After a dramatic turnaround that saw the Falcons win five of their seven games after the bye week and the chance to end the year on a four-game win streak on Sunday, owner Arthur Blank announced on Friday that he has decided to retain coach Dan Quinn and general manager Thomas Dimitroff.
The caveat to the positives of this recent turnaround, of course, is that one was needed at all. For the second-consecutive season, the Falcons were slow out of the gates. After starting the 2018 season with a 1-4 record, Atlanta fell to 1-7 prior to the bye week, essentially eliminating itself from playoff contention by the end of October.
During the process of making his decision, Blank considered all aspects of the season. Following the Falcons' seventh loss of the year, Blank spoke with the media and stated that he was "extraordinarily disappointed" with the state of the team and would take "the next couple of weeks to evaluate things."
Over those next couple of weeks, the following things happened: Quinn shuffled his coaching staff, most notably moving wide receivers coach Raheem Morris to the defensive side of the ball and giving him play-calling duties on third downs and inside of the red zone. The Falcons earned two decisive road victories against the Saints and the Panthers, allowing a combined 12 points.
"I think we moved some players around and put them in positions where they could win more easily," Blank said. "A lot of the role of the head coach, or from a business standpoint – any business – is what I often say is putting round pegs in round holes and square pegs in square holes, and I think we did a better job of that on defense in the second half of the year."
Atlanta's defense continued to show improvement down the stretch, playing a major role in the team earning yet another stunning road upset, this time against the top-seeded San Francisco 49ers.
While Blank made it clear that there was no specific moment that influenced his decision more that the totality of the job Quinn and his staff has done, those "couple of weeks" following the team's 1-7 start serve as the primary reason why the Falcons' owner is confident his head coach has learned important lessons.
Quinn started the season as both the Falcons' head coach and defensive coordinator, his first time officially occupying both roles. Near the midpoint of the team's pre-bye skid, he announced he was splitting play-calling duties with some of his defensive assistants. During the bye week, Quinn further freed himself up by moving Morris over and dividing the play-calling duties between him and linebackers coach Jeff Ulbrich.
In making those changes throughout the season, Quinn proved to Blank that he was willing to be honest with himself and shed any vanity in the best interest of the team.
"I looked at a coach who was willing to be very reflective and has a lot of humility about himself and about his own decision making and was able to be self-critical and self-aware, which is not always an easy thing to do for somebody that's accomplished," Blank said. "But he was able to do it, and I give him tremendous credit for doing that."
As explained above, Blank believes those changes Quinn made throughout the first half of the season, and especially during the bye week, led to the Falcons' recent improvements. During his audit of those he tasked with leading the team, Blank came to the conclusion that those changes have created a pathway forward in 2020.
"Some of the internal coaching changes I think that Dan made helped as well in terms of communication, in terms of coaching on the field, doing a variety of things that made a difference," Blank said. "Those are all sustainable going forward."
Quinn did not shy away from his role in the Falcons' struggles this season, admitting that he made some mistakes. Given the level of turnover at the coordinator spots heading into 2019, Quinn stated the he took on too much with the various titles he occupied and things he tried to have a hand in.
Yet throughout the year Quinn was constantly searching for answers, even as things to continue to spiral downward. Whether it was adjusting the responsibilities of his assistant coaches or simplifying the defensive scheme, Quinn, as he puts it, was often looking under the hood. This season was certainly trying on the Falcons' coach, but it carried with it some lessons that will stick with Quinn and proof that those lessons may be effective moving forward.
"This has been the hardest and most invaluable year for me as a coach ever," Quinn said. "I've made mistakes, and we get to fix them, and I think that's an important thing - use these lessons here. Not everybody else always has the chance to do that. I certainly hate the results, but man, I learned a lot. And I'd say more than anything, I can't wait to apply the things that I've learned with this team and moving forward."
It's worth noting, too, that Blank wasn't the only one who took notice of the degree to which the Falcons turned things around after the bye week. Falcons president and CEO Rich McKay, who Quinn and Dimitroff will now report to, hasn't seen a team hit the reset button in such a way during his 30-plus years in the NFL.
"I think what you saw in the second half was a complete change, not one that I'm familiar with," McKay said. "I've not really seen that occur in the league in my time. And I give a lot of credit to Dan and to his coaches, and to the players, who continued to play at a level that spoke to what they felt about the coaches and the coaching staff, because that typically doesn't happen."
The biggest asterisk in discussing the Falcons' late-season run is that it occurred after they had dug themselves too deep of a hole to crawl out of by the time those changes took effect. And success at the end of the year does not guarantee those results will continue at the start of the next season. The Falcons finished the 2018 season on a three-game win streak only to have the poor start this year.
Injuries were cited as the primary reason for the turbulent 2018 season, while the issues at the start of this year were much harder to pinpoint. For as much credit as Quinn deserves for getting things corrected, Blank's biggest issue with him this season was that it took as long as it did for those adjustments to occur.
"A number of these decisions, they were all within his ability to make," Blank said. "He made them too late in many cases."
On Friday, Blank was asked a question that cut right to the heart of that issue and allowed him to provide greater clarity on why he believes that mistake won't be repeated.
If there is an early season slump next year, why are you confident corrections will be made before the season becomes a lost one?
"The great coaches, they make adjustments in a variety of ways," Blank said. "So, I think that Dan will be even more reflective and more sensitive and more balanced in that way going forward. And I think that he's prepared to make decision earlier rather than later, understanding the consequences of making them later. Because, essentially, although I think the second half of the season is great and gives us a trail I think we can follow as we look into next year, but after you're 1-7 it's a little bit late. The music has kind of stopped playing in many ways."