When Dan Quinn was hired as the Atlanta Falcons' head coach in 2015, the first thing he did was install a basketball hoop in the team's meeting room. The idea was to spur greater competitiveness among players, which says something about the complacency into which the team had slid at the time. For a time, Quinn's plan -- Quinn's everything -- worked, the hip-hop playlists and high-energy demeanor elevating the Falcons to a Super Bowl appearance in February 2017.
That Super Bowl proved a fateful -- and maybe fatal -- turning point. The Falcons, of course, lost a 28-3 lead and then lost the game to the New England Patriots. The truth is that it's felt as if the franchise never fully recovered. The Falcons slipped into the playoffs the following year while finishing third in the NFC South, but then the slide accelerated. Each blown lead reopened that Super Bowl wound. The Falcons had two losing seasons, and after two big lost leads this season contributed to an 0-5 start, Quinn and general manager Thomas Dimitroff were fired on Sunday.
Asked why, owner Arthur Blank responded bluntly: "It's called lack of winning."
Now the Falcons have to make sure they are not lacking something else: direction.
Blank is an exceedingly patient owner -- he retained Quinn and Dimitroff after a similarly slow start last season was turned around with a 6-2 second half -- but he, and everybody else in the braintrust of the franchise, signed up only for playoffs or bust this season. It was bust, and now the Falcons are residing in the most unappealing real estate in the NFL -- the no-man's land between patching holes and a full rebuild.
In a video conference with reporters on Monday, Blank said he thought the record was not indicative of the talent on the roster. That, of course, is an indictment of coaching. But a winless team with a 35-year-old quarterback -- even a former MVP like Matt Ryan -- and a 31-year old star receiver in Julio Jones is a winless team with high-priced assets that is nowhere near being close to competing for another Super Bowl before those assets begin to depreciate.
With the coach and general manager both out, a full housecleaning would seem to be in the offing, and it has to at least be considered. And Blank and team president Rich McKay, who will assist Blank in the hiring of replacements for Dimitroff and Quinn, were both careful not to offer full-throated promises about what the roster would look like. McKay said there would not be a fire sale. But when Blank was asked about Ryan's future, and his desire to play until he is 40, Blank was notably non-committal about his team's cornerstone.
"Well, I love Matt, much like I love Dan and Thomas," Blank began, somewhat ominously, considering the fate that has befallen the latter pair. "Matt has been a franchise leader for us, a great quarterback, one of the leading quarterbacks in the last 13 years in the NFL. So, I hope he's going to be part of our plans going forward. But that will be a decision I won't make. Matt has the ability to play at a very high level, even at his age. Whether that's going to continue or not, I'm not sure. I appreciate his willingness to consider doing that, and the level of what he's played for 13 years, which has been incredible. So, we'll have to see. But, then again, that's going to be a decision that at the end of the day will be up to the player and the coaching staff. And whether or not Matt can keep himself together, and God willing, he'll be able to do that and play at the level he's capable of playing at."
No smart owner should tie the hands of his next general manager and head coach before they even have jobs. To begin a search by declaring the outcome of the single most important roster decision that must be made would be foolish, particularly because of the Falcons' circumstances, and it would surely eliminate some top candidates. The Falcons are one of three winless teams. The others, the Giants and Jets, have young quarterbacks. If the Falcons end the season with a draft pick that gives them an opportunity to select Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence, the most highly regarded quarterback in college football, should that chance really be eliminated during a job interview? The opportunity to build around Lawrence will be an enticing recruiting chip if the Falcons own it.
The Falcons shouldn't slam the door on moving other assets, too. A Miami Dolphins-style roster deconstruction might seem unappealing on paper, but teams that accumulate bountiful assets can accelerate their rebuilds with smart hiring and good draft decisions. Jones would surely be attractive to a contending team right now. The Falcons have to at least listen if someone calls. It is trading short-term pain -- a sell-off would almost certainly torpedo interim coach Raheem Morris' chance to win the job full-time -- for the potential of long-term, sustained gain.
That is something Quinn could not deliver to the Falcons after he instilled competitiveness and drove the franchise to its achingly brief dalliance with a championship. It's time for the Falcons to apply no more bandages to this team. Let the wounds of the past failure finally heal and build for a stronger future, starting now.