By Judy Battista | Oct. 13, 2015
The first thing Dan Quinn did when he got to Atlanta was install a basketball hoop in the Falcons' meeting room.
It was not put there to provide a respite for the short-attention-span set or an avenue for a few lazy layups. It was a tool for Quinn's guiding philosophy -- and the mandate he received when he became the new head coach -- to intensify the competitiveness of a team that had slid into complacency as rapidly as it had plummeted from an NFC Championship Game appearance in the 2012 campaign to 10 combined wins over the two years that followed.
Quinn's belief is simple, honed from years of tumbling over the sofa pretending to be Sam "Bam" Cunningham while scoring touchdowns against his older siblings in their Morristown, New Jersey, home, and by the training that birthed a college record in the hammer throw. Everything can be boiled down to a competition, with the desired end result not to produce misery and failure for a loser, but for everyone in the game to raise the level of play. It is a combination that might be pleasing to both Bill Belichick and Up with People.
Quinn saw it work when he stood at the fence at Fairleigh Dickinson University in suburban New Jersey on hot summer days -- he was dropped off in the morning and picked up at 5 p.m. -- a wide-eyed teenager watching Lawrence Taylor and Harry Carson and Bill Parcells during New York Giants training camp. That was the first time Quinn had really paid attention to coaches. Like every other boy from a family of Giants fans, he wanted to be Taylor then -- he had a Taylor poster, after all -- not Parcells. But Quinn was captivated by the practices Parcells ran. The individual attention to drill work. How hard the players hit the sled. He watched the coaches' eyes and loved the toughness of the entire operation -- how nobody ever backed down, how every repetition, even in the deadening humidity of July, was conducted at full throttle.
And so almost every day during Falcons team meetings this summer -- several decades after Quinn realized he had a much better chance of following in Parcells' steps than Taylor's -- Quinn would flash the pictures of two different players on the wall. Step right up, Julio Jones and Desmond Trufant. With Quinn's rap-heavy playlist blasting through the speakers and teammates cheering, the chosen duo would go one-on-one, taking foul shots. The coach was banking that even a contrived game in a well-appointed auditorium would send flowing the juices needed to buoy his new team.
"Our central theme is, How good you can get," Quinn said during a break from training camp. "How hard can I go to see how good you can get? Part of what we talk about is, toughness is a talent."
Quinn explains this as he turns down the Mary J. Blige playing in his office. Quinn has published his practice playlists on Twitter, wished Tupac Shakur a happy birthday and invited a live DJ to spin from the sideline at practice. He wears one of those ubiquitous plastic bracelets, this one reading "Run and Hit." He is such an enthusiastic participant at practice that Jason Taylor, whom Quinn coached during his time as one of Nick Saban's assistants with the Miami Dolphins, remembers the time Quinn had to leave the field with a bloody nose suffered when, having so immersed himself in the play, he was smacked in the face by a player's helmet.
Quinn was much earlier in his climb up the coaching ladder then. But now, at age 45, his style has not changed much. Pete Carroll's advice when his defensive coordinator left in February for his first head-coaching job at any level was blunt: "There's nothing other than be yourself," Carroll said he told Quinn. "Be true to who he is."
So there Quinn was, in black track pants and a long-sleeved shirt, his bald head shiny with sweat, in the middle of a clot of defensive players this summer, impossible to hear even to those standing just a few feet away because the DJ's speakers were right over Quinn's shoulder.
Do not let the next-generation music, the wide smile and the high energy level fool you, though. The team Quinn wants, and the one that has raced to a 5-0 record in mounting one of the league's most startling turnarounds, is as old-school as those full-pad Giants practices he still admires for their ferocity. He wants good technique and speed and aggression. He wants a team honed on situational football, the same mantra Parcells and Belichick espouse. And each day during camp, Quinn would show his players film of other teams in certain game situations -- studying what had worked and what had failed -- then take them to the field to work on those same situations. Quinn wants, essentially, exactly what the Falcons unloaded on their opponents in comeback wins over the Giants and Cowboys, and then, perhaps most astonishingly, in a wire-to-wire demolition of the Texans: intelligence, relentlessness and doggedness.
"Each game we play, every game is a championship-game mindset," Quinn said. "Every game, we're going to go for it, so when we get into playoff time, it's not like, 'You've really got to ratchet it up. You've really got to do something different.' Then what have I been doing the whole time? I think that mindset allows us to function in a way that we can be at our best and avoid ups and downs."
Ups and downs are practically the entire history of the Atlanta Falcons.
Before Mike Smith became the head coach and Thomas Dimitroff the general manager in 2008, the franchise had never recorded consecutive winning seasons. That duo engineered five in a row, including the run to the 2012 NFC Championship Game that ended with the Falcons unable to score what would have been the go-ahead touchdown despite being on the 49ers' 10-yard line with little more than a minute to go.
The failed drive ultimately proved to be a metaphor for the entire operation -- there was a certain amount of success, and then simply no more of it. Worse, according to some people who watched the team closely, because the NFC title game was so celebrated as an unprecedented achievement, the team might have started to believe it was better than it really was. Good players were touted as great. Average players thought they were more than middling. The reality was something more measured in a bottom-line business that is supposed to leave just one team truly satisfied each year: Even during those five seasons, the Falcons won the NFC South just twice and, of course, never did advance to the Super Bowl.
Did the Falcons start to believe they could merely show up and win? Perhaps that explains the sudden decline into two losing campaigns and, more disturbing, the lack of fight. Smith was well-liked and deeply respected, and he cared passionately about camaraderie among teammates and coaches. But in those last two seasons, the competitive fire had seemingly burned out in Atlanta.
When the Falcons went looking for their next coach last winter, they were seeking a few specific things. They wanted someone with a big-picture plan -- not necessarily someone who wanted to have all the power himself, but someone who knows his own strengths and limitations, what he'd want to be in control of and what he'd need help with. And someone with high energy levels who, as one person familiar with the search put it, was "authentic" and did not "come across as a clown."
Quinn's personal big-picture plan began taking shape early. The coach realizes now that being the youngest of six children helped him learn a lot about teamwork and chemistry. He was, his older brother Peter once told the Morristown Daily Record, "the biggest little kid we knew."
Their father had played baseball at Northwestern, but had settled down in Morristown, a small New Jersey suburb about 35 miles west of Manhattan, and worked in insurance. The kids played sports in school and in the backyard -- his friends have said Quinn had a knack even then for knowing exactly what to say to inspire his fellow Little Leaguers -- and while Dan was a two-way player at Morristown High and a team captain, he also was active in school leadership programs. By then, he knew he would never play professional sports, so he went to Salisbury State and majored in education, thinking he could eventually become a teacher and coach. Instead, he became a volunteer assistant coach at William & Mary. He slept in the freshman locker room.
"I thought, This is even better -- I can do this and not teach," Quinn said.
He landed his first paid job the next year at Virginia Military Institute through an important connection -- his then-fiancée/now-wife Stacey was the head athletic trainer at VMI. A few weeks after Quinn was hired, he helped one of William & Mary's former players get a job at VMI, too: Mike Tomlin.
Quinn was the defensive line coach (and eventually, defensive coordinator) for the now-defunct Hofstra football team from 1996 to 2000. Then the San Francisco 49ers were looking for a quality control coach -- the lowest rung on the professional coaching ladder, a job that features little pay, long hours and a lot of grunt work, much of it involving breaking down tape. Quinn popped up on coach Steve Mariucci's radar; in the oddest of coincidences, the 49ers had two Hofstra products, safety Lance Schulters and quarterback Giovanni Carmazzi, on the roster at the time. Quinn interviewed and then flew back home. Mariucci had told him he would call the next day. Quinn woke up and immediately stationed himself by the phone. Finally, at about 10 p.m., the phone rang and Mariucci asked to speak to Stacey. He wanted to make sure she was OK with giving up her job and moving across the country. To this day, Quinn said, if he has the chance to do the same when hiring someone, he does.
"He wasn't as verbal and vocal as he is now," Mariucci recently said. "But the more confident he became, the more verbal he became. He was able to conduct the meeting, express himself regarding draft preparation, to sit in there after evaluating 15 different defensive linemen and state his evaluation for coaches and scouts. He was very bright. He could state an opinion without being confrontational."
Quinn was elevated to defensive line coach in San Francisco for the 2003 season. When Quinn joined Saban's staff in Miami in that same capacity in 2005, he entered a defensive-line room laden with veterans like Taylor and David Bowens. It was, Taylor admits, a tough group to step into.
"We used to joke with him about having the college mentality -- rah, rah -- he'd come out to practice with cleats on. The first day in the offseason, he had a pair of cleats on like players. I was talking to David Bowens: 'Man, look at this dude.' The most important thing for any coach on the sideline is the ability to listen. He listened to what players may or may not have seen. It was easy to be honest with him. You don't always have that on the sidelines."
From Mariucci, Quinn said he learned the importance of having energy and of forming a connection with players. From Saban and Carroll -- coaches with distinctly different personalities and styles -- he took strikingly similar lessons: Be clear about what your message is and how you want your team to play, believe in your system -- and then do not waver.
Quinn's message to the Falcons about how he wanted them to play was simple: They would be fast and physical. And they would finish.
To deliver that message, though, Quinn has departed from what might be seen as traditional coaching tactics. To reach different corners of a diverse locker room and connect with everyone, he uses clips of everything from the NBA to mixed martial arts to current movies. Quinn is a people person, those who have worked with him say, but there is not a lot of excess talk, and his practices are compartmentalized and deliberate. He is not a screamer -- even, according to people who were told what the meeting was like, in the locker room at halftime after the Falcons had played poorly in the first 30 minutes against Dallas. Twice in the first half, the Cowboys led by 14 points, thanks to some terrible tackling by Atlanta. Schematically, the Falcons stuck to what they were doing, running the ball behind a rebuilt offensive line, trying to stop short passes from Brandon Weeden -- they just did it better in the second half. And just before the poor first half had ended, they scored a touchdown on a two-minute-drill drive, one of those situational instances Quinn focuses on.
"He's a very likeable personality," said Will Muschamp, the Auburn defensive coordinator who worked with Quinn at the University of Florida and with the Dolphins. "He can push a player in the right ways. He knows how to push the right buttons and manage guys from all different backgrounds extremely well -- as good as I've ever been around."
To push Matt Ryan's buttons, Quinn challenged the quarterback to get to know all the new guys coming in this past offseason -- players and coaches -- on a personal level. Quinn asked everyone how they could have the best offseason they've ever had, because he wanted to figure out the different ways his players learn and absorb information. It is, Ryan said, a very modern approach to coaching. In some cases, that meant Quinn looking at film of players before he met them -- guys like linebacker Justin Durant, who joined the Falcons from the Cowboys -- and knowing exactly what they could work on. But Quinn also believes the tighter a team can become, the more everyone will fight for and with each other, the more they will hold each other accountable.
It is one reason Quinn keeps a number of military medals from veterans he's crossed paths with and a folded American flag on a credenza near the door to his office. He has long been involved in efforts to support military members, but he also thinks that while their worlds are different, the teamwork and leadership evident in the military is similar to what is required of successful sports teams.
"He challenged me to get as close to as many people as possible because when you do that, you get to know their background and what makes them go," Ryan said. "That's different for me. Quarterbacks, quarterback coach, offensive coordinator, wives, everybody -- let's have dinner. Sitting down and making sure you have breakfast with different people every day. Sometimes you get caught in your routine and put blinders on and years go by and you don't know much about them."
Everybody is learning about the Falcons and Quinn now. They have just three games remaining against teams that were in the playoffs last season, including two against the defending NFC South champion Carolina Panthers, who are also still undefeated. But as has been obvious in the first month of the season, the Falcons are playing the way Quinn wants: fast and physical, the same in September as they would in the playoffs.
On the wall of Quinn's office, he has painted a motivational quote from a book called "Attitudes."
" 'The longer I live, the more I realize the impact of attitude on life,' " Quinn reads from his wall. "That connects with me. How hard do you want to go for it? We don't spend so much time on the opponent that we forget it's really about us."
Follow Judy Battista on Twitter @judybattista.