It may not have been the most glamorous game on the schedule to start the season, but that doesn’t mean things can’t change in a fun, campy sort of way.
On Sunday, for the second week in a row, the NFL’s most electrifying offense gets a chance to prove their mettle against the stingiest, nastiest defense (sorry, Denver).
Matt Ryan and Julio Jones vs. Richard Sherman and Michael Bennett. Atlanta vs. Seattle.
Dan Quinn vs. Pete Carroll.
It would have all the makings of an early season Super Bowl preview, if there wasn’t the small little caveat that Atlanta did this whole dog-and-pony show last season, only to founder under the weight of their own deficiencies.
Last season, Atlanta head coach Dan Quinn – former defensive coordinator of the Seahawks, who helped propel them to the franchise’s only title in 2014 – took over for the oft-denigrated Mike Smith, and instantaneously messed everything up. Even though the Falcons roared out of the gate to a 5-0 start, the stylings of Quinn – defense – clashed with the personnel strengths of the team – offense.
It was a contrast of styles that would go horribly wrong; the team finished the season on a 3-8 streak (losing six in a row at one point); missed the playoffs; and left many wondering if the talents of quarterback Matt Ryan would ever be fully realized.
Since then, savvy moves and internal growth have seemingly transformed the team overnight. Much the same way Seattle built their championship-caliber rosters in the early 2010s.
On Sunday the Falcons went into defending Super Bowl champions Denver, and completely owned the defensive side of the ball. Last season, this scenario would have been hard to see (Atlanta finished a respectable 14th overall in points per game at 21.2), but was never able to rely on that side of the ball consistently.
But behind the emergence of pass rusher Vic Beasley – who had four sacks alone on Sunday – the Falcons seem to have the combination of fruitful youth (Keanu Neal, just 21 years old, graded out the highest for the Falcons), and veteran leadership (see: Adrian Clayborn), the Falcons have a unit capable of winning games even if their high-flying offense takes a week off.
Quinn was viewed as sort of a fulcrum for the Seahawks. His unit often determined the overall feats of success. When Wilson was drafted in 2011, the keys to the franchise were essentially turned over to the defense. And although his stint in the Emerald City was short, Quinn’s unit was other-worldly. In his first season as coordinator, Seattle led the league in fewest points allowed, fewest yards allowed and takeaways.
Most impressively, he did so on a team littered with talented, but brazenly young players. His ability to mold and teach was surely a huge draw for the Falcons.
Before his arrival, the Mike Smith era had fallen flat. In 2014, they bottomed out at 6-10; Smith, for all the head accomplished, had run his course. Matt Ryan and Julio Jones were being wasted. The window of opportunity that two franchise players like that have is so finite that a change had to be made. In Quinn, the Falcons found the perfect blend of toughness and organization. And, based on what they had seen in Seattle, the perfect blueprint for success.
If you can’t beat them, steal one of their best.
Last year, when he was named head coach, his former boss, Pete Carroll, widely praised the move. “To me, he was a logical choice because he had been with us,” Carroll said. “He is special. Dan is a tremendous football coach, a great communicator, and a great leader.”
Quinn also counts Nick Saban as a mentor. Between Carroll, a 64-year-old goofball, and Saban, a mechanical, relentless perfectionist, Quinn brings with him the best of both worlds.
“I remember that they had a deep belief in the philosophy they had in place. Though one was engaging from a personality standpoint and wanted the players in with him and the other was more polarizing and on the players,” he told Bleacher Report least year. “That way was different. But having an organized vision of how they wanted their programs run was really similar. The programs weren't run in the same fashion, but the attention to detail was.”
On Sunday, the classic teacher-vs-mentor relationship gets to play out. Two of the hottest teams in the league, built in strikingly similar fashion, face off for the first time this season.
It may not be the last.