The Friday before Atlanta's season opener was a busy time for Dan Quinn. The 45-year-old was getting ready for his first big test as an NFL head coach, and with the Falcons slated to appear on national TV versus the attention-grabbing Eagles, tension was nearing its peak.
Quinn's to-do list was, of course, extensive. Conduct walkthroughs. Meet with assistants. Go over tape. Crunch numbers. Find moments here and there to eat, to reflect, to decompress. Oh, and there were all those new responsibilities to think about: challenges and clock management and fourth down decisions. The media were waiting for updates, too.
Given everything on his plate, and given the importance of his upcoming bout against Chip Kelly, it would have been understandable if Quinn decided to spend that afternoon focused solely on short-term concerns. But when practice ended, he carved out room in his schedule for an unexpected exercise: Instead of getting his press conference out of the way and quickly moving indoors, he slipped on a pair of red pads over his fingers, motioned for Tyler Starr to meet him on the gridiron and bashed his fists together.
Starr, then a practice squad LB, positioned his face inches from Quinn's, lifted his arms and began to swing. The two engaged in a grueling hand technique drill for more than 10 minutes; they shuffled from sideline to sideline, breaking only when Quinn had a piece of advice to offer or needed to wipe sweat from his brow.
This image left quite an impression on the scribes and broadcasters in attendance. Here's the new field general, the defensive wizard tasked with reviving the Falcons, the man who has a tremendously important game to worry about, working one-on-one with someone who might never see a meaningful snap.
Such an activity wasn't going to pay dividends right away, but it's nonetheless viewed as a crucial part of the Falcons' mindset. And it appropriately exemplifies Quinn's rare enthusiasm for the development process.
"We're just trying to take every guy as far as they can and say, 'Can you be at your very best?'" he explained. "You've seen the improvement happen and honestly that's the whole goal: to say, 'Can we be better from where we started at to where we're at now and keep grinding to get better?'"
A little more than three months following the aforementioned tête-à-tête, OL James Stone tore an ACL and had to be placed on injured reserve, opening a spot on the 53-man roster. Quinn had felt Starr's growth—the speed, the urgency, the pass coverage, the ability to rush from both sides—so he felt comfortable promoting the 2014 seventh-round pick.
Starr made his debut shortly thereafter, registering a tackle on special teams in Jacksonville—forever solidifying his name on an NFL box score. He also garnered ample praise from Quinn, who said the 2014 seventh round pick's "developed like crazy" and has shown the kind of commitment needed to get called up.
It may not be long before another up-and-comer does the same. Quinn believes G Ben Garland, OT Bryce Harris, TE DJ Tialavea have all taken strides of late; Akeem King, a rookie CB who recently got a taste of NFL action, is doing what's needed to receive more.
"Those are the kind of guys like, 'Man, we have a vision for what we think you can become,'" said Quinn.
Each week, Quinn identifies 10 to 12 Falcons and asks, "How are we helping these guys develop?" A lot of support is required to make sure that question is answered effectively, so Quinn adopted a fragment of Seattle's blueprint and employed a robust coaching staff—one that has a wide-ranging set of obligations.
"It's a huge part of it," Quinn said of having lots of instructors in tow. "That way, they're able to devote a bunch of time just to those (backups and practice squad members). The players recognize that, how hard they're working for one another. It totally makes a difference for the team."
When on-field practice ends, some coaches go straight to the film room. Others, such as Doug Mallory, a defensive assistant/linebackers coach, are "totally devoted" to aiding those toward the bottom of the totem pole.
Starr has become a clear benefactor of this focus. Mallory watches film with him every Friday and, with a quarter-century of coaching experience, is able to share plenty of wisdom.
Not many lower-tier players are so fortunate. Then again, not many teams have a sizeable group of UDFA signings and practice squad alums capable of chipping in.
As Quinn said, "It's those kind of relationships that make our development plan so unique."
There will always be a divide between the practice squad and everyone else in the locker room, but Atlanta has made a concerted effort to shrink that invisible partition. Unlike in previous years, the Falcons' entire practice squad travels on road trips and works out two hours before every game. This, according to coaches, helps them feel like they belong and prepares them for the next step.
"It's a 63-man roster, not a 53," Quinn said. "So essentially, instead of having seven inactives, we have 17. That way, when they do get called onto the active roster to get ready to play, there isn't a big transition."
In addition to Garland, Harris, King, et al, someone else who has benefited from Atlanta's emphasis on development is Joey Mbu. Like Starr, he rose from the practice squad to the active roster, and in his NFL debut, the undrafted DT made several impressive stops against a dangerous Carolina squad.
Mbu's maturation has reminded Quinn of a lot of different prospects he taught elsewhere. And although winning is the top priority, he relishes in the chance to help so many unproven athletes realize their potential and enjoy fruitful careers.
"There are a number of guys who are playing today, you see him on another team now and say, 'Man, all the work we did—it paid off,'" Quinn said. "And you're a coach who's filled with a lot of gratitude when you see that because you knew the player put in so much time to get themselves better. So it kind of makes it all worthwhile."