How Dan Quinn Turned the Falcons from a Team into a Brotherhood

Dan PompeiNFL ColumnistFebruary 2, 2017

ATLANTA, GA - JANUARY 22: TV personality Terry Bradshaw speaks to head coach Dan Quinn of the Atlanta Falcons after defeating the Green Bay Packers in the NFC Championship Game at the Georgia Dome on January 22, 2017 in Atlanta, Georgia. The Falcons defeated the Packers 44-21. (Photo by Scott Cunningham/Getty Images)
Scott Cunningham/Getty Images

Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan scrambles right, pump-fakes, then takes off, running 14 yards and falling into the end zone for a touchdown. It is the Falcons' 69th touchdown of the season, the most of any team, and gives them a 17-0 lead against the Packers in the NFC Championship Game. 

Ryan and his teammates don't act as if this is just another score, though. Justin Hardy reaches Ryan first in the end zone and helps him up, then come Levine Toilolo and Mohamed Sanu. One by one, every Falcons player on the field makes his way to the back of the end zone to join the exuberant celebration with Ryan.

It's just halfway through the second quarter. Still early, especially with Aaron Rodgers on the other side of the field. So why are these 11 men together hugging, high-fiving and back-slapping?

Because these are Dan Quinn's Falcons.

Quinn may be the most anonymous coach in the NFL, but you can learn everything you need to know about him by watching his team on game day.

"You can't make people do that," Falcons offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan says. "You see that atmosphere in college more. But it becomes natural when guys genuinely are happy for each other.

"It all started with Dan. He has preached the culture and gotten the right people. He had a vision and he made it happen. Now I think we live it."

ATLANTA, GA - JANUARY 22: Matt Ryan #2 of the Atlanta Falcons celebrates with Aldrick Robinson #19 after a 14 yard touchdown run in the second quarter against the Green Bay Packers in the NFC Championship Game at the Georgia Dome on January 22, 2017 in At
Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

It wasn't this way in Quinn's first year with the team.

As the Falcons were cleaning up the slop from a disappointing season last January, Quinn watched as players said their farewells. When he noticed many of them exchanging phone numbers, he was taken aback. How could they have been teammates all season long and not had each other's numbers?

Until that moment, he didn't completely understand his team and what needed to change. The Falcons, he realized, were a group of individuals who shared space with one another but didn't share themselves.

"When we started the offseason, we were like a neighborhood," Quinn says. "Hey man, good to see you. We weren't tight. So the challenge was how to get from a neighborhood to a brotherhood."

Quinn didn't set out to rebuild his team with nails and two-by-fours. His objective was to enhance the feng shui.

He rearranged the locker room, eliminating the row of lockers in the center of the room so the space was more open and conducive to conversation. It meant smaller lockers for everyone, but the trade-off was worthwhile. Quinn mixed up locker assignments instead of grouping players by positions.

He also put a Ping-Pong table in the locker room in an effort to encourage face-to-face interaction and discourage cellphone isolation. In the team meeting room, he had a basketball hoop installed.

He hung a sign: "I Will Play For My Brother." Everyone put their signatures on it.

Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff and director of sports medicine and performance Marty Lauzon suggested a team-building session with the veteran Navy SEALs of Acumen Performance Group. Quinn, who has a deep appreciation for all things military, loved the idea. When players and coaches showed up for a meeting during offseason activities, Quinn surprised them all by having seven former SEALs waiting for them.

Over the next four days, the SEALs led the Falcons through team-building exercises that combined the physical, mental and emotional. Under the springtime sun, with the smell of sweat and Georgia mud in the air, the Falcons started coming together to form something new.

These days, it isn't unusual for Quinn to reference a lesson learned from the SEALs in a team meeting. Players sometimes can be found hanging out at 8 p.m., playing table tennis. They wear ball caps at that say "The Hood," short for the brotherhood.

Fifty-three Falcons have become one. Of all of their triumphs in 2016, this was the most significant.

Even old-timers like safety Dashon Goldson will tell you. "A lot of guys come from different places," says Goldson, who has played for eight head coaches in the NFL. "The more you click and are on the same page, the more you can accomplish. In San Francisco, we had a good football team, but we weren't as tight as this. The brotherhood goes a long way."

The concept of a brotherhood is not unique. Quinn came to appreciate its value when he worked as Pete Carroll's defensive coordinator in Seattle, where the mantra is "Love Our Brothers."

There are many similarities between Quinn and Carroll. Quinn is wise like a 70-year-old, energetic like a 20-year-old. He teaches the rugby-style tackling that Carroll espouses, and he starts each practice week with "Competition Wednesday," as the Seahawks do. He wants his team to be able to play "fast and physical," without too much thinking. The Seahawks play that way.

SEATTLE, WA - OCTOBER 16:  Head coach Pete Carroll (R) of the Seattle Seahawks is congratulated by head coach Dan Quinn of the Atlanta Falcons after the Seahawks beat the Falcons 26-24 at CenturyLink Field on October 16, 2016 in Seattle, Washington.  (Pho
Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images

But Quinn isn't all Carroll. In his 46 years, he also has been influenced by others he has worked for, including Nick Saban, Steve Mariucci and the late Joe Gardi, Quinn's former boss at Hofstra. Mostly, though, Quinn is himself.

Being himself means trying to harness greater forces to work for his team. This isn't about X's and O's as much as it's about gravity and tide. If the Falcons are an ocean, Quinn is the moon.

Dwight Freeney could have retired. The 36-year-old had 14 NFL seasons on his remarkable resume. He had all of the money and sacks he could ever dream of. He even had a Super Bowl ring. But the Bengals wanted him. So did the Falcons. He knew he still had something that could help an NFL team.

He licked a finger and put it in the air to see which way the wind might blow.

Once he visited the Falcons and met Quinn, he knew where he belonged. "He was probably the biggest reason I came here, honestly," Freeney says. "There was such a connection when I spoke to him. That's what makes him special."

Some coaches want to build a wall between themselves and their players. That isn't Quinn. Relationships are at the core of his coaching. From players who appreciate a coach who plays Tupac in his office to 74-year-old Falcons owner Arthur Blank, Quinn connects.

"He can fit in any group. And it's his true self. It's not made up," Atlanta defensive line coach Bryan Cox says.

If something is important to one of his players, Quinn wants to know about it. Falcons safety Ricardo Allen was impressed when Quinn started talking to him about his hometown of Daytona Beach, Florida. Quinn knew Allen and teammate Eric Weems had lived in the same area as kids. He talked about the Daytona 500. Allen learned things about his own hometown from talking to Quinn.

"He must study it," Allen says with a shrug.

Everyone knew Julio Jones was destined for greatness from about the time he had his first shave. People have been coming at him from all angles ever since. Because of this, he doesn't let many in. But he let in Quinn.

"Julio is particular about who he bonds with, and he has little patience for inauthenticity," Dimitroff says. "But he has bonded with Dan, and there is something special about it."

Quinn, the former defensive coach from Morristown, New Jersey, wouldn't seem to have much in common with Jones, the wide receiver from Foley, Alabama. But he found a way to penetrate the shell. "I'm not telling Julio what route is best or what technique to use, but I can help him with the competitor he is, the style he plays with," Quinn says.

John Bazemore/Associated Press

Quinn has made a special effort to ensure Jones and Ryan understand he has their backs. For his first five years in Atlanta, Jones mostly kept to himself and was content to follow the lead of others. He and Quinn had long talks about what Jones means to the team and how he needed to grow as a leader. Things changed this year.

Mutual trust has enabled empowered players, and player leadership is critical to Quinn. It isn't enough that he and his coaches are holding players accountable. He wants players to hold other players accountable. So he relies on Jones and Ryan—as well as Allen, defensive tackle Jonathan Babineaux, defensive end Tyson Jackson, center Alex Mack and others—to make sure every member of the roster is maintaining the "standard" he often references when addressing the team.

"When I hear the information coming from the players to one another, and the message is the same as it was from me to the coaches and the coaches to the players, that's what lights me up," Quinn says. "I so desperately wanted that to happen overnight, and it didn't. So for me to hear the guys talking about the standard and the process, this year, that has helped us."

Quinn handles his NFL players similarly to how Steve Kerr of the Golden State Warriors handles his NBA players. And it is no coincidence.

ATLANTA, GA - JANUARY 22: Head coach Dan Quinn and Matt Ryan #2 of the Atlanta Falcons celebrate after defeating the Green Bay Packers in the NFC Championship Game at the Georgia Dome on January 22, 2017 in Atlanta, Georgia. The Falcons defeated the Packe
Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

In his first year as a head coach, Kerr led the Warriors to 16 more wins than they had the previous year, along with an NBA championship. He did it through understated but powerful leadership—with humility, humor and empathy.

Shortly after he became a first-time head coach, Kerr visited Seattle's training camp to observe Carroll's team. He struck up a relationship with Quinn, sitting next to him in meetings and asking questions about what was being done and why.

These days, Kerr and Quinn get together when they find themselves in the same vicinity, as they did last spring when Quinn was in the Bay Area to scout players from Stanford and Cal. He stopped by the Warriors locker room before a game. They text one another throughout the year. They share an agent, Rick Smith of Priority Sports.

Quinn says he has learned by watching Kerr.

"Relationships come naturally for both of us," Kerr says. "Dan is very comfortable in his own skin, comfortable speaking with everybody. That's an important quality in a coach. You have to talk to all of your players, and your players are different. They have different personalities, different backgrounds. You also have to maintain relationships with coaches, management and owners."

Quinn's first season with the Falcons opened with a 6-1 record but fell apart with six straight losses from there. Dismay, anger and depression would have been understandable reactions from the head coach. But Quinn's demeanor never changed, players and assistant coaches say. He remained optimistic and composed, as always.

"There are a lot of coaches who take things out of perspective after one loss," says Cox, who also worked alongside Quinn with the Jets. "They won't talk to you. They start changing things. Not him. He's the most positive person you've ever met in your life. He's a true optimist—the opposite of me."

Kerr has taken note of the "really good vibe" coming from the Falcons. "They play fast and loose, and you can see they are having fun," he says. "Those are reflections of the way Dan carries himself."

Quinn's hopeful nature is evident in his lineups. If the Falcons open up in their nickel defense against the Patriots in Super Bowl LI, they are expected to start five rookies—safety Keanu Neal, middle linebacker Deion Jones, outside linebacker De'Vondre Campbell, nickel corner Brian Poole and tight end Austin Hooper.

Many head coaches are too worried about mistakes of inexperience to put their trust in rookies. Quinn, on the other hand, is intrigued by their potential. That glass is half full to Quinn, not half empty, even on football's biggest stage.

It's not like these players were recently promoted. Quinn and his staff have been preparing them for this since May.

"I knew with playing young guys, there would be some growing pains early, because there were going to be issues that come up they couldn't foresee," Quinn says. "Now that we've had reps and reps and reps, I don't see them as rookies anymore. They've had over 150 hours on the practice field since OTAs, hundreds of hours in the meeting room and game experience."

After spraining his ankle in the second quarter of the NFC Championship Game, Mack limped off the field. A four-time Pro Bowler who had survived seven years with the Browns, Mack refused to stay on the sideline for long.

"I didn't realize it until I was watching the film," Shanahan says. "He could barely move. He's hobbling around. He couldn't run to a guy. But he was doing everything he could—diving at people. That's the type of mentality that allows a team to go on a run the way we have."

Mack is an example of a player who received a high "C/T" grade from the Falcons. C/T stands for competitiveness and toughness. It was at Quinn's urging that the Falcons have emphasized C/T in their scouting process. "If we see a really good athlete and a fast guy, but he doesn't fit our requisite C/T grade, we steer clear," Dimitroff says.

They also call these players "DQ guys." Quinn learned the importance of competitiveness and toughness during his time with the Seahawks, and Dimitroff saw the value in emphasizing it.

Dimitroff came to the Falcons from the Patriots, where he had helped build a dynasty. He hired Mike Smith as head coach, drafted Ryan and traded up to take Jones, and the Falcons had winning seasons in each of his first five years. Then they went 10-22 in 2013 and 2014. Dimitroff beat back the wolves by firing Smith, which gave him the opportunity to work with a new coach with a slightly amended role.

At 50, Dimitroff has seen it all. One of his most admirable qualities is his openness to a new way of thinking. A road cyclist and rock climber, he was limber enough to bend for Quinn. Their partnership works.

"The connection that Thomas and I have is strong," Quinn says.

ATLANTA, GA - JANUARY 14:  Atlanta Falcons head coach Dan Quinn celebrates a win with GM Thomas Dimitroff against the Seattle Seahawks at the Georgia Dome on January 14, 2017 in Atlanta, Georgia.  (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)
Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

Judging character is a strength of Dimitroff's. "Some guys are searching for an angle to coach," he says. "Dan is not. His approach is his approach. He is an extremely authentic person, a great soul. He truly believes in a brotherhood and team camaraderie and collaboration. It may seem like a new-wave approach to the game, but that is him at the core. There is no feigning of that. Combine that with the fact he is very passionate, competitive and gritty, and I think you have the template of what the next generation of successful head coaches in this league are going to be."

Quinn won't be the most respected coach on the field in the Super Bowl. He might not get as many votes for Coach of the Year as Jason Garrett, Andy Reid, Jack Del Rio or Adam Gase. But it's possible none of them could have reached these 53 players the way Quinn did.

Quinn was the ideal coach for this team at this time. Blank chose him over Gase, Doug Marrone, Josh McDaniels, Keith Armstrong and Teryl Austin, all of whom interviewed for the job. Quinn also interviewed with the Jets, Browns, Vikings and 49ers.

His hard edge comes from Jersey. The free thinking is from the left coast. And he found home in the Deep South. This is where he belongs.

And now, the Super Bowl is where the Falcons belong. Says Dimitroff, "This guy brought the team to life."


Dan Pompei covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @danpompei.