Atlanta Falcons owner Arthur Blank was asked late last season why he chose to retain coach Dan Quinn and general manager Thomas Dimitroff after the team ended on a 5-2 run to finish 7-9. Blank said he thought the Falcons had turned a corner.
“Time will tell, but I think based on all the information that we have available to us — based on the way the team is playing, based on the way the coaching staff is leading — that we have every reason to think that the success we’ve had not for one game, but over a seven-game period of time in the back of the year, there’s no reason to think that’s not sustainable going forward,” Blank said.
He was wrong. The Falcons fired Quinn and Dimitroff on Sunday night with two years remaining on their contracts after an 0-5 start in 2020 and consecutive 7-9 finishes the previous two seasons.
It marks the first time Blank, who purchased the Falcons in 2002, has fired a coach in-season. The previous time the Falcons fired a coach during the season was 1968, when Norb Hecker was let go after an 0-3 start.
What happens next? Look for Blank to hire an offensive-minded coach after back-to-back defensive coaches in Quinn (43-42) and Mike Smith (66-46). With Matt Ryan, Julio Jones, Calvin Ridley, Russell Gage and Hayden Hurst signed beyond this season, the Falcons are built to rely on offense more than defense.
It might also be extremely challenging to make significant defensive upgrades with the Falcons projected to be more than $20 million over the salary cap heading into 2021. Approximately $124 million in 2021 cap space is tied to five players: quarterback Ryan, wide receiver Jones, defensive tackle Grady Jarrett, offensive tackle Jake Matthews and pass-rusher Dante Fowler Jr.
The Falcons might have to rely on securing a high draft pick to find another defensive playmaker, although not all of their recent first-rounders have panned out (see pass-rusher Vic Beasley, Quinn’s first draft pick).
As for Quinn, things started to crumble for him and the Falcons after they blew that infamous 28-3, third-quarter lead to the New England Patriots in Super Bowl LI on Feb. 5, 2017. The Patriots emerged with a 34-28 overtime victory and the Falcons have yet to recover. Quinn went 24-29 after the Super Bowl.
What happened following that Super Bowl defeat that led to Quinn’s dismissal? Here’s a timeline of events.
Feb. 6, 2017: Falcons offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan leaves. Shanahan was hired as head coach of the San Francisco 49ers one day after the Super Bowl loss. As much as folks criticized Shanahan for not running the football while holding a double-digit Super Bowl lead, he was the primary reason the Falcons made it that far in the first place. His outside-zone scheme and the play-action that came off it helped Ryan evolve into the league MVP and guided the Falcons to a league-best 33.8 points per game. The Falcons probably should have jumped on quarterbacks coach Matt LaFleur as Shanahan’s successor before LaFleur took the job as offensive coordinator for the Rams.
Jan. 13, 2018: Falcons fall to Eagles in divisional playoff. After beating the Rams on the road, the Falcons lost a gut-wrenching, 15-10 decision to the Eagles in the divisional round of the 2017 playoffs. Although the Falcons were able to make it back to the playoffs with Steve Sarkisian as the offensive coordinator, they couldn’t mirror the same offensive success even with Sarkisian implementing Shanahan’s scheme. Facing first-and-goal with more than a minute left in regulation, Ryan and the offense couldn’t punch it into the end zone on four attempts. Ryan took two shots to receiver Jones, who caught the last one but was unable to get in for the go-ahead score.
Nov. 11, 2018: Falcons fall to Browns 28-16. Surrendering a 92-yard touchdown run to Browns rookie running back Nick Chubb with defenders diving but missing tackles was symbolic of Atlanta’s downfall. It was the beginning of a five-game losing streak that dropped the Falcons to 4-9 without a chance to recover. Change was inevitable after losing to a Browns team that was riding a four-game losing streak and playing an erratic rookie quarterback in Baker Mayfield.
Dec. 31, 2018: Quinn parts ways with all three coordinators. After a 7-9 finish, Quinn severed ties with Sarkisian, defensive coordinator Marquand Manuel and special-teams coordinator Keith Armstrong.
“While these are difficult decisions, we know we have a group of players here we’re excited about,” Quinn said, “and in order for us to consistently play true to our identity in all three phases, we thought we needed some changes.” Quinn took over as defensive coordinator, a move that would backfire in the end. He then hired former Tampa Bay head coach Dirk Koetter as coordinator, reuniting Koetter with Ryan from Koetter’s first stint as Falcons OC. The transition to Koetter certainly hasn’t been a seamless one.
Oct. 6, 2019: Falcons surrender almost 600 yards in a 53-32 loss to Texans. This game was significant not just because it dropped the Falcons to 1-4 at the same stadium where they blew the Super Bowl. It stood out because a couple of days afterward, Quinn said, “My job is to fix it” in explaining why he wouldn’t give up the defensive playcalling. After this game, Quinn surrendered the playcalling to linebackers coach Jeff Ulbrich and secondary coach Raheem Morris after moving Morris from coaching wide receivers. The Falcons played better in the second half of the season thanks in large part to Morris helping the secondary, but they couldn’t overcome a 1-7 start. Morris was named defensive coordinator after the season.
Dec. 27, 2019: Blank retains Quinn, Dimitroff. Prior to the Falcons’ season finale at Tampa Bay, Blank announced that both Quinn and Dimitroff would be retained for at least the 2020 season after they were awarded extensions. Blank cited the improvement in the second half of the season after the 1-7 start. But Blank also assigned team president Rich McKay to oversee both Quinn and Dimitroff.
Sept. 27, 2020: Falcons blow a fourth-quarter lead in loss to Bears. Of all the losses during the 0-4 start, this is the one that should be magnified more than any other. Yes, the Falcons underestimated Russell Wilson in a season-opening loss to the Seahawks. And yes, the Falcons had one of the biggest, most boneheaded mistakes of all time in not recovering the onside kick in the loss to the Cowboys. But for the Falcons to blow a 26-10, fourth-quarter lead at home to a subpar Bears team was inexcusable. The Falcons became the first team in NFL history to blow 15-plus-point fourth-quarter leads in two games in one season, and the Falcons did it in consecutive weeks. They became the laughingstock of the NFL world, and for good reason.
Oct. 11, 2020: Falcons drop NFC South opener at home to the Panthers. Ryan threw a fourth-quarter interception in the end zone and the defense surrendered 437 total yards. The defense was dominated physically, allowing way too many yards after contact and after catches. The Panthers had 175 yards after the catch and 91 yards after contact. The Falcons have allowed the most yards after the catch (862) and the fourth most yards after contact (464) this season. After the game, players such as Ryan, running back Todd Gurley and center Alex Mack expressed their support for Quinn.