How does Atlanta overcome the biggest collapse in Super Bowl history? These resilient Falcons get by with a little help from their Navy SEAL friends.
By Andrea Kremer | Published Sept. 14, 2017
Illustration by Albert Lee
FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- Atlanta Falcons head coach Dan Quinn is a man of many mantras.
Look around the team's training complex, and they're prominently seen everywhere, from walls to wristbands. Ball, battle, brotherhood. Embrace the Suck. And then, there's the granddaddy of them all:
The Atlanta Falcons Standard.
But that one isn't publicly posted. The page-long doctrine is inside their lockers where no one can see it. It's glued inside notebooks that were given to each player. It was disseminated to every member of the team, including the coaching staff. It was written in the spring of 2016, without guidelines from Quinn or any other coaches, by the team's "Chiefs," a group of players elected by their peers to uphold the standard.
"[They're] a sounding board to the coaching staff, the front office, everybody in the organization," said quarterback Matt Ryan, reigning league MVP (and a Chief). "But also to monitor the locker room. Guys that are Chiefs take that as a high responsibility, to be a good leader and to take care of your teammates."
Chiefs also include young players like safety Keanu Neal and linebacker Deion Jones, both in their second NFL seasons.
"Leadership comes at every level," Quinn said. "A Chief was someone that you went to for direction. And if you had a question, you'd go ask a Chief. The Chiefs on our team are significant factors in the development of this accountability."
Accountability is at the core of The Atlanta Falcons Standard. And Quinn said it guides the organization each day.
"There have been men on our team before us and there will be men on this team after us," said Quinn, reciting a line in the Standard that most typifies its meaning. "But it's our responsibility while we're here to make sure that we support and represent one another every day."
Ryan said he constantly references the Standard: "Paying attention to the details in an install for the fifth time you have gone through it. To me, that is where I click in and uphold the Standard."
It's not unusual for an NFL team to have a code or leadership council. But for the Falcons, these concepts spawned from a unique place: Navy SEALs training.
"Interesting story," Quinn recalled. "After the 2015 season, there was a player who had been released. And he went downstairs, and he didn't know that I was behind him. And he had talked to another teammate and he said, 'Hey, man, good luck.' And this player said, 'Let's keep up -- let me get your phone number.' And they played the same positon. It was like a dagger. And that's where it began for me, to say that we're not as connected as we need to be. We were a neighborhood, and we needed to become a brotherhood."
So, that offseason, Quinn and general manager Thomas Dimitroff brainstormed some ideas about how to make the team connection stronger. Dimitroff, an avid cyclist who loves to pick the brains of colleagues in other sports, was out riding one day with Phil Southerland, the CEO of Team Novo Nordisk, a pro cycling team composed of diabetic riders. Southerland told his friend about his team's work with Acumen Performance Group, a company run by former Navy SEALs that aims to teach clients leadership and team-building via the stresses of mental and physical training. Southerland showed Dimitroff pictures of his riders carrying heavy logs, and the light went off for the Falcons GM -- this could provide the connection he and his coach were looking for.
APG founding partner Bill Hart laid it out pretty simply: "What we'll tell a coach or a manager or an owner is, I'm going to take your collection of very talented, very high-powered individuals, and I'm going to hand you back a single team with a single goal -- a bunch of sled dogs ready to pull in one direction."
Before long, the Falcons players walked into a team meeting at their training facility and were greeted by a group of former Navy SEALs.
"I was a little nervous, I think like everybody else," Ryan said. "I've watched the Hell Week stuff on YouTube and some of the documentaries that they go through, and you see the mental toughness and all those kinds of things. So, it was like, what are we about to do?"
Hart is a 20-year Naval Special Warfare (NSW) veteran, with expertise in foreign languages and intelligence ops. The master training specialist has logged multiple deployments to the Middle East, Pacific Rim, Europe, Iraq and Afghanistan. He's also completing his Ph.D. in general psychology.
"The way we put it to these guys is, being part of a winning team, this is something we know about," Hart said. "The team that we came from, the SEAL teams, where we got our start, this is a team that's very much had a winning record since the 1960s. We always play as the visitor and the stakes are very, very high. So when we say these are things that we have found that work very well in generating success, that's not something we're speculating on. These are facts."
The former SEALs offer up a lot of "bumper stickers." For example: Early you're on time, on time you're late. It's easy to remember, so that's Step 1. But it's actually not that simple. In the classroom setting, Hart breaks down the concept more specifically. The APG guys don't want to lecture, but rather discuss, so they start off by presenting ideas in a dialogue with the players in the classroom.
"When I say being on time, what does that mean to you?" Hart said when recounting what he presents to the players. "What steps do you take to make sure you'll be on time? If you think you might not be on time, what steps can you take to manage that contingency? How can I count on the person to my left and right to help them to help me?"
Ten-year NSW veteran Nick Hays added: "We lay a foundation in a classroom and give them a bunch of tools they can use, and then we get out to the field and we give them a practical exercise."
These exercises might be practical, but they're also brutally taxing -- on the mind and body. This epitomizes one of Quinn's favorite sayings: We want to get comfortable being uncomfortable. They'll push, drive and roll gigantic, 200-pound tires, even creating relay races with them. They'll do synchronized push-ups on the ground, with their feet perched on the tires. How hard can that be?
"Everybody here's a professional athlete," Hart said. "Ten push-ups is not hard. Doing it in unison with your whole team counting, starting when you're supposed to, stopping when you're supposed to, keeping your back straight, head up. Now it gets a little trickier."
Then there are the log drills, in which the players and coaches, lined up by height, are broken into groups of five or six, and each crew is tasked with carrying a 240-pound log for an undetermined amount of time.
What does carrying a 240-pound log have to do with football?
Nothing. And yet, everything. If one person's not working, another is pulling more weight. Literally.
"It is not necessarily the training that you are doing," Ryan said. "It's being able to focus on the small tasks that you are doing when they give them to you. When you finish the drill, make sure the whole line is lined up with your left knee down and right hand up, and here is the phrase, and it is like 10 words. And you have got to say it in exact order. So it's trying to remember all of that stuff when you are going through three, five, seven minutes of intense training."
The goal is to get to the point where someone is struggling, and the others help him out. While the players are carrying the logs, they may be told to sing or tell jokes, and they have no idea how long they have to hoist the wood. It's all part of putting stressors on them, so when game time comes and somebody stumbles, they know they can count on their teammates, and the level of trust is there. One of the "bumper stickers" that Ryan said stuck with him throughout the training sessions was, You don't rise to the occasion, you sink to the level of your preparation.
"Because I believe in that," Ryan said. "I believe, in critical situations late in games, you are going to do what you have trained yourself to do."
So, given that the Falcons first trained with the SEALs leading into the 2016 season, all of this begs an obvious question ...
What happened in the most critical of situations, down the stretch of Super Bowl LI?
A 25-point lead late in the third quarter completely evaporated, branding Atlanta with the biggest collapse in Super Bowl history. Given the circumstances and stakes, some have deemed this breakdown the most brutal loss in sports history.
Where were the fruits of the labor from the Falcons' intense training? You know, those SEAL activities that build mental toughness and resilience, teach you to push through fatigue and pain, and, above all, to FINISH. What happened to those concepts?
"I think they were there," Ryan said, "We just didn't get it done. We didn't do a good enough job. That is kind of the mindset I take with it. Maybe it is about going back to it again and finding ways we can be more detailed. A little bit more resilient. A little bit more mentally tough. A little bit better finish. One of the things they talk with us about is finding ways to get one percent better. I thought we got a lot better last year. But we need to still keep improving. There is always a little bit of a chip or whatever that is going to be on your shoulder as a result of how that finished. That is natural. I think using it the right way is key. Everybody has things in life that don't go their way. That is how it goes. There are going to be things that come up that really hurt. You can either get better for it or you can consume it. I think, to me, let's be better for it."
Hart said that he and the other APG guys were not at the game and didn't work with the team the week leading up to it. "By showtime, it's too late to make any changes," he said. Hart insisted to me that there was no emphasis or focus on the loss during this year's training sessions, and that, from the first day the APG crew got to the Falcons' facility, they observed no "Super Bowl hangover."
"Quality performance is not perfect performance," Hays said. "But when things go wrong, it's the ability to identify what happened, learn from it, make the corrections and then get back down the road, get back on the horse. And that's where these guys are; they are not wallowing."
APG worked with the team in April, June and during training camp -- and will provide a consistent resource during the season. Perhaps the SEAL training this year is what enables the Falcons to become the first Super Bowl loser since the 1993 Buffalo Bills to return to the title game. To a man, the coaches and players insist they won't be a team torn apart by the loss.
"It's not going to fracture," Ryan said. "I feel like we have done a great job of moving forward. It starts from the top with Dan. I remember him telling me after the game, when we got back, 'Go watch it. Go through it. Feel it, and then flush it. Learn from it. Take the notes, but do it now. Don't let that linger.' And I did."
Ryan said he watched the game three times.
"The first time, it was kind of an emotional thing. The second time was, alright, let me take my notes. And the third time was, let me really take to heart what Dan was saying and let me watch this one more time and move on. And that's what I did.
"One of the mantras we picked up was, Reset the log," continued Ryan, speaking of the SEALs training. "When we're carrying those logs, your shoulders get tired, so it's about resetting the log and focusing back in. After [that Super Bowl] game, it is about resetting the log, getting back up and going on."
The APG training also emphasizes the importance of adjusting when things go wrong, how to react when the unexpected happens. But Hart didn't just mouth these platitudes -- he shared his personal experiences with the team.
"I talk about my very last day in Iraq," Hart said. "We're on top of a roof in Iraq and, all of a sudden, we're getting shot at -- a lot. I'm supposed to be on a plane in three hours and instead I'm getting shot at. That's obviously not going according to plan. So I can either hunker down and feel sorry for myself and complain that it's not fair, or I can figure out, OK, what is my contingency plan? When things go wrong, this is what I need to do. Alright, start doing it -- one, two, three. Get yourself out of that situation and get yourself back on that plane."
Ryan recalled being mesmerized by the story.
"You're sitting there and you are like, Man, I thought I was stressed out about playing the Chiefs in Week 3. And to be able to see how they compartmentalize and how they are able to put things into perspective and use different tactics to get themselves to perform at a high level. For me, that training has been priceless."