One day during his time as a Hofstra University football player, safety Raheem Morris was in the weight room when he looked up and saw his defensive line coach staring daggers at him. "Who's this guy standing up here mean-mugging us, telling us to do hang cleans?" Morris wondered. He didn't know much about the coach, but after he graduated and joined Hofstra's staff, he found his initial characterization to be more accurate than he realized. Morris' coach-turned-colleague was indeed an old-school football junkie – a no-nonsense, hard-nosed instructor who demanded his players always handle themselves in a certain way.'
Nearly two decades later, Arthur Blank and Thomas Dimitroff hired this same coach, Dan Quinn, to lead the Atlanta Falcons, and Morris was among the first assistants to be hired. Morris says Quinn is just as tough as now he was in the 90s, but he's also noticed one significant change: an "eerie peacefulness" displayed when leading others.
Woven together, Quinn's concentrated passion and calm management style have forged a one-of-a-kind ambiance in Flowery Branch. And it's brought a franchise starving for its first championship one win away from the Super Bowl.
Setting the Right Environment
After 2015 drew to a close, when the Falcons were cleaning out their lockers and getting ready to scatter across the country, Quinn noticed two teammates, a rookie and a veteran, talking as they walked to the door. Not knowing the head coach was in ear shot, one asked the other for his phone number.
Quinn was stunned. He said to himself, "Man, we completely missed it." A couple of his players – who were in the same position group, no less – didn't know how to get in touch until their paths were about to part.
"There's no way they would have battled for each other," Quinn thought. "They hardly knew one another."
At that moment, he knew changes were needed.
Quinn immediately went to work with a clear strategy in place, and he put the wheels in motion by gutting Atlanta's locker room. Lockers at Flowery Branch used to fill the middle of the floor; now, they only line the walls. This new setup led to a sense of openness, also making room for three ping pong tables. The sound of trash talk and celluloid balls bouncing around are frequently heard before and after practice.
"DQ's definitely set up this place to support us," Brooks Reed said. "It makes a big difference, 100 percent. You're not closed off to anyone; you can talk to anyone. We're all very close. The offense is close to the defense. All that really helps. It gets guys to hang out with each other, which leads us to play harder for each other."
Quinn didn't stop there. He also thought about the knowledge he gained from mentors such as Steve Mariucci and Pete Carroll, Nick Saban, Dennis Erickson and others. He mixed up the lifting groups in order to foster more connectivity between the players. And when he found out the Falcons would play two West Coast opponents in consecutive weeks, he organized an extended trip in Washington – one that proved invaluable for the same reasons.
He did what every good leader does: adapt. But he was building more. As expected, the Falcons had difficult conversations after their rough finish in 2015. Many people, understandably, struggle when dealing with tough circumstances. Quinn is not one of them. Instead, by being introspective and valuing the opinions of those around him, he channeled that adversity in a positive way.
"He's a listener. That's a skill a lot of people don't have. He's a listener who can take information, decipher it and use it how he needs to use it," Morris said. "That's the thing I notice the most about him right now. It's easy to have a conversation about the most uncomfortable situations that you can ever be around. He's very comfortable talking about the uncomfortable situations, whatever it is. He has an ease about him to see it your way, to put it his way and then decide whether we can use it or we can't.
"A lot of people ask for feedback, a lot of people ask for ideas, but they don't really want them. He genuinely wants them and he's genuinely ready to listen. And I don't know if there's been a time where he's turned anyone away."
Another step Quinn took was handing his entire staff copies of a book on the All Blacks, New Zealand's national rugby team. Once everyone read it, they gathered to discuss how that club built a winning ethos, and which ideas could be applied to the NFL.
The over-riding theme was the importance of having a "player-led" team. Fostering a similar climate in Atlanta soon became a top priority.
Quinn's approach had a cascading effect. In March, Matt Ryan organized a players-only passing camp in Florida. Some of the young defenders continue to hold extra film sessions during their free time on a weekly bases throughout the season. The wide receivers – an especially determined, tight-knit bunch – gather for regular meals outside the office.
The result, on a macro level, is a reflection of Quinn himself: a hyper-competitive, routine-oriented and harmonious culture. Each game is to be treated like a championship battle. Each day has a specific purpose. And personal relationships are the glue that holds it all together.
"It's just the whole environment here," Patrick DiMarco said. "The theme is competition. You're going to compete your butt off, but you're going to be tight with the guy you're competing with. The competition here is not an aggressive thing, like a malice thing, it's like, 'Hey, I'm going to go hard as heck, so you can go hard as heck, so we can be good together.' You get more respect from your teammates by going hard. That was the trigger to guys getting tight. You get to know more about him, and the relationship builds."
In hindsight, Quinn's most ambitious step may have been a turning point for Atlanta.
Creating Their Own 'Standard'
On an April morning, shortly after this past offseason workout regimen began, players arrived at team headquarters expecting the normal routine to continue. Then they found themselves doing push-ups and carrying 240-pound logs and training unlike they had ever trained – together - before.
Quinn planned a four-day training program with Acumen Performance Group, which sent retired Navy SEALs to Flowery Branch to put the Falcons through rigorous testing.
In addition to physically grueling activities, the SEALs introduced the Falcons to a script they adhere to at all times – a code to live by. Some of the veteran players liked this concept. So a group of them – led by Matt Ryan, Julio Jones, DiMarco, Eric Weems, Philip Wheeler and Jonathan Babineaux – decided to co-author a "code" for the Falcons.
They spent nearly a week exchanging notes through a group text, making sure they fleshed out all their key points, which they chose to keep private. A rough draft was composed and edited. (Weems was "like the third-grade English teacher" who corrected poor grammar and spelling, according to DiMarco.)
When the final product was ready, Ryan typed it into a Word document and printed it out. Eventually, he and the other scribes got the rest of the players together in their team meeting room and read it aloud for everyone to hear.
And "The Falcons Standard" was born.
"It's our rock, the thing we always look back to," Worrilow said. "It's something we all can refer to. If somebody's not doing something, you can jab them: 'You're not upholding The Standard.' When you take that to heart, it means something. That's the purpose of everybody in this locker room, to uphold The Standard. That's why it's created. It's a way to hold each other accountable."
Their message resonated well. The veterans kept delivering it each week to reset following a game to reset, and as younger Falcons started to understand what it takes to thrive in the pros, they started to treat the code as their Standard.
"They began listening, and then they started living it," DiMarco said. "It's been really cool to watch just the entire team evolve. The Standard is upheld by everyone – a rookie, a vet, the coaches, the training staff."
All About the Brotherhood
A grizzled vet at the age of 35, Babineaux has been a Falcon longer than anyone else on the current roster. His experiences in Atlanta have, of course, run across a wide emotional spectrum. He's dealt with the hardship that everyone in the NFC faces, and, more often than not, he's enjoyed success. The 2010 and 2012 campaigns were particularly special for the defensive tackle. But to Babineaux, there's something different about this year — and about this team.
The difference, a product of Quinn's guidance, SEALs training and "The Standard," boils down to one word that now defines the Falcons.
"It's all about the Brotherhood," he said. "The way we do things is totally different than any other team I've been on. Our locker room — it's tighter than it's been, even though we had two seasons when we went 13-3. Of course we were close in the locker room [then], but I think we're closer now. The Brotherhood we formed here, and The Standard we set, is helping us prepare and move forward."
This Brotherhood, according to those on the inside, naturally formed when the team began treating The Standard as its doctrine.
Now the question is, What does the Brotherhood truly mean?
Some players tried to put it in words earlier this week.
Worrilow: "Define it? Man. Hard to define. It's just there. You just care for these people on a different level."
Weems: "It's hard to describe. You'd have to be around us to say, 'Oh, yeah, these guys are really brothers the way they connect on the field, off the field, in the meeting room.' It's more than just football with us."
Josh Harris: "I think it's just caring about each other, playing for each other on a genuine level – not just playing for yourself. It's a little extra motivation."
Ben Garland: "It's that band of brothers. It's unbreakable."
Here's a more important question: Would the Falcons be one of the last four teams standing without it?
Reed: "No, absolutely not."
Brian Poole: "Not at all. The brotherhood got us to where we are right now."
Tyson Jackson: "No. And it's more important than just winning games. It brought us all together."
Courtney Upshaw: "No. We got this far because of this brotherhood."
The coaches agree.
"I think this brotherhood is really special," Morris said. "The thing that makes it unique is when you're around a bunch of guys and you're not in a rush to leave these guys, you're not in a rush to go home, you're not in a rush to get away from anybody. And I think when you have that kind of bond with the guys and you have that kind of bond with your coaching staff and your players and the building, the uncomfortable conversations aren't uncomfortable. I don't feel that tenseness anywhere. And once you get that kind of stuff going, that just filters in everybody, and it brings everybody together to want to go out and accomplish that one common goal."
'Together, We Rise'
It's Wednesday afternoon going into the NFC Championship game, and an oversized media contingency shuffles into the locker room. Some expect the magnitude of the upcoming game to be felt in the air. Journalist after journalist, phrasing each question slightly differently, asks a slew of Falcons if they feel different preparing for the conference title. And player after player, phrasing each answer slightly differently, offers the same, confident response as his coach: no.
"We treat every week like a championship week," Ricardo Allen says. "That's just how things have been."
While cameramen, writers and broadcasters walk around, Quinn's influence is evident all over. Fierce ping pong matches are taking place at all three tables. Atlanta's daily routine, a long, specific list, flashes on the television above the main door.
And two linemen – one a rookie, the other a longtime Falcon – huddle near the far-left corner and burst out laughing as they wrap their arms around each other.
Jackson looks on and shakes his head with a smile.
"I know this all sounds cliché, but you can see it," he says, pointing to his teammates. "We got this far because of the Brotherhood. Everybody wants to do it for one another. As players, we all came together and bought in. That gave us the winning formula. We're all working together, and because of that, we're getting better each day.
"No moment is too big for us. We're ready for this."