Quinn, Shanahan, and Smith: The Atlanta Falcons' Coaching Triumvirate
There have been some fantastic triumvirates in world history. The First Triumvirate of the Roman Empire was comprised of Pompey, Crassus, and Julius Caesar. The Second Triumvirate of the Roman Empire was the alliance formed between Caesar Augustus, Mark Antony, and Lepidus after Julius Caesar’s assassination. There was also the legendary grunge band of Seattle, Nirvana, featuring Kurt Cobain, Krist Novoselic, and Dave Grohl.
The Atlanta Falcons may have assembled one to rival all of these, however, with their 2015 coaching trio of defensive coordinator Richard Smith, offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan, and now head coach Dan Quinn. Eat your heart out, Caesar.
Rookie head coach Quinn –- who has engineered two back-to-back Super Bowl caliber defensive units for the Seattle Seahawks –- looks to lead this Atlanta franchise into a new era. The Falcons have long had potent offensive potential, but this staff is going to pair that with a reinvented, reinvigorated defensive image. Can this trio bring them back from the brink in 2015?
Crossing the Rubicon
Since general manager Thomas Dimitroff took the reins of this organization in 2008, he has led an offense-focused overhaul. Starting with their selections of quarterback Matt Ryan and offensive tackle Sam Baker in the first round of that year’s draft, they signed running back Michael Turner and made the playoffs largely on the backs of their jumpstarted offense. During the 2011 draft, the Falcons even made a massive trade with the Cleveland Browns, sending five picks in order to receive the sixth overall selection and take wide receiver Julio Jones out of Alabama.
That trade has become emblematic of the organization’s shortcomings, as it has left the Falcons’ roster top-heavy and lopsided to one side of the ball.
We can see just how poorly the Falcons have fared on defense of late by examining their production by Net Expected Points (NEP) since 2008. NEP is a measure of more than raw production in the box score; it gives context to stat lines, and assesses a truer value for players’ contributions to their teams. When we check out the Atlanta defense’s rankings in NEP over the last seven years, just how bad does it look?
|Year||Adj. Def NEP Rank||Adj. Def Pass NEP Rank||Adj. Def Rush NEP Rank|
At first glance, this doesn’t seem all that bad. The Falcons have averaged the 19th place in the league in Adjusted Defensive NEP (adjusted for strength of opponent) over the last seven years, fairly middle-of-the-road, and have had two top-10 overall seasons –- 2011 and 2012 –- in the league. But look again. Those two seasons were their only recent years in the top half of the league on defense. Excepting those seasons, the Falcons have averaged 23rd in the NFL in Adjusted Defensive NEP, and have been almost completely random when looking at Adjusted Defensive Passing NEP and Adjusted Defensive Rushing NEP.
This is a team with no defensive identity, one that shifted to a 3-4 front this past season not for any particular schematic benefit, but because they didn’t have enough players to play a 4-3. The defense in Atlanta is a mess, and no one has been able to create anything sustainable with it yet.
Enter Dan Quinn.
Are You Not Entertained?
Fresh off the heels of a solid showing in Seattle’s second straight Super Bowl appearance, Seahawks defensive coordinator Quinn will be the new head coach of the Falcons. Along with new Falcons’ defensive coordinator Richard Smith –- former defensive coordinator in Miami with Nick Saban, and in Houston with Gary Kubiak –- Quinn is expected to turn this unit around. Can Quinn help to shape this motley crew in Atlanta into a force to be reckoned with, like the Legion of Boom? What should we expect?
First of all, we can expect the 3-4 front that Atlanta patched together in 2014 to disappear again. Quinn and Smith have both historically run a one-gapping 4-3 scheme in their defenses. What this means is that the defensive linemen each have only one gap in-between the offensive linemen assigned as their responsibility. Instead of holding formation like a two-gap scheme demands, one-gapping linemen shoot in and try to disrupt the play as much as possible in that way. Prior to the 3-4, Atlanta had run a 4-3 with Cover 2 principles –- meaning a lot less blitzing and a lot more zone coverage in the secondary. The Quinn-Smith scheme should be much more aggressive.
But how will it produce value? With Quinn the likely primary play-caller, the table below shows how his Seattle defenses have performed in Adjusted Defensive NEP ranks over the past two years. Does Quinn have the cred to revamp this defense?
|Year||Adj. Def NEP Rank||Adj. Def Pass NEP Rank||Adj. Def Rush NEP Rank|
Now, yes, it’s a scarily small sample size, but if you wanted to argue with me that Dan Quinn is currently the best defensive coordinator in the National Football League, I’d have a hard time refuting that idea. He has not yet finished outside the top-three in Adjusted Defensive NEP in a season, and both phases of his Seahawks’ defenses have been top 10 in value. There’s not much else to say: a team like Seattle’s, with huge personalities and rebellious streaks all over, respects the work that Quinn does and enables his schemes. Of course, this is an extraordinarily talented defensive unit, but he is the glue that holds them together. This is absolutely the best-case scenario for the Atlanta Falcons after missing out on Rex Ryan -– and it may still prove better than Rex anyway.
Richard Smith hasn’t coordinated a successful defense since his time with Saban in Miami, and that was a fairly middling unit, ranking 15th in Adjusted Defensive NEP. His Texans years were rough, but the important thing to realize about Smith is that when he was paired with a strong defensive-minded head coach, he was pretty good. Allowed to focus on coaching up the players and not worry about play calling, Smith should be just fine in Atlanta as Quinn’s assistant.
When in Rome…
Still important to consider: what will new offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan do with these high-octane players? Having worked under offensive gurus such as Gary Kubiak and his father, Mike Shanahan, Kyle Shanahan has never been able to create his own offense from the ground up. He’ll get that chance here. However, historical precedent says that Shanahan tends to run a horizontal, quick-hitting precision passing offense, paired with a stretch rushing attack and zone blocking scheme.
Interestingly, Matt Ryan has not yet played in a primarily precision passing system, as former offensive coordinators Mike Mularkey and Dirk Koetter preferred a vertical attack. I wouldn’t expect Shanahan to handcuff Ryan at all, instead using his deep accuracy as a continued tool, but perhaps we will see more high-percentage short passes if he molds his quarterback into more of a West Coast Offense scheme.
Similarly, since 2008, the Falcons have run a man-power run scheme, so Shanahan’s stretch-zone would be a huge culture change for the Dirty Birds. It’s one that seems certain to benefit speedy space players like Jacquizz Rodgers and Devonta Freeman, but bigger, aging back Steven Jackson may find himself a bit out of place. Jackson is a very good receiver, but might not have the athleticism to take the edge like he used to.
Veni, Vidi, Vici
The most important thing here is that Quinn and Shanahan are very adept at adapting their schemes to fit their personnel. They won’t be married to any one idea if it doesn’t work, and I see that as a huge strength for a Falcons team that will likely continue to struggle as it gets back on its feet in 2015. Shortly after that, though, look out: we might see that all roads through this NFL lead to Atlanta.