HOUSTON -- Dwight Freeney felt it as soon as he sat down across from Atlanta Falcons head coach Dan Quinn and looked him square in the eyes. It was more about what the 15-year veteran defensive end sensed in Quinn than anything the coach uttered: a palpable energy, an obvious authenticity, a refreshing mix of defiant ambition and infectious optimism. The longer those two men spoke during that offseason meeting designed to sell Freeney on signing with Atlanta, the more apparent it became that he really didn't have a choice. Quinn's pull was so strong -- and his vision of the Falcons so alluring -- that all Freeney had to do was follow his heightened instincts.
Freeney's mother had implored him to follow his heart as he determined where he would land as an unrestricted free agent in the twilight of his career. Quinn simply drove home the logic of that approach.
"He had that energy, [and] that's what it was," Freeney said. "It's funny -- Atlanta wasn't even on my radar. I didn't know anything about the NFC South. I was an AFC guy for the most part, so that's all I knew (Freeney played his first 11 seasons in Indianapolis and his next two in San Diego). When I sat down with them, I was like, 'OK, let's see how this goes.' "
Freeney learned the same things the rest of the NFL is discovering about his head coach: It's taken Quinn less than two full seasons to create an environment in Atlanta that pretty much sells itself. It's an extension of his deep belief in chemistry and camaraderie -- "brotherhood" is the operative term in those parts -- but it's also a formula that relies on a certain type of athlete, one that possesses specific physical and mental abilities. In other words, Quinn is creating something that undoubtedly is built to last, and looks vaguely familiar to a certain juggernaut we've already seen before.
The last time we watched a high-energy coach with a touchy-feely approach have this much success so quickly, he was leading the same team that boosted Quinn's career: the Seattle Seahawks. Quinn spent four years working as an assistant under Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll, the last two of which he served as defensive coordinator for a team that won Super Bowl XLVIII and lost in Super Bowl XLIX. There was plenty that Quinn learned from his former boss during that time. The most important lessons involved how to both build a team and keep it bonded together.
"We're not Seattle East," said Quinn, who was Carroll's defensive line coach from 2009 to '10 and his defensive coordinator from 2013 to '14. "We're our own Atlanta, and there are definitely things I learned from Coach Carroll. He had probably the single biggest influence on my coaching career. He gave me just a great vision of what a head coach can be, but he also said, 'Hey, Dan -- do it your own way.' I took that advice, too."
As much as Quinn doesn't like the comparisons between his Falcons and Carroll's Seahawks, whom Atlanta beat in the Divisional Round of this year's playoffs, it's hard not to make them. Carroll uses different music playlists to hype his team up during practice and Quinn does the same thing with his squad. Carroll also is known for his "theme" days -- specific practices that are focused solely on key elements that he deems critical to success -- and Quinn utilizes the same approach. There's also the fact that both Carroll and Quinn joined their new teams with crystal-clear visions of how they wanted to build their rosters.
The only difference in that aspect is that Carroll had ultimate power over personnel decisions in Seattle when he arrived in 2010 (he brought in general manager John Schneider to help him with that task). Quinn had to rely on the man who hired him for that responsibility, Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff, but that hasn't been a problem at all. In much the same way Freeney did, Dimitroff instantly connected with Quinn when they spent some time privately talking during Quinn's interview process. As Dimitroff recently recounted that interaction, he said one of the most memorable moments of that meeting came when Quinn said, "Thomas, my goal is to have the best relationship with you as a general manager in sports."
That interview served as the foundation for what the Falcons have quickly become. Quinn stressed the importance of finding players with speed but also essential mental traits.
"We spent a lot of time together just making sure we had a shared vision of how we could do it," Quinn said. "We were looking for smart, tough competitive guys and we wanted it to show up on tape. So we took it so far as to make sure we had a competitiveness grade and a toughness grade -- that kind of resiliency, just guys that can battle and, of course, we wanted speed. We both covet that in the players, but past that, we wanted guys who had real football smarts and football character."
Dimitroff added: "One of the things that stood about Dan when we were interviewing him -- I hate to say amazed but I am -- was his authenticity, his approach to this team and this young generation. Dan has a really, really good grasp of relating to these players, whether he's a stud player on this team or whether they're the 53rd man on this roster. He really has a great feel for how to implement competitiveness. The reality is that time can get boring for these guys. That's not his world. He brings it to life."
It didn't take long for Quinn's vision of the Falcons to materialize. Atlanta started 5-0 in 2015 but then stumbled down the stretch, losing eight of its last 11 games. It was the kind of finish that reminded Quinn how far this team still had to go. It also served as a valuable lesson that would serve the Falcons well this season.
When Atlanta beat the defending Super Bowl Champion Broncos in Denver in Week 5, that 23-16 victory gave Atlanta a 4-1 record at the time. To a man, the players realized they had to learn from the mistakes of 2015 and not implode after a fast start. Their belief was this team was mentally tougher, more sure of itself. It also looked a lot like those early Seahawks teams -- especially on a defense that features seven starters with no more than two years of experience -- under Carroll.
Defensive end Vic Beasley Jr. was on his way to a breakout season (he finished with a league-high 15.5 sacks) and he provided the type of constant pressure that Seattle enjoyed with Pro Bowl pass rushers like Cliff Avril and Michael Bennett. Deion Jones blossomed as a young middle linebacker out of the mold of Seahawks star Bobby Wagner, while strong safety Keanu Neal seemed like a clone of Seattle's Kam Chancellor, especially since both are known for their vicious hits and sure tackling. The Falcons didn't produce the types of statistics Seattle did in its early days (the Falconsranked 27th in points allowed with an average of 25.4 per game) but the potential was impossible to ignore.
Atlanta actually allowed just 18.8 points per game in the five wins it enjoyed over the final six weeks of the regular season. When asked if that young Falcons defense displayed traits similar to Seattle's, Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels said, "Yes. The length at corner, the aggressive strong safety and the speed on defense, in general. The fact is that they all run to the ball as well as any team that we're going to play. It doesn't matter what happens on the play. You're going to have 11 guys chasing the guy with the ball. That's impressive."
What's also eye-catching is the way Quinn has sold this team on his core principles of brotherhood. It's not uncommon to see him jump into drills to teach a certain technique to his players. The Falcons facility also houses eight ping pong tables because, as Falcons offensive tackle Jake Matthews said, "It goes back to coach Quinn's philosophy. We're going to compete. We're going to have fun. We're going to get after it. And we're going to get better. Whether that's just hanging out with buddies in the players' lounge or on the practice field, that's the mindset."
Quinn, however, is quick to admit that galvanizing his team wasn't an overnight process. When he talked about his first season in Atlanta, he described his roster as more of "a neighborhood," the idea being that people knew each other but didn't confide in one another. Quinn knew he needed his team to go through some adversity to eventually build that chemistry that he viewed as so vital to long-term success. He got plenty of that in the second half of 2015, when his team fell apart and its confidence eroded.
When Quinn looked back at this regular season, he found a handful of moments that helped this team mature as well. There was the 31-24 loss to Tampa Bay in Week 1, a defeat at home that instantly tempered all the high expectations fostered by the Falcons. A 45-32 victory at New Orleans on Sept. 26 -- on a day when the Saints were celebrating the 10-year anniversary of reopening the Superdome after Hurricane Katrina -- had the opposite effect, as Atlanta gained more confidence in beating a division opponent in an emotionally charged environment. Quinn also believes the Falcons' last loss, a 29-28 defeat at the hands of Kansas City on Dec. 4 set them on their current path.
Quinn used that moment to send a serious message to his team. As the players gathered in their locker room inside the Georgia Dome, he implored them to learn something critical in the wake of that defeat. The Falcons had lost that game after Chiefs safety Eric Berry intercepted a two-point conversion with Atlanta leading, 28-27, and returned it for the game-winning score. As Quinn told his team, they were good enough to win a Super Bowl but not if they let victories slip away like that.
"I can't speak for the rest of the guys in the locker room, but I definitely would agree with Coach Quinn in terms of, I feel like we just kind of gave that game away," said Falcons outside linebacker De'Vondre Campbell. "[The Chiefs] played a really good game, but I feel like we left some plays out there and that was a disappointing home loss. After that game, we hit a turning point in our organization where we were like, 'You know, we have a really special team. But if we played the way we played against Kansas City the rest of the year, we're not going to go where we want to go.' "
Today, the Falcons find themselves exactly where they had hoped to be. Like Seattle in 2013, Atlanta is young, confident and in lockstep with a head coach who knows a thing or two about tapping into the power of a unified roster. That 2013 season ended with the Seahawks hoisting the first Lombardi Trophy in franchise history. The Falcons are hoping the same destiny awaits them in Super Bowl LI ... and that this is only the start of a long run among the NFL's elite.
"We're getting closer to that vision of how we want to play," Quinn said. "The speed, the tackling, the ball-hawking ability ... Some of our young guys are now playing like old guys and some of our old guys are now playing like young guys again. So that's what we hoped to find, that mesh, that balance, that communication, the attitude and style we want to play with. But the young guys, as they're coming up and learning their way, it's been a great start for them."