The conclusion to Super Bowl XLIX allowed the Falcons to reveal the worst-kept secret in the NFL when they officially announced Seahawks defensive coordinator Dan Quinn as their new head coach.
Like five of his six fellow new head coaches, Quinn comes from the defensive side of the ball. He spent the past two seasons coordinating the dominant Seattle defense, taking over for Gus Bradley—who rode the same gig to the Jaguars’ head coaching job two years ago.
While Quinn won’t be able to bring to Atlanta the players that made Seattle’s defense so effective, he has indicated he’ll bring the style and attitude—and rugby-style tackling methods—to his new job.
“For us to play that style, we won’t have 1,000 different defenses,” Quinn said at his introductory press conference, noting that his defense would be more about “how we play it. That style will be real clear to come across in terms of the style and the attitude that we play.”
Quinn added that his defense would “best feature the players that we have,” and that his first task would be getting to know that personnel so he could “feature them in the best way.”
Quinn also plans to be involved in defensive game planning, though whether he actually calls the signals on game day remains to be seen.
Joining Quinn in rebuilding Atlanta’s defense will be new coordinator Richard Smith, who spent the past three seasons coaching Denver’s linebackers. Smith has been a DC twice before, 2005 in Miami and 2006 through 2008 in Houston.
Quinn has also added Raheem Morris to the Atlanta staff as the passing game defensive coordinator. The former Buccaneers head coach has most recently been overseeing the Washington secondary.
Quinn was a finalist for the head coaching job in Cleveland last offseason, with the Browns ultimately opting not to wait until after the Super Bowl to tab Mike Pettine as their head honcho. Kyle Shanahan, however, did sign on as offensive coordinator in Cleveland last year and after getting out of his situation there he was available to connect with his friend Quinn in Atlanta.
At his introductory press conference Quinn cited Shanahan as one of the toughest offensive coordinators to prepare a defense for, and Shanahan has been held in high regard since becoming the youngest coordinator in NFL history when he started calling plays for the Texans at the age of 28 in 2008.
Shanahan has held the offensive coordinator for each of the past seven seasons, spanning three organizations. His two seasons in Houston, under new Broncos coach Gary Kubiak, yielded offenses that ranked in the top five in both passing and total offense. Matt Schaub let the NFL in passing in 2009 with 4, 770 yards and Andre Johnson topped 100 receptions and 1,500 receiving yards each of his seasons in Shanahan’s offense.
From there Shanahan joined his father in Washington to direct the Redskins’ offense for four seasons. Washington’s offenses finished in the top 10 in total offense twice in those four seasons, and in 2012 and 2013 ranked in the top five in rushing offense as Shanahan turned Alfred Morris into an elite back with 2,888 rushing yards in two season.
When the Redskins cleaned house after the 2013 season Shanahan took the OC job in Cleveland. Again, he built a productive ground game out of spare parts—free agent Ben Tate and rookies Terrence West and Isaiah Crowell—and the Browns ranked fourth in the league in rushing scores. However, losing center Alex Mack to an injury midway through the season sent the running game into a tailspin; without a rushing attack to lean on the Browns began spinning the quarterback carousel and from there everything went south.
So where does that leave Shanahan in Atlanta? For starters, Matt Ryan is easily the best quarterback he’s had a chance to work with as offensive coordinator. And if you liked Julio Jones last season, get ready to fall in love. Shanahan’s offenses have always generated productive X receivers, and when you consider guys like the aforementioned Andre Johnson and Pierre Garçon have had 100-catch seasons under Shanahan the ceiling for Jones—who caught 104 balls on 164 targets last year—is extremely high.
Shanahan offenses frequently feature the tight end as a second option, but in Tony Gonzalez’s absence last season the Falcons largely ignored the position. Atlanta would need to address the position via free agency or a Day 2 draft pick for there to be projectable fantasy value here, but if they do it could cut into expected numbers for Roddy White and Harry Douglas.
Of course, Shanahan brings with him the zone blocking system and it’s here where his addition could have the greatest impact on the Atlanta offseason. Shanahan will need to determine quickly if a Falcons’ offensive line built to power-block for Steven Jackson can transition to the ZBS. And certainly Jackson isn’t the kind of back who typically finds success in the one-cut-and-go system. Neither are Jaquizz Rodgers or Antone Smith, though Devonta Freeman did play in that system in college. Shanahan completely revamped the Browns’ backfield a year ago, so don’t be surprised if he does something similar in Atlanta—especially with a free agent like Justin Forsett available and quality running backs lasting later and later in the draft.
Shanahan will also have Bobby Turner helping to coach up the ground game as Atlanta’s new running backs coach. Turner coached Broncos backs under the elder Shanahan and helped Kyle coach up Alfred Morris in Washington, so he’ll be a definite asset in Atlanta.
How quickly Shanahan and Turner can resurrect the Atlanta ground game will go a long way towards determining the overall success of this offense, as his passing game is predicated on play action. However, his track record suggests there should be little cause for concern regarding Ryan or Jones, and his ground-game success bodes well for Freeman or whomever the Falcons opt to go with in the backfield.
Last year’s buzz word for the Falcons was “physical”, and that word was brought up again during Quinn’s introductory presser. However, he added “fast” to “physical” and that’s a better fit for what Shanahan’s offense will look like in Atlanta. Several key pieces are already in place, and some success in rounding out the other spots could lead to plenty of fireworks from the Georgia Dome scoreboard this season.