ATLANTA -- The word you keep hearing inside the Atlanta Falcons' locker room these days is one that tends to be overused in sports:
That term appears consistently in answers after Atlanta players are questioned about what's different about this team. It pops up when they describe how first-year head coach Dan Quinn has changed the Falcons' mindset. The word brotherhood actually comes up so frequently that it doesn't feel like a simple cliché anymore. It sounds like the most critical element for a team that is starting to see how good it actually can become.
It would be easy to say Quinn has stolen some moves from his old boss -- Seattle Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll -- and created a high-energy, love-'em-up, bromance culture in Atlanta. It also would be wrong. What Quinn has done is taken his vibrant, grounded personality and stamped it all over this franchise. The result is a Falcons team that has opened the season in style, beating the Eaglesand Giants, with a seemingly favorable road matchup against the seriously hobbled Cowboyson tap this Sunday.
If you want to understand Quinn's early impact on this team, just consider how the Falcons are talking about this game. Even though Dallas will be missing quarterback Tony Romo and wide receiver Dez Bryant, the Atlanta players are sticking to the same mindset Quinn preaches every day: Just focus on what you have to do.
"He's given us the confidence to believe in ourselves," safety Ricardo Allen said. "The first day he walked in here, he talked about three things: competing, giving effort and finishing. That's why we don't go into games worrying about depth charts. We all have a role here and we worry about doing it."
It's a simple philosophy, one that all NFL head coaches espouse on a regular basis. The key here is the buy-in from the Atlanta players. They've believed in what Quinn has been selling since Day 1 and it's led to an accountability that they all feel.
"You can call it a bond, an energy, a camaraderie or whatever," linebacker Paul Worrilow said. "All I know is you can see the difference between last year and this year in how we play."
"It's good to hear that from the players," Quinn said. "When you can play for one another, that's when the deeper respect comes. If you can say to a teammate, 'I dedicate my effort to you,' that means that person is saying, 'I'm not going to let you down.' We'll be really good when we are really tight in the locker room."
In defense of Quinn's predecessor, Mike Smith, it wasn't like he didn't have a feel for connecting with players. Smith had an upbeat, easy-going personality that produced its own share of impressive results. He went 66-46 during his seven seasons with a franchise that was dreadful when he arrived in 2008. Smith ultimately earned his pink slip because the Falcons only won 10 games over his final two years as head coach.
The common perception was that Smith had lost the same passion and energy that had sparked the team so early in his career. Those two qualities are exactly what Quinn is giving this franchise at the start of his tenure. When he sat down with players in the offseason, his constant message was simple. He wanted to see how close his coaches could come to maximizing the talent of each individual. The more time Quinn and his assistants spent encouraging players in the offseason, the more they sensed a trust growing out of those attempts.
"The communication is big, but we're definitely a lot closer, looking at where we started in April to where we are now," Quinn said. "That communication that has taken place back and forth has made guys see they can count on each other. It's every day. The more you keep doing it, that's where the respect comes, and then the love and then you have guys saying they'll do anything for the next guy."
Quinn understands that his plans have been aided by inheriting a team that wasn't exactly in rebuilding mode when he arrived. Even though the O-line had been shoddy in recent years, the offense still had stars in quarterback Matt Ryan and receivers Julio Jones and Roddy White. The defense actually had been the bigger issue, as the Falconsranked last in the league in yards allowed in 2014. That is where Quinn was supposed to make his greatest mark after spending the last two seasons as defensive coordinator for the Seahawks' top-ranked unit.
You won't see a noticeable improvement in Atlanta's unit if you go solely by the numbers (the Falcons have allowed nearly 800 total yards in their first two games). However, there is a difference if you judge them on attitude. Quinn is pushing the same philosophy that thrived in Seattle, one built around swarming to the football, plenty of zone defense and a bond that produces a band of brothers. That defense also has been helped by newcomers Justin Durant and O'Brien Schofield adding more speed to the linebacker corps and first-round pick Vic Beasley displaying the potential to be a dominant pass rusher. There are still too many missed tackles for Quinn's taste, but the players understand how vital it is to do their jobs.
"We don't have a lot of calls, but we want the players to make the calls come to life," Quinn said. "We want to do things with a certain attitude. When you watch us play, I want people to say, 'Damn, these guys play hard.' "
It's comments like those that should create plenty of optimism around Atlanta after only two weeks of regular-season play. The NFC South already was wide open when the season began. Now the Falcons look like the frontrunners over a Carolina team with a limited offense and a New Orleans squad with no defense. If the Falcons can beat Dallas, they will be adding to the momentum that could return them to the playoffs for the first time since 2012.
Just don't expect the Atlanta players to fuel that kind of talk at this stage. As Ryan said, "We approach this thing the same way we've approached the first two weeks: We're not worrying about what could happen three months from now."
Added Quinn: "We've got a long way to go to play the style I'm talking about all the time. But if we keep improving, we can get to that style."
One thing that isn't in question is whether the Falcons have found the right man for the job. It was only three seasons ago that this team was playing in the NFC title game -- and that isn't lost on the veterans who remain from those days. They know what it took to build a team capable of competing for a championship. With Quinn in charge, they might return to that level much sooner than anybody imagined.