The Atlanta Falcons find themselves in an 0-2 hole after their historic collapse in Sunday's 40-39 road loss to the Dallas Cowboys. The Falcons squandered a 20-0 lead, which was their largest blown lead since Super Bowl LI against the New England Patriots, whom they led by 25. What was coach Dan Quinn's message to the team on Monday? There can be no more tales of two halves.
"That responsibility is on everyone: players, coaches -- everyone," Quinn said.
So what's next for Quinn and the Falcons? A drastic change is possible if things don't get corrected. Here are some of the biggest questions facing the team:
Will the Falcons fire Quinn immediately?
Probably not, but his seat is getting warmer. Before Sunday's debacle, teams were 440-0 when scoring at least 39 points with no turnovers since 1933, according to Elias Sports Bureau research. Quinn, who has a 43-39 career regular-season record, was asked how he explained the implosion to owner Arthur Blank and assured him everything wouldn't fall apart.
“No. 1, I spend my time thinking about the team and our execution and how we're going to go play. My focus, my attention, my time is on our team, the locker room, and the players. And really, that's where I keep my focus, and moving ahead here to Chicago. We (Quinn and Blank) talk regularly, mostly about the game and the players. ... That's usually where our conversations are going toward."
Blank, who has owned the Falcons since 2002, has never fired a coach during the season -- though he was going to fire Dan Reeves at the end of the 2003 season before the coach resigned. The last time the Falcons fired a coach in-season, according to team accounts, was in 1968 when Norb Hecker was let go after an 0-3 start and was replaced by Norm Van Brocklin.
"Well, you think about, do you want to respond out of doing something that’s immediate and respond out of disappointment, that sadness, maybe anger, frustration, which all of our fans felt, and I understand why," Blank said in an interview Monday with SiriusXM NFL Radio. “Or think about, ‘How do we correct this?' There's 14 more games to play in the season. We have a lot of games left to play and there are certain aspects of our performance in the first two games which have been really good. Some parts have not been good."
If the Falcons lose to a subpar Bears team at home Sunday to fall to 0-3, something dramatic could happen. Blank made it clear he wouldn’t tolerate mediocrity following back-to-back 7-9 seasons. He kept Quinn and general manager Thomas Dimitroff with the expectation of making the playoffs. Even if the Falcons beat the Bears, they face the high probability of a 1-3 start with a Week 4 Monday Night Football matchup against Aaron Rodgers in Green Bay.
If Quinn were replaced, who would take over as interim head coach?
There will be some debate about that. The first names that come to mind are defensive coordinator Raheem Morris and offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter. Both have been head coaches before -- Morris with the Buccaneers from 2009 to 2011 (17-31 record) and Koetter with the Bucs from 2016 to 2018 (19-29). Morris seems to have a better feel for managing the entire group of players, with his experience coaching on both the offensive and defensive sides of the ball and his player-friendly personality. But Koetter has the most recent head-coaching experience, which might factor in along with him being an offensive-minded coach on a team that relies more on its offensive weapons.
When Quinn was asked before the season who would oversee the team if he was sidelined by COVID-19, he said assistant head coach/linebackers Jeff Ulbrich with help from senior defensive assistant Bob Sutton. Ulbrich has not been a head coach, while Sutton was the head coach at Army from 1990 to 1999. Ulbrich is beloved by the players, though.
If Quinn stays, will he make any coaching changes?
Quinn was asked that after the loss in Dallas and responded with an emphatic “no." But he might not have a choice if it saves his job. He made some adjustments last season after the 1-7 start, giving up defensive playcalling and moving Morris from coaching wide receivers to coaching defensive backs, with Morris and Ulbrich sharing defensive playcalling. Then he named Morris the defensive coordinator after the season. Quinn said Monday that he has no plans to change playcalling responsibilities.
The blame shouldn't fall on one assistant. Morris took blame for underestimating Russell Wilson’s pocket-passing ability in the opener. Koetter knew he should have stuck to the run game more against Seattle and responded with a more balanced, effective attack at Dallas. Special teams coordinator Ben Kotwica needs to be held accountable for the failed onside kick recovery that led to the stunning Cowboys win even if it was Jaeden Graham, Hayden Hurst and Olamide Zaccheaus who didn't fall on the ball. Quinn himself has to take ownership for a failed 2-point conversion attempt in Dallas that might have made a difference. Every aspect needs to be evaluated for a team that was supposed to be riding the momentum of a 6-2 finish to last season.
What can the defense do to get back on track?
"Clearly our defense is not playing at the level we want to see it play at," Blank said in the SiriusXM interview.
The Falcons have given up 78 points and 953 yards through two games. Those numbers are astonishing when you consider Quinn is a defensive-minded coach. But forget about the yards for a second. The more telling number is the Falcons’ red zone defense, which has allowed opponents to convert touchdowns on nine of 10 red zone trips. That’s inexcusable. Morris has to get his unit to tighten up in coverage. Maybe the Falcons will get a break this week against a Bears offense that is 3-of-6 in red zone scoring.
There were communication problems in the opener that affected the defense's performance. The Falcons looked much improved, at least in the first half, against Dallas -- creating takeaways to set the offense up in great scoring position and bringing timely pressure with blitzes. Losing linebacker Foye Oluokun (three forced fumbles against Dallas), defensive captain Ricardo Allen and pass-rusher Takk McKinley to injuries in the second half hurt, as the Falcons surrendered 367 yards and four touchdowns.
The Falcons need speedy cornerback Kendall Sheffield to return from a foot injury that has kept him out the first two games. He has elite speed with the ability to recover and make a play on those deep balls. The pass rush, led by Grady Jarrett and Dante Fowler Jr., has had its moments but needs to be more consistent. And the Falcons can't surrender big-chunk plays, like the one safeties Keanu Neal and Damontae Kazee and cornerback A.J. Terrell allowed in Cover 2, giving Cowboys receiver Amari Cooper a chance to make a one-handed grab for 58 yards that set up a critical touchdown. Terrell should have jammed Cooper at the line.
What can the Falcons do better on offense?
Well, scoring 39 points should be enough to win any week, but the Falcons found a way to spoil it. As wild as it sounds, they left some scoring opportunities out on the field against Dallas, such as Julio Jones dropping what would have been a 41-yard touchdown on a perfect pass from fellow wide receiver Russell Gage.
"Some of those where you have to settle for field goals, you're looking at just the smallest detail here or there, like maybe the checkdown was in the wrong spot or our spacing wasn't quite right in the routes," Koetter said. "There were three or four runs that were 4-, 5-, 6-yard runs that we were just one block away from maybe having those be explosive plays."
Gage added: "It all boils down to finish opportunities. How do we finish on this play? How do we finish on this game?"
The Falcons have been outscored 28-0 in the third quarter through the first two games, which is inexcusable with the weapons at quarterback Matt Ryan's disposal. Jones' lingering hamstring injury could be something to monitor because the offense is at its best when Jones is heavily involved, not just catching two passes for 24 yards.