Dan Quinn Isn’t Holding Back
Silence greets Dan Quinn in the coaches’ wing at Falcons headquarters late on the night after Super Bowl LI. He knows what he must do, and he knows it will hurt. Yet he marches into his office on Feb. 6, closes the door, draws the blinds, cues up the footage, hits play and . . . begins to grieve. Again.
On his office television the Patriots’ comeback unfolds in all its improbable detail. Watching this horror movie reminds Quinn of the photograph stuffed in the pocket of his khakis, the one he carried throughout Atlanta’s postseason run.
Few people know about the snapshot or its significance, drawn from the other loss that defined Quinn’s second season as the Falcons’ coach. The photo is of his father, James, who died last June at 83. The obituary that ran in the Daily Record of Morris County, N.J., told of his long career as a business executive, his love for his six children, and how he played golf and traveled in retirement.
What it didn’t say is that Dan Quinn owes his career to his father, who dropped young Dan off at Giants training camp on numerous summer mornings, the boy’s attention lingering not on the players but on their coach. Bill Parcells captivated Quinn with his precision, his presence and the respect he commanded. That’s partly why Quinn went into coaching, and as he ascended the ranks—from William & Mary to VMI to Hofstra, all the way to the Super Bowl sidelines—his father attended as many games as his work schedule allowed.
“This season, yeah, it was different,” Quinn says. “My dad has been through a lot of football with me over the years. That’s why I had the picture, to make sure he was in my pocket at the Super Bowl, watching down.”
As the game unfolds in his office Quinn is flooded with pleasant memories and unpleasant ones. In the weeks that follow, he will watch his team’s epic collapse 10 times. The 25-point advantage always dwindles. His defense always tires. New England wideout Julian Edelman always grabs that ball between three defenders and myriad limbs, inches off the ground.
The Patriots always win 34–28 to complete the greatest comeback in NFL championship history, almost exactly two years after they topped the Seahawks in similar fashion, erasing a double-digit deficit to win in the final seconds. Seattle’s defensive coordinator in Super Bowl XLIX? The same Dan Quinn.
Despite the similarities, that first loss didn’t exactly prepare Quinn for the second, and here in his office he needs a moment after his initial review to process what he watched. This one hurts more than anything he could have expected, like something from Mortal Kombat, his heart ripped out from his chest. (Finish him! Fatality!) He needs that. He needs to hate-watch the failure from start to finish and face his feelings so that on ensuing viewings he can take a more clinical approach and examine what went wrong. He’s working toward an important distinction, getting past the defeat, not over it. He will never get over it. “The aftermath, you have to own it,” he says.
Shortly thereafter, Quinn, 46, will decide to replace his defensive coordinator, Richard Smith. When his offensive coordinator, Kyle Shanahan, takes the 49ers’ head coach job, Quinn will hire Alabama OC Steve Sarkisian. Quinn will call Sarkisian’s former boss, Nick Saban, and they will discuss how to overcome a devastating loss—like the Crimson Tide’s blown 14-point lead against Clemson in the 2017 national championship game—by looking back, but not for long. Quinn will also phone Steve Kerr, whose Warriors fumbled a 3–1 series lead against the Cavaliers in the 2016 NBA Finals. Kerr will tell him to hold onto the pain, to find motivation within anguish.
Quinn takes a vacation to Hawaii with his wife, Stacey. On the beach he doesn’t consider his career narrative, how a handful of plays in two title games mark the difference between his wearing three rings (he won one in with the Seahawks in Super Bowl XLVIII) and his suffering two of the most crushing NFL defeats ever. Instead, he looks out across the water and thinks about two things: his dad and next season.
* * *
Quinn’s tenure with Atlanta began barely 24 hours after he suffered his first mortifying Super Bowl loss. On Feb. 2, 2015, the day after he watched the Patriots hoist the Lombardi Trophy in Glendale, Ariz., Quinn flew to Falcons owner Arthur Blank’s Atlanta mansion, where execs had gathered for dinner. Before his arrival they implored one another to take it easy on their guest, whose team had just thrown away a championship on a last-minute interception.
Still, even before the appetizers arrived, someone asked Quinn what every football fan was wondering: Why had Seattle thrown the ball on the goal line, down 28-24 with 26 seconds remaining? Without pause the coach calmly explained the thinking: three downs left, a play they liked . . . The body language, the eye contact, the honesty—immediately the Falcons knew they had their coach.
“If that had been me, I would have been in bed with the blankets over my head,” says Atlanta’s CEO, Rich McKay, who was at the dinner. “Our business is set up for those that can handle failure more than those who can handle success. His answer caught us all off guard.”
The dinner lasted for hours, allowing Quinn to showcase his personality. Here was the guy who sauntered onto the practice fields blasting Tupac and wearing cleats, ready to participate in drills; screamed “GATA!” (for “get after their asses”) at his defenses; who taught his players they were brothers and treated them like sons. When Tyree Allison, a defensive tackle at Hofstra in the late ’90s, suffered kidney failure during his senior year, Quinn urged him to ignore the doctors who said he might not suit up again. Allison eventually became the first of Quinn’s college players to make an NFL roster. When Allison had a son, he named him Quinn.
Thinking back to the dinner, Blank says, “There wasn’t anything I didn’t like.”
A former defensive linemen himself at Salisbury (Md.) State, Quinn had learned under Steve Mariucci (with the 49ers), Saban (Dolphins) and Pete Carroll (Sea-hawks). In Atlanta he immediately set out to mesh his philosophies with those of general manager Thomas Dimitroff. It was Spurs GM R.C. Buford, a friend of Dimitroff’s, who recommended that the Falcons hire Mike Forde, a high-performance consultant who previously worked with San Antonio and who was formerly the director of football operations at Chelsea, of the English Premier League.
Forde ran Quinn and Dimitroff through a 150-variable evaluation that held a microscope to each department in the franchise, scrutinizing everything from what type of people they wanted to hire (driven, high-energy) to their actual football personnel needs (more speed on defense) to the makeup of those players (hyper-competitive). That assessment led to their formal “Corporate Knowledge Capture” (or shared vision), an approach that more closely resembled something you’d find at Google than in, say, Green Bay. “They both had an openness to marry their vision,” Forde says. “Most teams carry on with business as usual; most have blind spots.”
The Falcons peeled out to a 6–1 start in 2015, their season unfolding as if drawn up in their CKC. But then came the second-half collapse, seven losses in the final nine games, landing them outside the playoffs. After that season’s final team meeting, Quinn noticed two players exchanging cell phone numbers.
It struck him that after five months together, they still needed to swap digits.
That off-season Quinn read a book, Legacy, about the sustained success of New Zealand’s national rugby team, the All Blacks. He wanted to transform the culture of his franchise, and he marked up the margins with notes, drawing ideas on leadership. The book inspired Quinn to enact immediate change. He re-arranged the locker room, eliminating an inner row of lockers that divided the space, and mixed up position groups. He added a Ping-Pong table and a basketball hoop to foster interaction. He put his players through team-building exercises with Acumen, an outfit of former Navy SEALs.
Quinn also asked Matt Ryan, the franchise QB drafted with the No. 3 pick in 2008, to help bring his teammates closer. Ryan organized dinners and workouts and checked in with the cornerbacks as often as he did his receivers. He became, basically, more like Quinn. “We connected on a different level,” Ryan says, “and that showed.”
By training camp the coach could feel the difference from his new approaches. Borrowing a line from Martin Luther King Jr., Quinn told the Falcons he wanted to turn a neighborhood into a brotherhood. And they believed him, regardless of whether they found his latest slogan—THE HOOD, splashed across hats, for example—cheesy or profound. “I knew that part of our [makeup] needed attention,” Quinn says. “You had to force it a little bit.”
The Falcons lost their 2016 opener, against the Buccaneers, then rattled off four wins. Their defense was faster, their roster was tougher and Ryan was on his way to being named MVP. The “soft souls” Dimitroff wanted excised from the roster were gone, replaced by players selected in Quinn’s image and graded weekly on his CT scale for their combination of competitiveness and toughness.
Again Atlanta stumbled; after another strong start they took three losses in their next five games. Quinn made another change, taking over the defensive play-calling in Week 11, and after the switch (despite starting three rookies: free safety Keanu Neal, middle linebacker Deion Jones and nickelback Brian Poole) the unit went from 28th to 16th in yards allowed, from 29th to seventh in points.
Atlanta captured the NFC’s No. 2 seed and won two home playoff games. In the conference championship, the Falcons’ young defense shut down the Packers’ habanero-hot offense. Quinn had never heard the Georgia Dome that loud. Afterward, on the field, he told Allison that he wanted one more win, for his dad, as he patted the picture in his pocket.
When the team bus departed for the airport, headed to the Super Bowl in Houston, some 20,000 supporters lined the streets. Dimitroff sat in the front seat on the right side, with Quinn to his left, their beliefs optimized, their team transformed. Goosebumps dotted their arms. Fans had tears in their eyes.
Almost two years after his dinner interview, Quinn could appreciate the symmetry. Same game. Same opponent. Same stakes. He vowed this time would be different.
* * *
Quinn’s performance consultant, Forde, sent the coach a text message before Super Bowl LI: “Leave it all out there, man.”
“We will,” Quinn typed back. “Not holding s--- back.”
The next four hours remain a blur, the particulars only crystallizing for Quinn with each review. After the cathartic first look in his office, he’s focusing on specific plays and schemes. At first he wonders if he perhaps played too much zone defense in the second half, but he’s fine with 30 snaps of man compared with 27 snaps of zone. He consumes Edelman’s catch from every angle, the acrobatics growing more incredible each time.
He pays particular attention to one sequence with 3:56 remaining in the fourth quarter when the Falcons, leading 28–20, drove to the Patriots’ 23-yard-line and elected to throw on second down. Ryan took a sack, and a subsequent holding call pushed Atlanta out of field goal range. It’s been widely argued that the Falcons blew the Super Bowl right there, and Quinn was torched on social media, but the coach says he heard the second-down play call going in and he had no issue with it. He wanted to remain aggressive, not holding s--- back. “Throwing a pass to our best player [Julio Jones], from the league MVP,” he says, “that usually works out pretty good for us.”
Hindsight provides a painful lesson in clock management. “We still had an eight-point lead,” Quinn says. “We could have stopped them on defense. They didn’t have to get the two-point conversion.” He sighs. “The game was not won or lost on that [sequence]. That’s important to note.”
When he met with his team the day after the game, Quinn peddled positives. He told his assistants that their best season, “the job of a lifetime,” was ahead of them. He scribbled the names of all his second-, third- and fourth-year players on a white board, highlighting the team’s youth and promise. He praised Ryan for his off-field growth and asked his younger players to connect with their teammates this off-season the way their quarterback did last spring. He planned another round of SEAL training, plus additional sessions of corporate optimization with Dimitroff. He even reread Legacy to scrutinize what he’d written in the margins.
“To get to three [Super Bowls] in four years is crazy,” Mariucci says. “He may never get back there. You say you can, but you’re not guaranteed that. Ask Dan Marino. The next year, it starts over. [Quinn] knows that.”
The Falcons return the MVP; the best athlete in pro football, Jones; and a young defense that shut down Tom Brady for three quarters. But it’s fair to wonder how Shanahan’s departure will impact the offense and what kind of Super Bowl hangover awaits. “Look at last year, with Cam Newton and the Panthers,” says Hall of Fame quarterback Kurt Warner. “[Carolina] was the same kind of team, scoring ridiculously [in their 2015 Super Bowl run], then they reverted back to who they were before. Last season—is that who Matt Ryan is now? Or was he on some unbelievable hot streak?”
Quinn, the optimist’s optimist, looked back in order to move forward. He doesn’t plan to watch the Super Bowl again. He says that Falcons fans approach him at the airport, or at dinner, and tell him that last season was the greatest year they ever had. “We’re with you,” they say.
Now Quinn better understands what Carroll meant when he told his team after Super Bowl XLIX that they could be better off for losing—it all depended on how they responded. “Nothing prepares you for [the future] like what we went through,” Quinn says. “We’re going for it, man. We’re not backing off.”
This, Quinn says, is what his father would have wanted: You stomach unfathomable pain and rise once more. He’s at the NFL scouting combine when he says this. Then he stands, walks into a room filled with team employees and asks the question that encompasses all that matters: “What’s next?”
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