In one four-play sequence, Marquand Manuel confirmed what Dan Quinn already knew: Manuel was more than ready to call the shots.
It was Week 1 of the 2017 season, Manuel’s first game as defensive coordinator.
The Falcons were on the road and clinging to a 23-17 lead at Soldier Field. The Bears had a fresh set of downs and the ball on the Falcons’ 16-yard line with 26 seconds left in the game.
Down by six, it was touchdown or bust for Chicago. Manuel knew he needed to dial up the right defense to hold off the Bears and ensure the Falcons start the year 1-0.
For every play Chicago called, Manuel had a counter move – and not once did Quinn have to interject. And then, on fourth-and-goal on the Atlanta 5 with 8 seconds left, Falcons defensive end Brooks Reed sacked Bears quarterback Mike Glennon for a 9-yard loss.
Walk-off sack. Ball game.
Manuel’s debut calling plays couldn’t have ended better, but the six years of preparation made him more than prepared for the moment.
“That kind of conviction at that moment to make the right call what you think is best at the time, a lot of that has some on the job training,” Quinn said of Manuel. “But you could tell, he had already been on the job in his mind, way earlier than last year.”
Entering his second season as the Falcons’ defensive coordinator, Manuel is widely viewed as one of league’s rising stars in the coaching circle.
If you were to ask Falcons players of any position to describe his coaching style, more often than not, you’ll hear the word “energy” associated with his name.
About two hours before every game, Manuel can be found putting himself through a warm-up on the field that could make one believe he’s about to get ready to suit up.
He’s the first coach to take the field out of the locker room before the game and to start the second half.
It’s as if Manuel only knows one pace: All out, all the time.
So where does this energetic style come from? Manuel summed it up simply.
“We all only have a small window to be a Falcon, to be in this league,” Manuel said. “How many lives are you going to really affect? How many men are you going to help get to that next plateau?”
The energy he’s infused in Atlanta’s defense is apparent on every level. And it more than paid off in 2017 as Manuel molded the Falcons into a top-10 unit.
After eight NFL seasons playing for six different teams, Manuel’s playing career came to an end. Manuel didn’t waste much time getting back into the game, just in a different role – this time, as a coach.
Manuel’s first stint? A coaching intern at his alma matter, the University of Florida, where Quinn was serving as the defensive coordinator in 2011.
Since that one season in Gainesville, Manuel hasn’t left Quinn’s side.
After one year at Florida, Quinn went back to Seattle to become the Seahawks’ defensive coordinator. Manuel joined Quinn in Seattle as a special teams assistant. A year later, he served as a defensive assistant under Quinn for two seasons.
When Quinn became the head coach of the Falcons in 2015, Manuel came with him and was promoted to defensive backs coach.
And while it’s easy to think that the transition from player to coach would be a seamless one because Manuel played in the league for as many years as he did, that’s not really the case.
Manuel found his way and it works.
“From the time I’ve met him from now, one thing that’s cool to see that has stayed consistent is the energy and enthusiasm he has for players,” Quinn said. “He made the transition from player to coach really seamlessly because he knew the boundaries of coach, but he also stepped across to say, I can push you. That’s not easy to do. He’s always had mental quickness of a quarterback or someone who gets concepts really quickly. That transferred into this coaching fast. He can communicate concepts and ideas quickly to people on the run, in the moment, that’s a really valuable asset as a coach.”
Another important quality Manuel believes is key to success as a leader is the ability to communicate at every level – something he’s had to do his whole life.
Manuel is one of 18 children in his family in South Florida.
The lessons he learned communicating and expressing himself while growing up have a direct correlation to how he approaches situations now with his players.
“Being able to stand up for yourself,” Manuel said of the lessons he learned about how to communicate with others having come from such a big family. “Understanding that every situation is not always going to go in your favor. How do you balance the difference between that and the emotions that brothers and sisters have that are older and younger? It helped out a lot. A lot of times it taught you when to speak, when not. When was enough, enough? When did you need to say to more?”
When players talk about the energy Manuel brings, it’s unique in that he’s been able to find the balance between being able to have the uncomfortable conversations when necessary, all while continuing to still be able to lift a player up at the same time.
Ask Ricardo Allen, who credits Manuel for helping him get to where he is now. Allen was originally drafted as a cornerback by the Falcons in 2014 in the fifth round and was put on the practice squad. In Manuel’s first few months as defensive backs coach, Allen was moved to safety, a move that has now helped him blossom in his career.
Manuel saw the potential in Allen and he helped him learn the intricacies of the position and challenged him in every way.
“He’s meant a lot to me,” Allen said of Manuel. “Going from corner to safety. To be able to develop a routine or to learn the ins and out of a free safety, he taught me those early as a rookie. He made sure he stayed on me, even though some days got rough being his little mentee, the one that he taught all of the stuff [too]. He ended up teaching why he called things, when he called things. It gave me a big jump that a lot of people don’t have.”
Another specific player who’s benefited from Manuel’s leadership in a big way is cornerback Desmond Trufant who was selected to his first Pro Bowl in 2015 after Manuel’s first season as his position coach.
Trufant already had the skill and the raw athletic ability when he arrived in Atlanta in 2014. But Manuel knew he could take his game to another if he stressed the details.
That is exactly what’s he’s done.
“He’s real focused on the details, the small things of the game,” Trufant said. “He really focuses on the small things that make you a better player. Definitely he’s just fine tuned my game when it comes to that. His energy that he brings, the details ... it bleeds into the whole secondary. We’re real locked in on that. He’s a great coach to have.”
Now with one year as a coordinator under his belt and a defense loaded with talent, Manuel knows when the unit gets back and sets their goals for the 2018 season, it all starts with him.
A challenge he says he’s ready to own every day.