Georgia Today: Rebuilding The Falcons Begins
After a series of losses, the Atlanta Falcons said goodbye to its head coach, Dan Quinn, and general manager, Thomas Dimitroff. In many ways, it felt like a natural culmination to a chain of events that kicked off in 2017, when the Falcons managed to give up a 25-point second-half lead to the Patriots in Super Bowl LI. The Athletic's Jeff Schultz discusses how the franchise got to this point — and what it will take to rebuild.
Steve Fennessy: This is Georgia Today. I'm Steve Fennessy. It's Friday, Oct. 16th, 2020. Last Sunday, five games into a season that has already produced two spectacular collapses and precisely zero victories, the Atlanta Falcons said goodbye to their head coach, Dan Quinn, and general manager Thomas Dimitroff. In many ways, it felt like a natural culmination to a chain of events that began in 2017, when the Falcons managed to give up a 25-point second-half lead to the Patriots in Super Bowl 51.
Announcer: Patriots win the Super Bowl! Brady has his fifth!
Steve Fennessy: Today, Jeff Schultz, senior writer at The Athletic and a longtime Falcons beat reporter and columnist, on how we got here and where we might be going.
Well, this — this may not be pleasant, but it feels like it's a good place to start. Let's — let's just go back in time and rehash some memories that many of us have repressed. February 5th, 2017, NRG Stadium in Houston. It's around 7 p.m., I think, Central Time there. You're there and the Falcons are up 28 to 3 over the Patriots in Super Bowl 51.
Announcer: ….and here is Coleman, end zone, touchdown.
Steve Fennessy: So does our story begin there or does it begin somewhere else?
Jeff Schultz: [laughs] I'm sorry, I have no recollection of that game. Who ended up winning that one?
Steve Fennessy: [joking] I had — I had to Google it.
Jeff Schultz: It's funny you bring this up because not long ago, Jeff Howe, who also writes for Athletic and covers the Patriots, and I sort of did this narrative replaying that night and what it was like up in the press box covering that event. And it was interesting as we were going back and forth, it was amazing how both of us had not started writing our ledes because we kept thinking: Something's going to happen. And we both eventually started writing really right about the same time, still projecting the Falcons were going to win that game. And getting back to your question, it kind of really did start after that. Now, I don't think there was this huge mental block that they just kept not being able to overcome. I think the problem was after that game, a lot of mistakes were made. They lost offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan to San Francisco. They lost a number of members of the coaching staff. I don't think Dan Quinn, the former coach, replaced his assistants very well.
And I think a lot of the great young players on the team that a lot of people inside the Falcons building — who they thought and expected would grow into leadership roles and become great players — that hasn't happened.
Steve Fennessy: Well, let's step back and go even farther back in time. How long have you covered the Falcons?
Jeff Schultz: I came to Atlanta in 1989. I’ve been writing columns and many of them about the NFL for the last fifteen, twenty years or so. But I've covered the NFL off and on really since 1983.
Steve Fennessy: And when you came to Atlanta and started observing closely and writing about the Falcons, what was it about the franchise at that time that stood out to you?
Jeff Schultz: Disaster.
Announcer: Look at that: 12 rushing yards for the Atlanta Falcons; they are not going to be successful if they don't do a whole lot better than that.
Announcer: Yeah, you're not going to do much in this league if you don't rush to more than 12 yards in the first half.
Jeff Schultz: And probably from the outside, the perception of them was they had bad ownership. This was pre-Arthur Blank; this was the Rankin Smith family. I think a lot of people sort of viewed Atlanta is a great place to live, but did not view it as a great sports city. Certainly not a great pro sports city. Specifically with the Falcons, they couldn't get out of their own way. They had some good players through the years, but they never really had the structure and discipline and, honestly, the intelligence in the front office to put together consistent, competitive winning teams.
Steve Fennessy: And so when it was announced in late 2001 that Arthur Blank would become the new owner of the franchise, did you imagine that this would be sort of a turning point for the franchise?
Jeff Schultz: When Arthur Blank took over, I was convinced that they were getting an owner who really was a competitive guy personally, and he was going to do everything he could to win. Now, other owners and sports have had similar traits, but weren't successful because they hired the wrong people or they try to get too involved with the athletic part themselves. So I couldn't make that determination about Arthur Blank, but I was convinced that he was going to be very visible in the Atlanta area, as he had been with Home Depot. He was already somewhat of a hero here. That he would be invested in the team, that he would do everything he thought he could do and should do to put a winning product on the field.
Steve Fennessy: Yeah, and he spoke about that often sort of taking a page from his — his time as Home Depot co-founder about the importance of the product. And I remember when he took over, attendance was awful for the Falcons. And I think he — he made seats as cheap as $10 a game.
Jeff Schultz: No, that's correct. So he — he basically officially took over the team late in one season. And as I recall, the Falcons, right after he took over, were blown out of the game by the Rams, who played in St. Louis at the time. And Arthur was on the team plane flying back. And the story goes — and he's — he's told the story a few times — was that normally obviously he sits in the front of the plane, but he walked all the way to the back of the plane during the flight to talk to the players. And obviously, all the guys were down and depressed, you know. They had just got beat up again, it was a bad season.
And he said, look, I'm your owner. You know, I can't coach football. I can't play. But I want to know what you think I can do to help you. And he said universally, all the players said, “Get people in the seats.” And that's what led to him, that following year — which was his first full season — to come up with the $10 ticket. And not every seat, obviously, in the Georgia Dome was $10, but there were enough. And they sold about and there were other owners around the league that did not like what Arthur Blank did because he — he basically kind of downed the product in terms of the cost of it. But it worked for him and it worked for Atlanta. And he immediately got credibility with the fans and the players from that move.
Steve Fennessy: So coming up on, know, almost 20 years that he's been owner, do you feel like he's become a more patient and indulgent owner or as he's gotten older and there have been no Super Bowl rings to bring home to Atlanta he's become less patient?
Jeff Schultz: I think he's become more patient. I don't think he's — he's happy about not having a Super Bowl ring; I think that still drives him. But I actually wrote this in a column for The Athletic last year when Dan Quinn did not get fired at midseason despite a 1 and 7 start. And I wrote a column that basically said the old Arthur Blank would have fired Dan Quinn. I think the more sports-experienced Arthur Blank sort of sits back a little bit more now. He understands sometimes in athletics, things take time. It's not like when he ran Home Depot and a store ran out of sheet rock and all he had to do was snap his fingers and he got more sheet rock. Things don't work that easily in sports.
Steve Fennessy: In 2015, when he hired Dan Quinn as the new head coach who is coming off of being an incredibly successful defensive coordinator in Seattle.
Dan Quinn: I know we have an extremely passionate fanbase here in Atlanta. And I want to know that the brand of football that we're gonna play is gonna be fast and physical. We're going to attack in every phase that we can do it and then most importantly, I would like you to know that the energy and enthusiasm you bring to the Atlanta Falcons can be unmatched in terms of the energy I'll try to bring to you as your head football coach.
Steve Fennessy: What went through your mind as — as a beat writer for the Falcons?
Jeff Schultz: Well, it was an interesting time because Mike Smith had been fired. Smith was a successful coach for a while until his last two years. I thought Dan Quinn was a really good hire. They needed to fix the defense. The uncertainty in the organization that existed at the time was Thomas Dimitroff, who was the general manager, was retained. There was some uncertainty in terms of whether or not he was going to be fired, too. And when they were interviewing Dan Quinn, from what I understand the way the interview sort of went was, “Look, we really want you. Do you think you could work with Thomas Dimitroff?” And Dan basically said, “Yes, I can.”
Steve Fennessy: Right.
Jeff Schultz: And so Dan Quinn was given some autonomy in terms of the roster. Dimitroff’s power was — was undercut just a little bit. But they worked really well together. This was a team that you really believed was going to compete for titles for the next three, four, five years at least.
Steve Fennessy: Yeah. You mentioned Thomas Dimitroff and Dan Quinn, Dimitroff being the GM and Dan Quinn, of course, being the head coach. Can you sort of break down what the roles of the GM is here in this franchise? Because it does differ sometimes slightly.
Jeff Schultz: Yeah, it does. So start with the generic thing: The GM picks the players, the coach coaches the players. But Dan Quinn and Thomas Dimitroff had a really good partnership. They both would look at tape of college players together and they would try to come to some agreement on who to pick.
And Arthur Blank addressed this the other day when he fired both. I mean, it's really sort of hard to figure out those gray areas, you know? Whose fault is it? Who gets the credit? Who gets the blame?
Arthur Blank: You know, it becomes increasingly difficult to separate them. And I think we felt that we had given both gentlemen, you know, a long period of time to — to create the winning environment that we — that we promised ourselves and promised our fans. And they both hadn’t done it. So it was the right decision for them both in this case.
Steve Fennessy: Back to Dan Quinn. You've written that he — of all the coaches that you've covered and known over the years — that he is probably the most likable. What is it about him that engendered so much loyalty among his players?
Jeff Schultz: He’s just a genuine guy, you know. I don't know how else to explain it. He's down-to-earth. I have covered some cold, calculating people in sports before. I don't know that Dan has that side of him. Falcons running back Todd Gurley spoke to the press after the game against Carolina last weekend before the team announced that Dan Quinn had been fired.
Todd Gurley: I was “free agent-ing,” you know. This guy was one of the only guys that gave me a call personally and reached out to me, so. When everybody think I lost it, you know, he believed in me. So, you know, I can't do nothing but ride and rock with a guy like that.
Jeff Schultz: But sometimes that relationship can — can — can be a detriment because somebody might say, “I love Dan Quinn, I love Dan Quinn.” But are you really going out there and playing hard for him or are you getting too comfortable?
Steve Fennessy: Right.
Jeff Schultz: I think that possibly was an issue these last couple of years.
Steve Fennessy: Love can be a motivator for excellence, but so could fear.
Jeff Schultz: Exactly. It's a tough line to — to sort of walk. And I think as a coach, you just kind of have to know, and I don't know if Dan ever really figured that out.
Steve Fennessy: What impact does the lingering trauma — yes, trauma — of the Falcons’ Super Bowl collapse in 2017 have on the franchise and on the fans? Could we be cursed? That's ahead. This is Georgia Today.
Steve Fennessy: This is Georgia Today. I'm Steve Fennessy. I'm speaking with Jeff Schultz, senior writer at The Athletic, who's covered the Falcons for years.
I wanted to kind of like go back to Super Bowl 51 in that fourth quarter. And I'm kind of — I'm — you touched on it a little bit earlier, but I'm curious, as you watched things fall apart, what was going through your mind that day?
Jeff Schultz: “This can't be happening, can it?” I mean — I mean, I wasn't surprised that the Patriots were coming back because that's what makes sports great. It's — it's this — it's the greatest reality TV show in the world.
Announcer: Out of the shotgun, Ryan — gets hit! Ball is out! This is a fumble, New England has it!
Jeff Schultz: But there was a point — and this is when I started writing — when Julio Jones made an amazing sideline catch.
Announcer: ...Throws on the run. And Jones with a catch! Phenomenal catch by Julio Jones on the sideline!
Jeff Schultz: And all the Falcons had to do was run the ball three times, kick a field goal, and the game was over. And that didn’t happen.
Announcer: Ryan is sacked! What a play! Loss of 12 on that sack. Pass is caught, Sanu. A flag is down …
Referee: Holding, No. 70 offense …
Jeff Schultz: I was stunned.
Announcer: And with the sack and the hold, the Falcons are not in position to add to an 8-point lead.
Jeff Schultz: When you're in the media, you can't really get emotionally attached to the people you cover because you have to view things objectively. But I felt really, really bad for some of those guys on the team who I got to know personally, because I know what would have meant to the city of Atlanta to win that game. And I know what it meant to them to lose that game in the way they lost it. The next day, I think I was still somewhat traumatized.
Steve Fennessy: I think it's fair to say that there are a lot of fans who still feel that way.
Jeff Schultz: Yeah. And I don't want to make it sound like that's why the Falcons are bad now. Because I really don't think as they go through these things day to day, none of them are thinking, “Boy, I wish we had won that Super Bowl.” But athletes aren't really wired the same way as fans are. All fans are doing is sitting back watching games and they're looking at the whole big picture of “I've been a fan for forty years. Do you know what happened back in, you know, ’77?” It's just — it's completely different.
Steve Fennessy: Well, that's why you get people using the word “curse.”
Jeff Schultz: Yeah, well, we could do a whole ‘nother show sacrificing a chicken if you want.
I — I'm not sure — I mean look, like, people will believe in a curse until the Falcons win the Super Bowl, right? If the Falcons ever won a Super Bowl, everybody is going to say, well, we should have won two Super Bowls. But at least they won't say it's a curse anymore.
Steve Fennessy: I wanted to finally talk about the expectations going into the 2020 season and how things started looking out and how and why they fell apart.
Jeff Schultz: The 2019 season, you really have to go back to when it was two different seasons. I mean, they started 1 and 7, they finished 6 and 2. Arthur Blank clung to the belief that the 6 and 2 season represented a turnaround.
Steve Fennessy: The half of the last season where they performed well was — was a sign of things to come, not the other half. Is that what you're saying?
Jeff Schultz: Correct. Yeah. And I didn't view it that way. By and large, you play differently when games matter versus when they don't matter. And I think they did get a little desperate in the second half last year because they didn't want Dan Quinn to get fired. And I've also covered sports long enough to know that there is no such thing as momentum carrying from one season to the next. There would be no momentum carrying from 2019 second-half to the start of 2020. And what we see now is the 1 and 7 start was much closer to reality. We saw some of the same problems that we saw in the first half a year ago and things quickly unraveled because there was no confidence there.
Steve Fennessy: Yeah, and Shannon Sharpe was pretty vocal about that, especially after the Falcons blew a 15-point fourth-quarter lead against the Cowboys in Game 2.
Shannon Sharpe: So the Falcons gagged this away. I don't know how Arthur Blank leaves Dan Quinn at this job. I've never seen an epic collapse like this. Skip, this is — Skip this is worse than the Super Bowl.
Steve Fennessy: So when you broke the news that Dan Quinn's firing was just a matter of hours away, I guess you weren't surprised.
Jeff Schultz: No, no, I really think — and I sort of wrote this a little bit — I really think he was going to be fired the week before after the Green Bay game. But I really think Arthur Blank decided “Let's just give Quinn one more week.” It's a home game, it's against Carolina, it’s a game we can win. And if we win that game, then we'll just see what happened, just like last year.
Here's a question that I felt Dan Quinn needed to be asked at what turned out to be his last press conference before getting fired.
Jeff Schultz: Would you understand it, Dan, if Arthur came to the decision that it's just not working and it's — the decision to change has to be made?
Dan Quinn: Honestly, that is the furthest thing from my mind. It’s his job to evaluate but for me it’s coaching. And I'll work as hard as I can to align our team to play like we're capable of playing.
Jeff Schultz: Even though I broke the story at 4:45 or whatever it was, you know, in the afternoon on Sunday, the plan was still to fire him late the next day. But I think what happened was after I broke the story, the thing basically went viral online and —
Steve Fennessy: You accelerated the timeline.
Jeff Schultz: Yeah, I sort of screwed things up, thank you very much. And so five hours after the tweet, he basically said, “Screw it, we're just firing everybody now.” And it was around 9:30 that night or so that they sent out the press release.
Steve Fennessy: And have you talked with Arthur Blank since the fire?
Jeff Schultz: Well, he had a virtual press conference on Monday and somebody asked him, what's the biggest thing you're looking for, or what's the biggest thing that was lacking, whatever. And he said —
Arthur Blank: It’s called lack of winning. So the problems we have to solve are all the problems that are ahead of us that keep us from winning. This is not just a response to a 0 and 5, it’s a response to really almost three and a half years, post-Super Bowl with all less than .500 ball. So when you look at that many games over a long period of time and you adjust for injuries, which every NFL team has, we just haven't performed the level that we're capable of.
Steve Fennessy: So what's the sequence now? Do they find a GM first? Who then is involved in hiring a coach? Or….
Jeff Schultz: That's the old-school way. You know, you are the general manager. The general manager hires the coach. I'd say over the last five, six years, maybe even a little more, coaches have gotten more and more power. The really successful, attractive candidates have exerted that influence to get power in terms of personnel decisions and stuff like that. So an answer, short answer to the question is I think it's going to depend a lot on who's available and who's interested.
Steve Fennessy: So there's one more layer in all this, and I'm curious what effect that has. And that would be Rich McKay, who's been omnipresent in this franchise for years and years. He's the club president. What role does he play?
Jeff Schultz: That's a million-dollar question there. Rich was pretty much outside of football ops for several years. And then before last season, after things really spiraled in 2018, Arthur Blank basically restructured his organization again to effectively create a layer between him and football ops. And that layer was Rich McKay. So Thomas Dimitroff and Dan Quinn, who previously answered directly to Arthur Blank, are now answering directly to Rich McKay, who is answering to Arthur Blank. That existing layer right now is going to be uncomfortable, I think, for any candidates they go after. They're definitely going to want to know exactly what Rich McKay's role is in football ops moving forward.
If you are a coveted candidate to be a coach or general manager, right now you're looking at the power rankings in your organization and you see Rich McKay up there. You're asking the honor roll, “What's he doing? I thought, you're bringing me in to fix your organization.”
Steve Fennessy: Right.
Jeff Schultz: They're really going to have to convince the candidates that, “No, you guys are in charge. He's just there to give you anything you want, basically.”
Steve Fennessy: Jeff, do you have any words of encouragement amid all this for the long-suffering Falcons fans among us?
Jeff Schultz: You know what? Just as 28 to 3 happened in a bad way, sometimes things happen in a good way. Things in sports change quickly. The Falcons do have some talented players. And so it looks bad now. It will be bad the rest of the year. I would be very surprised if they won a ton of games. But it may not be as long a doom and gloom stretch as some people think.
Steve Fennessy: Our thanks to Jeff Schultz, senior writer for The Athletic. A day after he fired Dan Quinn, Arthur Blank named defensive coordinator Raheem Morris as the Falcons interim head coach. Here's Morris discussing what needs to be done to reverse the team's losing streak.
Raheem Morris: You know, right now, we've got a lot of people in disarray, you know, both on the personnel side, both on the coaching side and everybody’s trying to figure out what to do and how we’re going to do it next. So my No. 1 job right now is to get out and find out how to go win this next game.
Steve Fennessy: But the Falcons’ disarray intensified on Thursday when ESPN reported that multiple members of the Falcons organization had tested positive for COVID-19. For its part, the team confirmed just one new case, but also announced that it was temporarily shutting down its training facility in Flowery Branch with plans to reopen on Friday. And as of now, the Falcons’ next game scheduled for Sunday afternoon in Minneapolis against the Vikings, is still a go.
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Transcript by Eva Rothenberg