Atlanta Falcons coach Dan Quinn isn’t oblivious to the reality in front of him: 2019 is a make-or-break season.
The honeymoon was over a long time ago, after the Falcons blew that 28-3 Super Bowl LI lead in a 34-28 overtime loss to the New England Patriots. Coming so close only teased owner Arthur Blank, who wants to have more than just an MLS championship banner to hang in his $1.6 billion Mercedes-Benz Stadium. And the last thing Blank wants to see to ring in the new year is a team such as the rival New Orleans Saints walking away with a championship on his home turf.
Blank yearns for a Lombardi trophy and won’t tolerate mediocrity. That’s why change was inevitable following the Falcons’ 7-9 finish, as Quinn parted ways with offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian, defensive coordinator Marquand Manuel and special teams coordinator Keith Armstrong. Quinn put more of the burden on himself by announcing intentions to serve as defensive coordinator, a role he thrived in while coaching for the Seattle Seahawks in 2013 and 2014. Skeptics will wonder if Quinn can succeed with overall game management as a head coach while assuming the defensive playcalling, but he’ll have to find a way.
The theme might not be “Super Bowl or bust,” but if Quinn can’t at least guide the talented Falcons back to the playoffs next season, he could find himself in the same position Sarkisian, Manuel and Armstrong are in right now. As one NFL executive noted on Monday, there will be “no one else to point the finger at” but himself.
“He’s fired coordinators, defensive line coaches and moved coaches to other spots,” the executive said. “What’s your next move? There’s not another move to be made. He’s put all his chips at the middle of the table.”
Actually, the next maneuver Quinn has to make is bringing in an offensive coordinator capable of elevating a high-powered offense featuring Matt Ryan and Julio Jones to the level Sarkisian couldn’t take it in two seasons.
ESPN’s Adam Schefter has reported about an interview and strong possibility of a Quinn reunion with former Seahawks offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell — yes, the same guy who took major criticism for not running Marshawn Lynch in a Super Bowl loss. But Bevell also had great offensive success in Seattle and won a Super Bowl along with Quinn, although Russell Wilson is a different-style quarterback than Ryan, and the Seahawks’ running game is much more feared than that of the current Falcons.
Quinn coordinated the top-ranked defense when he was in Seattle. Whether he can mirror that showing in Atlanta remains unknown, but he has to start with getting his defensive linemen to put more pressure on quarterbacks and be more stout against the run. Quinn made his name as a defensive line guru, so he knows he needs much more from the guys up front.
It will help Quinn’s cause to have a healthy roster, and safeties Keanu Neal (ACL) and Ricardo Allen (Achilles) are expected back from season-ending injuries. Plus, star linebacker Deion Jones returned to full form at the end of this season following foot surgery. Now the team will need to add more talent up front, either in free agency or via the draft, or get better performances out of guys such as defensive ends Vic Beasley Jr. and Takk McKinley. Quinn needs general manager Thomas Dimitroff and the talent scouts to hit home runs rather than bloop singles.
Next season’s schedule won’t make the task any easier for Atlanta. The Falcons face six playoff teams — the Saints, Los Angeles Rams, Philadelphia Eagles, Seahawks, Houston Texans and Indianapolis Colts. Five of those teams had 10 or more wins this season.
Regardless of the challenge, one can bet Quinn will take an optimistic and confident approach into ’19. His players haven’t seen him any other way, even during the dark times.
“The proof is in the pudding: No one would ever question DQ’s leadership,” tight end Austin Hooper said. “The message he addresses every day always pertains to what we’ve got to do to have success. When you start losing, people start looking at this and that. At the end of the day, DQ has led us to great victories in the past. We have the utmost confidence in him for the future.”