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A Falcons locker room that refuses to wallow in Super Bowl disaster

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Ryan discusses how he's dealt with Super Bowl loss (0:43)

Atlanta Falcons QB Matt Ryan said the Falcons played aggressive all year so that wasn't going to change going into last season's Super Bowl matchup against the New England Patriots. (0:43)

This story appears in ESPN The Magazine's Sept. 4 College Football Preview Issue. Subscribe today!

STEVE KERR WAITED about a week before he texted Dan Quinn. He knew how many sympathy messages the Falcons coach must be getting -- Kerr got about 50 after his Golden State Warriors blew a 3-1 lead in the 2016 NBA Finals. The last thing a beaten man wants is people feeling sorry for him. Those first few days, Kerr found comfort in commiserating with fellow Warriors, who knew exactly what he was going through. Quinn did the same. While the Patriots celebrated deep into the night after their historic 25-point comeback victory in Super Bowl LI, the Falcons carried through with a planned party on three floors of the Westin hotel. Well, it wasn't really a party; food and drinks were served, but everyone felt sick. Still, there was a need to be around the team, even while surrounded by family and friends, to process what had just happened.

It wouldn't hit some of them until days, even weeks, later. Veteran kicker Matt Bryant was at his beach house in Alabama when the loss finally sunk in. "Maybe you shake your head, being in this for 15 years and finally getting to that moment," Bryant says. "But you go on to the next one."

If it were simple, maybe Kerr could have texted Quinn with some grand insight into how he was overcoming his blown title. The Warriors were on their way to facing LeBron James' Cavaliers yet again in the NBA Finals, and this time they would go on to beat them soundly, and now Kerr has seven rings as a coach and player. And he still longs for the one he doesn't have.

"That loss will never leave Dan or any of those guys. But you know what? It's life."

Warriors coach Steve Kerr

"I think certain games, certain losses, probably will stay with you forever," Kerr says now. "That loss will never leave Dan or any of those guys. But you know what? It's life, and you go back to work the next day, and you go out to dinner with your family, or you go to your kid's baseball game, or you go out to a movie with some friends, go to a bar, and you start living again.

"You've got to remember it's not the end of the world, even though some people actually want you to feel like it is. But you can't live your life that way. If you feel like it's the end of the world, you're not going to be very happy. So you pout, and you dwell on it for a while, and life goes on."


THE PLAN WAS to go to Falcons camp and check in on the lonely team that fell victim to the largest comeback in Super Bowl history and see whether life went on. Do the Falcons blast hip-hop and macho rock through large speakers, enthusiastically knocking one another around, or do they quietly mope to Bon Iver?

Is there infighting and finger-pointing? The last team to suffer a Super Bowl defeat nearly this devastating was Seattle in 2014, with Quinn on the sideline as the Seahawks' defensive coordinator. (The Patriots were the soul stompers that time too.) Quinn spent three years under Pete Carroll, so it was natural that he'd bring some of Carroll with him to the Falcons -- the attacking, strutting defense, the touchy-feely team-bonding philosophy. But no system is perfect, and after two seasons, the Seahawks are still struggling to move beyond Super Bowl XLIX. We saw that during an offseason of drama surrounding defensive leader Richard Sherman, briefly placed on the trading block while continuing to stew over the Super Bowl loss, according to an ESPN story.

Will the Falcons fracture too? You will not get a direct answer from Quinn, because he isn't talking about last year anymore. He opened the wound at the NFL combine, then at the owners meetings, and to the local media in the offseason. He told reporters he watched the game at least 10 times, playing every snap over in excruciating detail. Now he's finished and he's not doing it anymore. He wants his players to move forward, and how can they do that if he keeps looking back?

The Falcons are fine, he says, and he agrees to do an interview if he can explain why. It will inevitably sound cheesy, loaded with clich├ęs and gung-ho talk, and with the word "brotherhood" seemingly plastered everywhere. But Quinn will not flinch. He is out to forge the best culture in sports off the worst loss in NFL history. He has picked the brains of successful people, such as Kerr, Chicago Cubs skipper Joe Maddon and Cleveland Indians manager Terry Francona, who have all come back from demoralizing defeats. The Falcons have had former Navy SEALs come in the past two years to teach the players about teamwork and accountability, and Quinn's players have carried gigantic logs together. He says the team is unified.

He sits down at a table in his office, near a clock on the wall that has no numbers. Each of the 12 spots is replaced by the word "now," reminding him to stay in the moment. "The more we do that," Quinn says, "the clearer I usually am mentally."

But look, people naturally want to know how he's doing. How they're doing. Quinn is about 30 minutes into this interview -- he's almost finished -- when he's asked that very question, and he slips for a moment, because you can't talk about the Falcons' future without at least acknowledging the past.

"We for damn sure aren't going to let people outside our walls tell us how we're supposed to feel. You don't play. ... We play, and this is our season. And we're going to go for it like crazy in '17."

Falcons coach Dan Quinn

"Our mindset is really ... it's really locked," Quinn says. "We for damn sure aren't going to let people outside our walls tell us how we're supposed to feel. You don't play. People who write about us don't play. We play, and this is our season. And we're going to go for it like crazy in '17.

"But it doesn't have s--- to do with 2016. It's not a redemption tour. It's to see how good we can get."


IT IS FATE, perhaps, that this meltdown happened to land at the feet of one of the NFL's most positive thinkers. Quinn does not have many bad days. In another life, he might have been a military man, the guy with the bugle who wakes everyone up, convinced it's going to be a spectacular day.

That's one of the things that drew Steve Kerr to Quinn. Just after Kerr took his first head-coaching job at Golden State, he went to Seattle for training camp in 2014 to watch Carroll and Quinn. He loved their energy, their competitive spirit and how every practice seemed fun. Every day, even though it was training camp, Quinn seemed excited.

"My glass is way fuller," Quinn says. "I'm not Pollyannaish, and I try not to let as many things jam me up, and that's a constant work in progress to say, 'Why did I react that way in this situation?' For the most part, I choose to live my life that way.

"I get pissed off about stuff. And that's when I confront it. If somebody is doing something wrong that could hurt the team, you will feel it. Significantly. You won't be a part of what we do."

The Falcons went 8-8 in Quinn's first season in 2015, and at the end of the season, he realized he needed to work harder on team building. He'd watched two players exchange phone numbers before they left for the offseason, and Quinn was incredulous that two guys who played the same position didn't already have each other's contact info.

So Quinn moved the locker assignments around and mixed offensive players with defensive players and kickers. He coined even more corny catchphrases. It helped that the Falcons had an unusually high number of young starters (three rookies started at least 10 games). But some of the veterans, at first, were skeptical. "I think it's kind of a natural first impression to think, 'Are they serious about this?'" says Chris Chester, who played guard in Quinn's first two seasons. "There is a business aspect of football that's like the elephant in the room when you talk about brotherhood. Because you know in training camp and OTAs everyone in the room is not going to make the team."

Chester had played four tumultuous and mostly losing seasons in Washington, so he craved Atlanta's harmony. He bought into Quinn. He'd never seen anything quite like it, a team that knocked each other around in practice, then went over notes on how the other guy beat him. Chester could go to Dwight Freeney, a surefire Hall of Fame defensive end, and ask for pointers, and there was no weirdness. He could also go up to young Grady Jarrett with advice on what's making him vulnerable on Sundays. "What you're hearing from the team is real," Chester says. "It's not lip service; it's not like a sales pitch."

But no kumbayas could insulate a team from the carnage of Super Bowl LI. The Falcons led 28-3 midway through the third quarter. With 8:31 left in the fourth, they were leading by 16. Facing third-and-1, they drew up a pass that resulted in Matt Ryan getting leveled and fumbling. On the next possession, with 4:40 left, they had first down at the New England 22 and could have iced the game with a field goal. They wound up punting. The gassed defense collapsed; the offense was a series of bloopers.

Surely, there was finger-pointing. Chester insists there wasn't, because every player truly felt he had tried as hard as he possibly could.

He retired in March to spend more time with his family. Nearly six months later, he still thinks about the Super Bowl. How could he not?

"Every once in a while it comes up, like a commercial will come on and show the Patriots celebrating, and it kind of gets me a little bit," he says. "If I tell my kids it's just a game -- I know it hurts, but ultimately, it's just a game -- then I need to live that. But it does kind of jump up and bite me once in a while."


QUINN WANTS YOU to meet a group of guys he calls the Chiefs. It's a military thing, of course, that came from the Navy SEALs. Chiefs, according to Quinn, are players who uphold the team standard for all 90 guys. Quinn can't be everywhere, and he doesn't want to be. He wants them to play for one another, not for him. The Chiefs are voted on by the team, and this year, there are supposedly 13, though it seems there might be more as they cram into a hallway after a night practice. Matt Ryan is a Chief, of course, and so is all-world receiver Julio Jones.

But some lesser-known guys are Chiefs too. One of Quinn's favorites is Ricardo Allen.

Allen is a free safety who was the 147th pick in the 2014 draft. It was Allen who showed up early every day this spring, without being told, to help mentor rookie linebacker Duke Riley. Quinn calls Allen a "fantastic leader." The Chiefs spread Quinn's message. They sound just like him.

"If you do your job," Jones says, "your brother is going to do his job, and throughout the line, people are going to be successful."

"If you throw the team under the bus," Allen says, "you're not going to be able to make the plays you need to make."

If there was a sign that the Falcons had moved on together, it came in April, when Ryan organized an informal team workout at the University of Miami in Coral Gables. More than 40 players showed up, from both offense and defense. They ran and worked out together and went out to dinners and laughed. Ryan says it was a time to "set the tone for what we wanted this offseason and this season to look like."

Ryan, who's known for being vanilla and boring, has revealed more of himself recently. This summer he did a Gatorade commercial that featured accomplished athletes talking about their failures. The question, posed by Michael Jordan: "Do you want to know the secret to victory?" Ryan's answer: "Defeat."


THE FALCONS DO, by the way, still blast the macho rock and hip-hop during training camp. To the outside observer, they look like most teams in August: eager, hot and ready to play actual games. For months, the reporters who cover Atlanta have been looking for any signs of dissension.

D. Orlando Ledbetter, a longtime Falcons writer for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, has yet to see much. There have been no fistfights in camp, no known airing of grievances. Practices are actually faster and more spirited because the rookies who started last year don't need as much teaching. Ledbetter says the team looks more talented, too. "There are some collegiate and high school qualities [to Quinn's methods]," he says. "But he's got them believing in it.

"The next test is what they do when they get a lead. Are they going to be able to close it out, or are they going to be fighting these demons?"

They don't talk about it, the fact that no team since 1994 has made it back to the Super Bowl after losing the previous one. "You don't learn your lessons until you're in them again," Quinn says. "This is about now. So let's go with it. Why wouldn't you set your hair on fire and go for it and let it rip?"

The 2017 season will show whether Quinn has produced a culture that can defy history. Until then, it's love and brotherhood.

There is an offseason acquisition in Quinn's large, and relatively bare, office. It's a giant framed copy of a parable called "The Tale of Two Wolves." It hangs on a wall facing Quinn's desk, near the now clock, so he sees it every day. In the story, an old Cherokee tells his grandson about a battle that goes on inside people, a battle between two wolves. One wolf is full of anger, doubt, sorrow and regret; the other has love, joy, peace and hope. The grandson thinks for a minute, then asks his grandfather, "Which wolf wins?"

The old Cherokee replies, "The one you feed."