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Dan Quinn understands the struggle for sought-after coaches in playoffs

Falcons head coach Dan Quinn understands the turmoil coaches in the playoffs are feeling as they prepare to interview for NFL head coaching vacancies.

Last year at this time, as the Seahawks geared up to make their second consecutive Super Bowl run, Dan Quinn went into self-imposed blackout mode, cutting himself off from the temptation to let the NFL’s frenetic hiring season morph into an all-consuming obsession. After all, the Seahawks’ defensive coordinator knew his January job hunt—and he was perhaps the most prized head coaching candidate on the market, interviewing with five different teams—could not become his primary occupation.

So with the biggest job interviews of his life lined up, Quinn undertook that delicate dance that postseason-bound head coaching candidates have to execute, attempting to stay fully in the present while weighty matters that determine their futures play out. And the more Seattle won in the playoffs, the more Quinn was forced to play the waiting game, due to the league rule that prohibits any team from hiring a coach whose team is still active in the Super Bowl tournament.

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It’s a tricky and nerve-wracking balancing act that can make coaches feel as if they’re working without a net.

“It totally tested me, in a real cool way of having the mindfulness to make sure to be right where you’re at, instead of into the future,” says Quinn on Thursday, days after completing his first season as the Falcons’ head coach, a job he accepted two days after Seattle’s Super Bowl loss to New England last February. “It was like the greatest challenge, but one that pushed me to know I could do that if I had to.”

At least if he kept his proverbial blinders on and stayed away from technology for long stretches of time.

“I know I had to do some tricks for my own self to help me stay on point,” Quinn says. “I interviewed with the first club the Tuesday night after the regular season ended, and I made a decision that night that I’m not going to look at the internet again until I’m done with our season. So it went from (Dec. 30) until after the Super Bowl that I didn’t look at the internet. I just didn’t want to know the speculation or where the story was with any of it. And there were some days I left my phone in the console of my car. I didn’t want to see it.”

Quinn feels as if he was one of the lucky ones, in that the vast majority of the head coaching interviews he sat for during the past two postseasons came during the bye week that Seattle earned as the NFC’s No. 1 seed in the playoffs, a vantage point the Seahawks used to reach those back-to-back Super Bowls. He met with the Vikings and Browns in early 2014, and had a chock-full dance card in talking with the Jets, Bills, Bears, 49ers and Falcons last year.

This season, that January juggling act might attempted by popular candidates like Carolina defensive coordinator Sean McDermott, New England offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels or Cincinnati offensive coordinator Hue Jackson, all of whom work for highly seeded playoff clubs. The Panthers and Patriots have first-round byes, but the Bengals do not, and Jackson is scheduled to interview with the Browns, 49ers and Dolphins on Sunday in Cincinnati, just hours after the Bengals play host to Pittsburgh in a first-round playoff game Saturday night.

“Having the bye made all the difference for me,” Quinn said. “Had it not been for those byes, I don’t know if I would have handled it in the same way or been able to go through the process in the same way. I didn’t have the mental challenge to say, ‘Oh, I should be looking at this opponent or this thing,’ because we didn’t even know who we were playing yet that first weekend. It got harder the longer the process went, but the first interviews were a really cool experience to meet owners and general manager and share your philosophy with people around the league. I met guys like Ron Wolf and Ernie Accorsi, who were helping advise some of the searches, and I thought that part was awesome.”

In trying to mesh the present with the future in terms of his time and his job demands, Quinn said another key was the early prep work that he did in putting together his written presentation for the interviews, as well as working on the assembly of a potential coaching staff. He carved out the only time he could for those phone calls.

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“Most candidates have already prepared everything way beforehand, and I never wanted to be that guy on the staff where we’re getting ready for a playoff game and they’re trying to put a book together to show why they’re a coach or why they can lead an organization,” he says. “I’d done that work before, in the summer.

“But working on a staff, there was a couple days a week I got up just an hour earlier, went down to Starbucks and made some calls back to the East Coast. Fortunately in Seattle they get their Starbucks rolling early. Then I would go to the office at my normal time, leave my phone in the car and go to work. That was my own way of saying, ‘I’m going to do everything I can do to stay exactly on point for this team.’ ”

Though the Falcons for weeks were thought to be locked in on Quinn as their top choice, and vice versa, the mandated wait for Atlanta’s official offer took a toll in small ways. Everyone has the very human instinct of wanting to know what awaits in the future.

“Where it gets really challenging is balancing what you want most right now, which is your involvement with the team and the playoff run, with a cool as hell opportunity that’s out there,” Quinn said. “It tests you a lot, because it goes to a new spot of, ‘Okay, don’t let your mind wander, man. It’s right here, right now. Don’t look at the pink elephant.

“One night my wife, Stacey, is home, and she’s like, ‘How you doing with all this?’ I said, ‘I’m doing good.’ She said, ‘You have no idea what I’m talking about, do you?’ I’m like, ‘I know there’s a lot of noise out there.’ So she Googled my name and it was like everywhere, with all these teams. And that’s why I stayed off the internet.”

Imagine a lifelong dream being this close, so close you can almost touch it, but you have to put it out of your mind as best as possible and concentrate on the task at hand. Your loyalties or focus can not be divided. And you feel the pressure of the organization’s trust that you won’t mentally check out on today in favor of tomorrow.

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Even being in the Seahawks’ locker room after Seattle’s playoff-opening defeat of visiting Carolina in the divisional round seemed to ratchet up Quinn’s determination to keep his head down and his eyes fixed on the prize of getting back to the Super Bowl.

“The amount of people that text you is amazing,” said Quinn, meaning his fellow job-seeking NFL coaches. “I remember after that game, I came back in and looked at my phone and there was like 135 texts: ‘Hey, D.Q., great win. Keep me in mind.’ All my texts were like, ‘Congrats...but.’ Oh my gosh, it was amazing.

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“Honestly the part that was mentally challenging the most was there was an assistant coach on our staff that was like miffed at me: ‘Hey, Q, am I coming with you?’ Because I didn’t talk to anybody on our staff about coming or going. I just didn’t feel it was the right way to go about it. I probably struggled on some relationships at that time, where guys wanted to know what’s up and I didn’t talk to them. I didn’t want to cause anything that would distract them from their jobs, but I learned if I don’t say anything I probably caused some distraction for them.”

Quinn had an easier time dealing with his players and his bosses, head coach Pete Carroll and general manager John Schneider, in keeping the dual and competing forces of present playoff concerns and future employment hopes in perspective. Carroll unsurprisingly took a proactive approach to Quinn’s head coaching candidacy, and the Seahawks’ defensive players, Quinn said, were nothing but supportive as he worked to show them his full attention was turned toward another Super Bowl run.

“Pete and John, they knew I was all in,” Quinn says. “They definitely asked questions throughout the process, and I appreciate Coach Carroll so much because he asked me questions before the interviews, to help me get ready. With Pete, you don’t have to tip-toe around. He was like, ‘Tell me about your staff, who you got? And no, you can’t have anybody from here [laughing].

“The players were actually really easy because of the relationships I have with those guys. They joked about it and took their little shots here and there. They’d tell me, ‘Hey, I’m a free agent, you know?’ There was even a player who flashed the A sign with his fingers, for Atlanta. They had fun with it.”

At home, Quinn and his wife, Stacey, never really took their game faces off for long, staying locked into the moment and the Seahawks’ postseason as much as humanly possible. Online real estate searches in the Atlanta area were not a part of their evening routine, even after he underwent a second interview with the Falcons and seemed destined to be offered the job of replacing fired head coach Mike Smith.

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“Stacey had to go through a similar process where people would say, ‘Hey, congratulations,’ and she’d look at them like, ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about.’ So that part was really challenging for her, too. But we just kept saying let’s enjoy the hell out of the moment we’re in. We’re right here in the NFC Championship Game week and then the Super Bowl prep week, and let’s make sure we’re where our feet are and we’re enjoying it and enjoying the process.

“We just wouldn’t allow ourselves to go there. Because I knew how unique those opportunities are [the Super Bowl]. We just said, ‘We’re not going anywhere right now. This is our focus and let’s not wish for something that’s out there. Only when we were done, after the game, that’s when the whirlwind started.”

Having experienced the challenging long wait that a Super Bowl-qualifying assistant must make in order to accept a head coaching job, Quinn is motivated to get the message out that the NFL’s current hiring rules need some attention and updating. In his words, “It’s a unique story, and I hope we can come together as a league and find ways to do it better.’’

He’s in favor of the NFL modifying their practices to what is allowed in the NBA, where a team can hire and announce a new coach from a playoff team, with that coach not starting work for his new club until his former club has finished its postseason run.

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“I know it’s unfair that some of the coaches who are in the Super Bowl, more teams can’t find a way to wait for them,” Quinn says. “I wish there was some way that they could be named and not have it be an issue for them. I think it’s worth discussing for us as a league, to say however long they go in the playoffs, that’s O.K., because this guy’s going to be the coach three weeks from now or whenever.

“Let’s make it more open and transparent rather than this level of secrecy, even when you know it’s not that big of a secret who they want. That way a team can move forward and start hiring a staff, and get going on things. I think we should consider doing it that way. It would allow owners and teams to not feel pressured to look in another direction just because a team’s advancing, on the thinking that you can’t get a staff filled. We can improve it so that teams don’t feel the pressure of having to wait. If there are better ways to do it, we should explore it.”

In other words, remaking the nonsensical system that seemingly penalizes coaches for reaching the NFL’s mountaintop experience, the Super Bowl. Quinn’s in favor of taking the mystery out of the process by removing the hiring freeze that’s in place for coaches in the playoffs. The wait involved would only be for teams to physically get their new head coach in their building and up and running, without delaying the hiring decision.

“I’ve brought it up to people in the league and I think it’s a topic worth discussing,” he said. “Only people that have gone through it from ownership and coaching can fully understand some of the dynamics of it. If this guy’s a really good coach and you want him, but his team is advancing and advancing, say ‘That’s our guy and we’re going to have him start in three weeks time.’ You’d at least be able to say here’s his staff and the people coming with him.’’

Last year at this time, Quinn was living in the limbo that the NFL requires of playoff-bound head coaching candidates. But perhaps someday such a balancing act of present versus future will be a thing of the past.