Quinn mid-season but I am ready to give him another chance. I just hope he goes back to his roots and sticks to what has made him a successful coach. I still think the Super Bowl game really messed with his head and led to him making decisions that weren't the best for the team.

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12 minutes ago, Jpg428gggg said:

Yep. Also, he worked for some of the best coaches of our generation: Pete Carroll and Nick Saban. Add in the fact that many ex head coaches have come to work for him as well as up and coming coaches such as Shannahan, Lafleur, etc. He is obviously very well respected in coaching circles. 

I was of the opinion that we should get rid of Quinn mid-season but I am ready to give him another chance. I just hope he goes back to his roots and sticks to what has made him a successful coach. I still think the Super Bowl game really messed with his head and led to him making decisions that weren't the best for the team.

Yep. I think he's got as clean a slate as he'll get at this point. Just be a head coach. Lean on the guys you hired. I hate Koetter is here, but if they can somehow get Todd Monken to join the staff, we may be alright. 

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2 hours ago, BCEagleATLFalcon said:

I have too much to say about Dan Quinn to write it all out at the present time (given that I'm supposed to be working, ha), so for now, I'll just stick with this.

We HAVE to win our first game in 2020. After these terribly slow starts the last two seasons (and a particularly embarrassing start against the Vikings last year), for purely psychological reasons, we need Game 1 badly.

Quinn didn't have his team close to ready to play in Game 1 or really the entire first half in 2019.

If he's going to win back any of my goodwill, that needs to change instantly and dramatically as we start the next season.

You say you've learned? Great. Show us.

I agree for the most part, though I'm not nearly as insistent on winning the first game as I am showing up to play.  If we get beat fair and square, it happens.  If we soil the bed again because they aren't prepared, I'll help you hold that short leash.

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33 minutes ago, JDaveG said:

though I'm not nearly as insistent on winning the first game as I am showing up to play

Well said. Even if we lose that first game, let's be playing near the top of our potential. Smitty used to have us doing that every year, so I know it's possible.

I think DQ should be gone, but I'm encouraged that he sees he bit off too much change in one off-season. I'd still fire him, but here's hoping he has learned what he needed and he'll get us back on the right track next year.

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One other thing -- everybody is talking about what changes need to be made in terms of who to re-sign, etc.

I want to see what surprise cuts are made.  Because we've heard all offseason that some folks weren't pulling their weight.  Those folks can go pound sand as far as I'm concerned.  I hope Quinn makes an example out of some folks.

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35 minutes ago, JDaveG said:

One other thing -- everybody is talking about what changes need to be made in terms of who to re-sign, etc.

I want to see what surprise cuts are made.  Because we've heard all offseason that some folks weren't pulling their weight.  Those folks can go pound sand as far as I'm concerned.  I hope Quinn makes an example out of some folks.

Agree with this. Do your job or get gone. No favorites.

Can't stand the Pats, but i admire Belichick if only for the fact he's not afraid to cut bait at anytime. If he feels the players he has aren't doing their job fast enough, or if he can get something better at the same position, he's pulling the trigger first chance he gets.

Edited by BoomGoesTheDynamite
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