2020 NFL Preview: Falcons coach Dan Quinn somehow saved his job again

Frank Schwab
·10 min read

Yahoo Sports is previewing all 32 teams as we get ready for the NFL season, counting down the teams one per weekday in reverse order of our initial 2020 power rankings. No. 1 will be revealed on Aug. 5.

(Yahoo Sports graphics by Paul Rosales)
(Yahoo Sports graphics by Paul Rosales)

In Week 8 last season, the Atlanta Falcons trailed the Seattle Seahawks 24-0 at halftime. The Falcons rallied some in the second half but lost 27-20. They fell to 1-7.

When team owner Arthur Blank was asked about coach Dan Quinn’s future after the game, he said it was “a very fair question.” The Falcons had a bye coming up. Blank said he’d evaluate things. To practically anyone who read or heard the comments, or knows how the NFL operates, Quinn seemed done as Falcons coach.

“I would say, much like the coaches said, I am extraordinarily disappointed in the season,” Blank said when the Falcons were 1-7. “Nobody would have anticipated 1-7 and the lack of consistency.”

The odds of Quinn coaching the Falcons’ next game seemed slim. The odds of him still being coach going into the 2020 season were off the charts. After the 2018 season Quinn fired his offensive, defensive and special teams coordinators after going 7-9 and was on the hot seat before the season started. Then he found himself in a 1-7 hole.

Yet he survived. Blank didn’t fire Quinn. The Falcons went 6-2 after the bye. Quinn took former Tampa Bay Buccaneers head coach Raheem Morris and moved him from receivers coach to the defense, and that unit took off. The offense played well. For the second straight year, a late rally gave the Falcons new hope going into an offseason.

The defense had to be retooled this offseason. There were changes at running back and tight end. But a lot of key pieces are back, most notably quarterback Matt Ryan, receivers Julio Jones and Calvin Ridley, linebacker Deion Jones and defensive tackle Grady Jarrett.

So is Quinn. He’s 43-37 in five seasons and famously took Atlanta to the brink of winning Super Bowl LI before ... ah, we won’t say it again, Falcons fans. One reason Blank gave for retaining Quinn was that the players like him. That seems accurate; had the players wanted him out, all it would have taken was another loss or two. They played hard, won, and will try again.

There still is reason for hope in Atlanta. Ryan wasn’t quite to his 2015 or 2018 level last season, but he still is a quality quarterback with plenty of talent around him. The offensive line can’t help but be healthier. The defense played very well in the second half with a simplified scheme, and now Morris is the full-time defensive coordinator. The magic of 2016 might not be coming back, but Atlanta could be much better than the past two seasons, simply by avoiding a dreadful start this time around.

Who knows how many wins Quinn needs to survive another season. It’s probably wise to not be 1-7 again, or anything close to it. He beat some long odds to still be with the Falcons. He won’t want to get so close to the edge this time.

Falcons receiver Julio Jones and coach Dan Quinn celebrate a touchdown by Jones. (Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)
Falcons receiver Julio Jones and coach Dan Quinn celebrate a touchdown by Jones. (Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)

The Falcons made a few swaps. At running back, Devonta Freeman for Todd Gurley (upgrade). Pass rusher, it was Vic Beasley Jr. for Dante Fowler Jr. (upgrade). Tight end changed from Austin Hooper to Hayden Hurst, acquired in a trade with the Baltimore Ravens (downgrade, though Hurst could surprise). And at cornerback Desmond Trufant moved on and will be replaced by first-round pick A.J. Terrell (we’ll see). The Falcons would have been better off drafting Oklahoma receiver CeeDee Lamb over Terrell, but picking a cornerback was a move from a regime that has to win now — though Lamb could have helped with that too. The draft wasn’t a smash hit and free agency was mostly replacing pieces that left. It was fine, but nothing transformative.

GRADE: C

Matt Ryan’s 2019 season can be summed up easily: When the offensive line was battered with injuries, Ryan’s play went south. According to Pro Football Focus, Ryan’s passer rating was 101.5 in a clean pocket and 73.8 when he was under pressure. And Ryan faced his highest percentage of pressure since 2013, PFF said. Ryan was sacked a career-high 48 times, leading the NFL. The Falcons’ preferred offensive line played together for only 45 snaps all season. With better health and a step forward from 2019 first-round picks Chris Lindstrom and Kaleb McGary (McGary gave up an NFL-worst 13 sacks, according to PFF), the Falcons line should be better and Ryan should bounce back.

Should there be any concern about Julio Jones slowing down? He’s 31, and all receivers after age 30 could slip at any time. His yards per catch went down from 14.8 to 14.1. That’s his lowest mark since 2015 and tied for the second-lowest of his career. His catches, yards and touchdowns dropped last season. His yards after catch per reception was just 3.6, the lowest mark of his career, according to Pro Football Focus. His average depth of target, which PFF tracks, dropped 2 full yards from 14.3. The Falcons’ offense had a few issues that had nothing to do with Jones and that probably affected his play, but it’s still worth keeping in mind that his numbers were down in just about every significant way last season, as he entered his 30s.

The Falcons’ over/under win total is 7.5, and I’d lean to the under because of their inconsistency. This will seem like a contradiction, but the best wager regarding the Falcons at BetMGM is for them to win the division at +900 odds. The range of outcomes for the Falcons is very wide. Is there better than a 10 percent chance that the Falcons hit the highest range of their outcomes and are a surprise division champ? Sure, especially after their second-half play last season. The odds present good value.

From Yahoo’s Scott Pianowski: “Matt Ryan and Hayden Hurst aren’t the buzziest names on the draft board, but they’re both set up to be excellent fantasy values. Ryan currently trades as the QB9 in early Yahoo returns, while Hurst checks in at TE13.

“Ryan offers no rushing juice, but that’s also helped keep him hale into his mid-30s. Now he has a dream setup: an indoor home, mostly benign weather on the road [only a late-season visit to Kansas City looks like a potential problem], a pass-happy OC in Dirk Koetter, and a leaky Falcons defense on the other side, forcing the issue. Ryan is a good bet to lead the league in pass attempts.

“Hurst might be as talented as the tight end the Falcons let walk away, Austin Hooper. Atlanta used a second-round pick to procure Hurst, and the Falcons have a narrow, concentrated usage tree. It won’t be a shock if Hurst’s per-game haul is similar to the career year Hooper just had.”

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The Falcons inexplicably went from one of the worst defenses to one of the best at midseason. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s D. Orlando Ledbetter broke down the ranks from the first half to the second half in many key stats: takeaways (32nd to tied for second), sacks (32nd to tied for 10th), passes defensed (31st to tied for fourth), opponent drive-scoring efficiency (32nd to ninth) and opponent red-zone efficiency (31st to sixth). The Falcons used more zone coverage and relied more on a 4-3 scheme that might have helped boost the pass rush. Raheem Morris moved from offense to defense in midseason and will stay on as the defensive coordinator in 2020. Atlanta is replacing a few starters on defense but perhaps the improvement can stick.

Can Todd Gurley revitalize the Falcons’ run game?

Devonta Freeman had a rough 2019. That might have been due to a poor, injury-battered offensive line. Atlanta couldn’t run the ball well. Freeman was cut and replaced by Gurley, another back who was cut with a lot of questions about what he has left.

Gurley was better in advanced stats like Football Outsiders’ DYAR or defense-adjusted yards above replacement (Freeman was 39th among 45 qualified running backs, Gurley 21st) and FO’s DVOA defense-adjusted value over average (Freeman 37th, Gurley 25th) and Pro Football Focus’ grades (Freeman was 29th of 29 running backs with at least 150 carries, Gurley was 21st). Gurley, whose workload amid knee issues has been a hot topic for more than a year, had a solid second half. He rushed for 502 yards and six touchdowns with a 16-126-1 receiving line over his last eight games. That’s not vintage Gurley but it provides hope that he can help Atlanta’s run game.

Over the past couple years the Falcons have had perhaps the widest range of ceiling and floor. That was shown last year by their 1-7 first half followed by a 6-2 second half. Which Falcons team is it? The best-case scenario is really good. Matt Ryan can be a top-five quarterback. Julio Jones and Calvin Ridley are both top-end receivers. Then if the running game is better with a healthier offensive line and the defensive improvements stick, the Falcons could win 10 games or more.

We’ve seen the Falcons post a bad season with Matt Ryan having a tremendous year, so his presence alone doesn’t guarantee much. We want to believe in positive outcomes and what we saw most recently, but what if the first half of last season is more indicative of the real Falcons? The defense had a lot of turnover and questions remain, particularly in the secondary. If the offense ends up not having much pop outside of Julio Jones and Calvin Ridley and the defensive improvements in the second half last season were a mirage, the Falcons could lose 10 games or more.

The Falcons are interesting because they’re unpredictable. Nothing would be too surprising, from a division title to a top-10 pick in the 2021 draft. I’ll be a little pessimistic, figuring another losing season and more questions about Quinn’s future. It’s too hard to trust these Falcons can put a full season together.

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