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It was a simple, subtle sign that affirmed Dan Quinn’s offseason decision to overhaul his coaching staff back in January and reset the Falcons ahead of his fifth year at helm. Quinn saw it in game-management meetings, and it brought energy to what would seem to be pretty mundane, it’s-only-spring tasks for the head coach.

And it was written all over the faces of his assistants.

“I’ll say something, and I see Dirk [Koetter] or Mike [Mularkey] or Raheem [Morris] look down and smile,” Quinn says Sunday, just before his players were to report at 1 p.m. ET. “I know they’re reflecting, and they’ll nod their head, like, ‘Yes.’ Those are the moments I know not only do they understand it, but behind the scenes, they’re going to help me share that message with the staff. Those are the things, I know when I hit something and I see the head nod, it’s, ‘I know exactly what you’re saying.’”

Atlanta’s loss to New England in Super Bowl LI is now more than two years behind the team. Since then, the Falcons knocked on the door again in 2017, then didn’t in ’18, spurring Quinn to flip two coordinator spots and take the reins as defensive play-caller, replacing a third fired coach himself.

If you think all those terminations were a shifting of responsibility, or a passing of the buck, in the wake of an injury-marred, 7–9 season, the above moments that Quinn describes—those head nods and smiles—illustrate the rest of the story. Quinn knows that he doesn’t have all the answers. Turning his staff over is representative of that.

He’s also not hiding the specific reasons for making these changes.

“We lost in the divisional round to Philadelphia [in 2017], and that hurt because we had a chance to win it at the end of the game, to go to NFC championship again,” he said. “And when you didn’t get it done, you feel disappointed. For that two-year block [2016-17], one included, offensively, Kyle [Shanahan], and one didn’t. I was impressed by the team, the resiliency to keep going. And so, I fully expected us to reset from that and go battle for it again. 

“I felt like last year, some things that happened for us, not playing to the standard that we’d set for ourselves, in some instances, a reset was needed. Had I not thought that, I wouldn’t have made the changes, because I think [ex-OC Steve Sarkisian is] a fantastic coach, and certainly [ex-DC] Marquand [Manuel], I love him, I worked with him for so long, and same with Keith Armstrong. So those three leadership spots had people I respect, I know, and were good coaches. But sometimes change is needed.”

The Falcons now carry, by Quinn’s count, 400 years of combined coaching experience on the payroll. Koetter, Mularkey and Morris, a holdover from the old staff, have all been NFL head coaches. New senior assistant Bob Sutton was a head coach at Army in the ’90s, and has worked in the NFL in the 19 years since. Greg Knapp, now in his second year back as quarterbacks coach, has coached more than two decades in the NFL, and played in it, too.

Going into the offseason, Quinn couldn’t wait to tap into all of that experience—and he has. In those game-management meetings, they’d watch tape of Koetter in Tampa, of Mularkey in Tennessee, of others in the room as play-callers. They’d trash-talk each other. They’d poke at one another. Most of all, they’d learn, which brought Quinn to a level of vulnerability you don’t always see in NFL head coaches.

“All of them have perspective that I appreciated,” Quinn said. “For me, I asked the question, ‘What does support from me look like for them? How can I help support them?’ And they were just the opposite—‘No, no, no, Q, my job is to support you.’ And that’s exactly what you want to hear, sitting on the other side of the table as the head coach. That’s the whole thing—how can we do it better? And if we can, let’s go for it hard as hell and see where it takes us. Having their influence and experience, that helps a ton, man.

“People who can give and receive feedback, that’s a big thing, especially among peers. It’s one thing for me to give you feedback, and you take it or not. You being able to give it back to me, that’s a big thing. Not everybody wants to do that back to the head coach. I wanted them to know, I really need it.”

And it’s one reason why the eternally-optimistic Quinn can’t wait to take the field on Monday.

Football’s back! We’ll be on the camp trail this week, so let’s get after it. In this week’s MMQB, you’ll read about …

• The decision by the NFL to not suspend Tyreek Hill.

• The looming running back holdouts in Los Angeles and Dallas.

• Why there’s good news and bad news on the CBA front.

• The effect the Clippers’ offseason haul has on the NFL.

• The Patriots’ excitement over their lot on one side of the ball.

• Derek Carr’s future in Oakland.

But we’ll start on the field. In last week’s Game Plan, we covered the first team to get out there and start practicing. Today, we’ll give you the goods on the second.


From the outside looking in, the Falcons are pretty fascinating. They’ve long had a strong offensive core—Matt Ryan, Julio Jones and Jake Matthews are still around, second-year receiver Calvin Ridley looks like a legit breakout candidate and a ton of resources have been poured into the offensive line. A young defensive group has come of age alongside it, and the massive contracts for Grady Jarrett and Deion Jones are proof of that.

Even Jones’s desire for a new deal is being handled peacefully; Jones and Quinn have talked through the break and spoke again on Saturday night about it. Jones reported on time for camp on Sunday, something that didn’t seem like a sure thing just a few weeks ago.

Expectations internally are high, and everything about the Falcons offseason reflects it.

With due respect to the o-line renovation and defensive players cashing in, nowhere is it clearer than in Quinn’s detonation of his coaching staff, with a rare level of unforced change coming from a sitting head coach with a recent Super Bowl on his resume. The time, as Quinn sees it, is now, and last year’s hiccups only crystallized that for him. These changes, accordingly, reflect that.

“When you go through a difficult space, what were the lessons learned?” Quinn asked. “You want to make sure that it doesn’t happen again. What I would say is I’m as motivated to begin a season as I’ve ever been in my life, because I know who the players are, what they stand for, how they work, what the staff’s about. And when I feel that way, you can probably feel the energy in my voice for this team and what I think we can be.”

How’d he go about making these critical changes in what he considers a critical year? Let’s dive in.

He used his own experiences to find an offensive coordinator. Or, as he sees it, two offensive coordinators.

“Going against Dirk, the way that he attacks defense has been very difficult to prepare against,” Quinn said. “And then on the other side, I’ve worked one year with Mike [in Miami in 2006], but through the years, going against him and teams he was involved with, the toughness, the attitude, the physicality, those were things I always admired with Mike. So I thought if we could partner some of that concept up together, along with the group of guys, and the vision for the players, that would be really important.”

Initially, Quinn interviewed each of them for the vacancy created by Sarkisian, thinking he wouldn’t be able to get both. When he figured out that might be possible, he had the two of them in, together, for a second interview to see how they’d interact with one another. And he knew there was a nice bonus out there, especially for Ryan—Mularkey was his OC from 2008-11, and Koetter was his OC from ’12-14, so both had standing relationships with the quarterback.

Quinn was selling the idea of Koetter melding his pass-game expertise with Mularkey’s run-game knowhow. But someone was getting the title and the ability to call plays—and that someone was Koetter.

“Mike had to make the bigger sacrifice, because he also had opportunities elsewhere to coordinate,” Quinn said. “So you can imagine how that made me feel, and how excited I was for him to say, ‘I’ve had those opportunities before, and I’m really looking for the right environment for me.’ That meant the world to me.”

This is different, of course, than a couple years ago, when Sarkisian was expected to run a version of what Shanahan had before him. There’s been more change, but there’s also going to be carryover, Quinn told me, with some Shanahan/Sarkisian concepts that worked for the players in-house.

He used his relationships to prepare to juggling calling plays and running the team. Shanahan, in fact, was one of the first that Quinn went to on this—the two former staff-mates talked at the combine. And when Quinn traveled to the owners meetings a month later looking to gather more information, he got a vivid picture of how doable it would be.

“It happened to be a little more common than I thought,” Quinn said. “At the owners meetings, you look around, and you’re like, ‘O.K., offensively, he calls plays, and he calls plays, and he calls plays.’ And I went to the defensive side, and it was, O.K., ‘he does, he does and he does. It was a common conversation, even starting with Kyle. … Mainly, what I was looking for, I was really looking for any blind spots.”

Being able to maintain game management was a big subject in those talks, hence the meetings in the spring. And Quinn had a feel for that, since he called the defense down the stretch and into the Super Bowl in 2016.

What he also knows is, like he said earlier, he will need help. That’s why he refers to linebackers coach Jeff Ulbrich as “a de facto” coordinator, calls pass-game coordinator Jerome Henderson’s influence “big”, and says of Sutton, “he’s been such a valuable piece for me.”

“Those three guys, I lean on them a lot for different reasons,” Quinn said. “Sometimes I just want another point of view or good perspective on things.”

He ensured the staff was aligned.With so many new faces, this was important to Quinn. He had the group, including new special teams coach Ben Kotwica, spend a lot of time together, both inside the building and out to grow the synergy he was looking for.

“I know who’s a good golfer. I know who’s a good volleyball player. I know a lot,” said Quinn, laughing. “But more than anything, we connected. And that’s really important, because they’re all recognizing they’re an extension of each other. That, to me, is a big piece of it. I enjoy spending time with those guys, but I also have trust in them, and that trust, like in a lot of relationships, grows stronger the more you’re around them.”

Now, with urgency comes pressure—and while there’s been no indication that Quinn’s coaching for his job in 2019, NBC’s Peter King wrote that Falcons owner Arthur Blank is growing “restless” in May, and that kicked up the kind of hornet’s nest that could make things awkward for a coach. So I asked Quinn directly about it at the end of our talk.

“I didn’t see it. I know of it. And I know the people whose opinions really matter to me, and Arthur’s one of them,” Quinn said. “I know exactly where I stand with him. For me, having that kind of relationship helps, so if there was something that came out that was different than what I’d thought, I could easily call him. But that wasn’t the case. I didn’t need to. And there didn’t need to be any retraction or anything like that, because I do communicate with him and know where we’re at, with the things we talk about on a regular basis.

“So it didn’t make me feel one way or another, thank goodness, because of that relationship. If I didn’t have that, you do get into your own head sometimes—What does he mean by that? But let’s be honest, being a head coach, or probably a quarterback, there’s criticism from outside the organization and inside the organization, it goes with the territory.”

And besides, looking at his roster, Quinn doesn’t see any reason why the Falcons wouldn’t be able to shut down that talk over the next six months anyway.

“Every once in a while, things line up for you like you’d like it to, because of what you feel from the team,” he said. “When that happens, it’s hard not to feel a certain way. It’s not just optimism. My glass is usually half-full anyway. It goes deeper than that. When you feel all those things connecting together, and having Deion and Grady signed prior to them getting started for camp, all those things matter, man. Everything matters.

“Staff-wise, new players, new group, my excitement for being involved in the defense and calling some things, those things light me up. I’m definitely ready to get rolling.”

Which is good, it being Day 1 of a totally new year in Atlanta.


Here’s what we know about Tyreek Hill right now …

• In March, the Kansas City Star broke the news that police were investigating battery allegations connected to a broken arm suffered by the three-year-old son of Tyreek Hill and Crystal Espinal. Police were called to Hill’s house twice in March, and again in late April.

• On April 26, the first day of the NFL draft, KCTV-5 published audio of Espinal alleging that the boy said, “Daddy did it”, and Hill saying to Espinal, “you need to be terrified of me too, b----.” Espinal secretly recorded the conversation at the Dubai airport.

• Hill reported for the start of the team’s offseason program on April 15. But once the audio surfaced 10 days later, the Chiefs decided Hill would not take part in team activities until the league’s investigation was complete. Kansas City agreed to cut off contact completely with Hill, as to not interfere with the NFL’s work.

• Prosecutors decided on April 24 that, despite believing a crime had been committed, charges would not be filed against Hill or Espinal because it couldn’t be determined how the boy suffered his injuries. The investigation was reopened when the audio came to light on April 26, and closed again in early June, again on lack of evidence.

• NFL investigators, led by Lisa Friel, interviewed Hill for eight-and-a-half hours in Kansas City in late June. They’d had the full 11-minute audio of Hill and Espinal’s exchange in Dubai—which added context to the initial audio—since April. That audio became public on July 9, via KCSP-AM.

• NFL investigators made multiple attempts to interview Espinal. Those attempts failed.

• In August 2015, Hill pled guilty to punching and choking Espinal while she was pregnant in ’14—an incident which forced him to leave Oklahoma State at the time. He finished his college career at West Alabama before being taken by the Chiefs in the fifth round of the 2016 draft. (In the aforementioned audio, Hill claimed he was not guilty of what he pled to in 2014.)

There’s a lot to sort through here. Kansas City met with Hill’s agent, Drew Rosenhaus, to discuss a contract extension that was expected to land at or around $20 million per at the combine in February, which illustrates the comfort level they had with their two-time first-team All-Pro. Still, I’m told the Chiefs were proceeding with caution, and the rekindling of the Hill/Espinal relationship in 2018 (the two were engaged) gave them some pause, based on how toxic it had been previously.