Atlanta is 3-0 despite trailing in the fourth quarter of all three games. Here’s how coach Dan Quinn has helped his team find an extra gear late. Plus, thoughts on Thursday’s OT thriller and 10 things to watch in Week 4

By Peter King
October 02, 2015

So today, in advance of Atlanta’s home game with Houston on Sunday, is Finish Friday around the Falcons. “Finish” is a word you hear a lot around the NFL. Like, “Play 60 minutes. You’ve got to finish.” It’s a cliché, certainly, because almost every team throws around the word daily. Hourly.

Rookie coach Dan Quinn uses it around the Falcons as much as any coach I can recall. Maybe it’s doing some good. In the fourth quarter of all three games this season, Atlanta has trailed—by three at Dallas, by 10 at the Giants, and by one to Philadelphia. Atlanta won all three games. The players attribute it to the Quinn mantra. On the sideline in the second half at Dallas last week, players and coaches kept saying, “Finish! Finish!”

What Quinn will do today—actually, he does this every day—is lean on his assistant, Steve Scarnecchia, to find some good “finish” material. Sometimes this is from boxing (he’s shown players the end of a Mickey Ward-Arturo Gatti slugfest), MMA (Ronda Rousey) or even arm-wrestling … or when a women’s runner in the 2008 Big 10 600-meter indoor championship race fell before the last lap, and got up and began running to try to catch the pack.

“Think she’ll catch ’em?” Quinn called out.

“NO!!!” voices answered.

So here came Minnesota’s Heather Dorniden, sprinting this last lap around the indoor track, gaining and gaining and passing the Penn State girl and here she came, and all of sudden the room was screaming, “GOGOGOGOGOGOOO!!!” And Dorniden nipped her teammate at the finish line. What was impressive was the look on Dorniden’s face. Impassive. Like, This is what I do. I do not give up.

“I don’t care what sport, what competition it is,” said Quinn after Thursday’s practice. “I want these players to see there’s usually another level you can make yourself go to. It’s in you. Find it.”

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Quinn is one of the new modern teachers of the game. He’s not much of a yeller. He’s an intense encourager more than anything else. In Texas last Sunday, the Falcons looked like they might get blown out, even against a team without Tony Romo and Dez Bryant. At halftime Dallas led 28-17. The Cowboys had 295 yards—with Brandon Weeden playing quarterback. If there was any time Quinn would be justified in reading the riot act to his team, this was it.

“I don’t care what sport, what competition it is,” Quinn says. “I want these players to see there’s usually another level you can make yourself go to. It’s in you. Find it.”

But he didn’t. One witness said Quinn was fairly calm at halftime and said in a strident voice but not a particularly loud one: “Okay, we got punched in the mouth. Now, let’s go find out who we are. Remember what we say: You don’t win the game in the first quarter, or the first half.” Dallas scored zero points, and gained 52 yards, in the second half. Atlanta scored 22, and gained 259 yards.

“Dan is incredibly adept at getting his point across to a group of young men,” GM Thomas Dimitroff said Thursday from the side of the practice field. In the background I could hear “I Feel Good” by James Brown. Quinn, borrowing from old mentor Pete Carroll, has loud omnipresent music at practice. “They buy into positive, passionate, authentic, which is what Dan is. This generation does not respond to black-and-white handouts.”

Video is key. Video, plus communication.

Cases in point: Before the year, he and his staff made up DVDs for all 90 players on the roster of what they do well and what they need to do better for the Falcons to be winners. Even veteran players got this instruction. Defensive tackle Jonathan Babineaux, the most senior Falcon (he was coached by Jim Mora and Bobby Petrino), received some tips on the technical aspects of his use of his feet and hands. And Quinn told him he wouldn’t be playing as much as he was accustomed to. Not because Quinn didn’t think Babineaux was playing well, but because, as Quinn said, “I don’t want them gauging their play, or thinking they’ve got to save something, or pacing themselves.”

Now, the Falcons have eight linemen who have played at least 40 snaps. “It was smart,” said Babineaux. “Now I can go all out on every play and I know the other guys are good too, and we’re not losing anything when I come out.”

Against pass-heavy teams, the cub package might feature quicker players like Adrian Clayborn at three-technique, and Vic Beasley and Babineaux. Against running teams, Tyson Jackson, Ra'Shede Hageman and Grady Jarrett might get heavy reps.

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When Quinn was recruiting ex-Buc Clayborn in free agency, he asked Clayborn to trust him. He told him about moving edge rusher Michael Bennett inside in some packages when he was with the Seahawks, and how much it helped Bennett. “If you just let me earn your trust,” Quinn said, relaying his conversation with Clayborn last winter, “and let me play you over a guard so you can use your quickness to get into the backfield, I think it’s going to be great for you.” Clayborn’s got one of four sacks for Atlanta so far; it’s too early to tell if the experiment will work long-term. But on pass-rush downs, with Clayborn inside and O’Brien Schofield and Beasley outside, that’s the kind of multifaceted rush this team hasn’t had the past couple of years.

So can the Falcons last? Is 3-0 a fluke? Probably not … because the schedule is manageable (they don’t play Carolina until weeks 14 and 16, and no league powerhouse is on the slate in the final 13 games), and because Matt Ryan has the kind of weaponry that can play explosive football. This is a very interesting team right now. And we haven’t even mentioned that Julio Jones is off to an historic start.

“I’m having the best time in my life playing football,” said Babineaux.

In Quinn’s world, that’s the idea.

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Justin Tucker hit the game-tying field goal at the end of regulation and the game-winner in overtime. (Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)

About Last Night …

Baltimore 23, Pittsburgh 20 (OT). Now this was a strange game. One of the strangest in this intense rivalry. Twelve of the past 18 games between these two teams have been decided by four points or fewer, including this one. Which, at times, seemed to be Pittsburgh’s by two touchdowns. The Steelers blew this game like they have blown few others in franchise history. Pittsburgh could have buried the previously 0-3 Ravens, but a kicker they traded for missed two kicks (from 49 and 41 yards, each wide left by a Scott Norwood margin) in the final 2:30 of the fourth quarter. Either kick would have won the game, and Josh Scobee missed both. Then, down three with 61 seconds left to play, the Ravens drove to a 42-yard Justin Tucker field goal to send it to overtime with three seconds left. And in overtime, Mike Tomlin was obviously petrified to send Scobee out to try another decisive field goal.

On the first series of overtime, offensive coordinator Todd Haley let Mike Vick sweep around left end, fruitlessly, instead of giving the ball to the slithery Le’Veon Bell on fourth-and-two from the Ravens’ 39. Fail. Next series: Fourth-and-one, Baltimore 33. Instead of trying a 50-yard Scobee field goal or handing it to Bell, Haley called for a quick out on the right sideline to Antonio Brown. Overthrown. Baltimore ball. “That last pass, it’s going to haunt me for a long time,” said the 35-year-old Vick. Then here came the Ravens again, beat to crap and just trying to salvage their season. Flacco drove them 32 yards, and then Tucker came back to try the game-winner, from 52. Kickers just don’t make long field goals in this wind tunnel known as Heinz Field, but Tucker's would have been good from 62. So now the Ravens are 1-3, with the Browns and Niners coming up, and a chance to get back into the wild-card race. This was not a well-played game, but it sure was exciting. “Probably one of the toughest losses of my career,” Vick said. Rivalry games engender such feelings, even to newcomers.

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Player You Need To Know This Week

Todd Gurley, running back, St. Louis (number 30). Underwhelming debut for The Franchise in St. Louis, running six times for nine yards against the Steelers—not the best run defense in the league, by the way—last week. “He could very well have had 50 or 60 yards,” coach Jeff Fisher said. “It was that close.” We'll see this week, when it will be vital for the Rams to play clockball against the explosive Cardinals in Arizona. Getting Gurley going is imperative if the Rams are to have a chance at the unbeaten Cards.

* * *

Fantasy Player You Need to Know This Week

Thomas Rawls, running back, Seattle. The undrafted rookie from Central Michigan—not Marshawn Lynch—had the Seahawks’ first 100-yard rushing game of the season, gaining 104 yards on 16 carries against the Bears on Sunday. Lynch injured a hamstring catching a pass in the second quarter against Chicago. No running back in the league has more rushing yards in the past four seasons than Lynch, so don’t expect offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell to change a lot philosophically about the offense. Watch the pregame reports out of Seattle today, and pick up Rawls if you’ve got room on your roster. It could be Rawls and Fred Jackson on Monday night against the Lions, who had a good day in run defense against C.J. Anderson and the Broncos last week. Denver had just 41 yards on 19 carries.

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Stat of the Week

Julio Jones is on pace for a 2,347-yard receiving season, which is not too bad. It’s only 383 yards more than any receiver has ever gained in one season. Calvin Johnson had 1,964 in 2012.

* * *

Quote of the Week

“I don’t think it should change. But again, I don’t think politicians should be having any say about that, to be honest with you.”

—Presidential candidate Jeb Bush, on the Washington team name controversy, on the Sirius-XM “POTUS” channel.

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* * *

Ten Things I’ll Be Watching For This Weekend

1. The curious case of Colin Kaepernick. Three seasons ago, Kaepernick threw for 263 yards, ran for 181 and had four total touchdowns in a 45-31 playoff evisceration of the Packers. Last week, Kaepernick, looking lost, threw for 67 yards and ran for 46 in a 47-7 loss to Arizona. Then, thoughtful people were wondering if you’d rather build a future around Kaepernick or Aaron Rodgers. Now, thoughtful people are wondering if Kaepernick will be the Niners’ quarterback a year from now. The Niners are 3-0 against Green Bay with Kaepernick playing, but even with the game in Santa Clara, it’s hard to see that streak continuing.

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2. Hurricane Joaquin. Washington-Philly at FedEx Field could be moved or postponed, but in a stroke of good scheduling luck, the other teams on the Eastern Seaboard in the path of the storm—Jacksonville, Baltimore, the Giants, the Jets, New England—are not home this weekend.

3. The slate of games, which stinks. One game out of 15 this weekend—Minnesota (2-1) at Denver (3-0)—matches teams with winning records. The quarterbacks in Sunday night’s Cowboys-Saints game could be Brandon Weeden and Luke McCown. The 0-3 Lions, at Seattle, could have a nation flipping channels at halftime Monday night. Such is the problem when you make the schedule in April, and four key quarterbacks go down in September.

4. The Raiders, favored to go two games over .500. It’s been four years since Oakland was two over .500 (4-2, Oct. 16, 2011), and the Raiders are slight favorites to win at Soldier Field on Sunday. Jay Cutler is probably 50-50 at best to play with his strained hammy, and Jimmy Clausen’s career starting record is 1-11. So Oakland couldn’t be playing the Bears at a better time.

5. Miami’s pass rush. Or lack thereof. With Cam Wake, Olivier Vernon and Ndamukong Suh, the Dolphins have one sack. They are all feeling the heat. The Jets should feel some of theirs Sunday in London.

6. The European referendum. All three of this year’s London games have sold out, meaning 13 sellouts (83,600 tickets per game) out of 14 Wembley games since the league began playing regular-season games there in 2007. So what’s the future? The NFL wants to get Los Angeles right before doing anything about London, and a team in L.A. might not happen until 2017. So there’s time. But I think it’s more likely the league will keep playing a slate of games in London annually instead of moving a team there. Too many logistical nightmares to have one team on an island 3,000 miles away from even the closest of the other ones. Money could change that.

7. The first of three 9:30 a.m. games in five weeks, all from Wembley Stadium in London. It’s Jets-Dolphins on Sunday, Buffalo-Jacksonville on Oct. 25, and Detroit-Kansas City on Nov. 1, all making for breakfast TV through the United States. (Or, in Los Angeles, a 6:30 a.m. start, good for the just-getting-in college crowd at USC and UCLA.)

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8. Get ready for pink tees. I don’t mean T-shirts either. I mean pink kicking tees. Thursday night was the first of 58 games played in October that will have the uniforms and stadiums and sidelines and players and coaches and officials and coins for the coin toss and towels and caps and goal-post padding colored pink, to shine a pink spotlight on Breast Cancer Awareness Month. The league does nothing of the sort for prostate cancer, pancreatic cancer, kidney cancer, leukemia, colorectal cancer, bladder cancer, lung cancer, melanoma or lymphoma. But draw your own conclusions whether blanketing 23 percent of the league’s regular-season games with breast-cancer awareness paraphernalia is done in any part to appeal to female fans, or females the league is trying to make fans.

9. Who isn’t playing in Buffalo on Sunday. Victor Cruz and, apparently, LeSean McCoy and Sammy Watkins. Man, it’s only Week 4.

10. Alex Smith throwing a few forward passes. Chiefs at Bengals on Sunday. Dying to see if Smith keeps throwing sideways. I have no idea why you pay a quarterback $15 million a year (his average for the first three years of his contract, which are the years that matter) to throw the ball sideways.

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