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This represents a risk in the NFL; a guarantee that, for more than a decade to come, fans will respond to a product, general managers will respond to the rapid trends and variations of the league and players will respond to coaches, leading to wins. The risk heightens when that new coach is hired on a five-year deal that will bridge the gap between a legendary old stadium and the next one to come.
On Monday night, that coach, Dan Quinn, stood on the sidelines after knocking out the Eagles in a hard-fought 26-24 victory and tried not to cry. Safety William Moore approached him in a quiet moment and offered his heartfelt congratulations, something Moore had wanted to do since the moment Quinn walked in the door and lifted the Falcons out of an emotional cellar.
There is no denying the results thus far. Jones had nine receptions for 141 yards and two touchdowns in a season-opening win over Philadelphia, then followed that effort with yet more monstrous numbers against the Giants (13 catches, 135 yards) and Dallas (12 catches, 164, two scores). He’s been so outstanding that it was stunning to see Houston limit him to four receptions and only 38 yards last week (largely because the Falcons dialed back their attack once their eventual 48-21 victory got out of hand). It’s reached the point that it’s hard to remember that the man — who has been nursing a hamstring injury — is still human, after all.
It’s a simple mistake to make when you’re talking about a 6-foot-3, 220-pound specimen who runs the 40-yard dash in less than 4.4 seconds. But Quinn believes people too often think Jones is dominating solely because of his freakish skill set. Falcons offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan also does a great job of lining Jones up in places that make it hard for defenses to contain him.
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The Falcons hold training camp at their expansive year-round headquarters in Flowery Branch, Georgia, not far from Lake Lanier north of Atlanta. The grounds are so lush that Gil Brandt noted the Falcons might have the best landscaping in the NFL. The Falcons hosted their first Military Day on Sunday, with 25 children of fallen service members accompanying players on the walk from the locker room to the practice field.
Quinn — a first-time head coach — runs a very efficient, highly specific practice. Sunday’s edition was focused on first downs: the goal of the offense was to get 4 yards on first down, and the goal of the defense was to stop it.
“He’s given us the confidence to believe in ourselves,” safety Ricardo Allen said. “The first day he walked in here, he talked about three things: competing, giving effort and cheap jerseys and finishing. That’s why we don’t go into games worrying about depth charts. We all have a role here and we worry about doing it.”
It’s a simple philosophy, one that all NFL head coaches espouse on a regular basis. The key here is the buy-in from the Atlanta players. They’ve believed in what Quinn has been selling since Day 1 and it’s led to an accountability that they all feel.
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Ryan, who has been regarded as a borderline top-10 quarterback since being picked third overall in the 2008 NFL Draft, could cement his status as an elite player directing the Falcons’ high-powered offense under Shanahan. The creative offensive coordinator has installed a quarterback-friendly scheme featuring a number of concepts that ideally suit Ryan’s skills as a quick-rhythm passer with superb accuracy, anticipation and timing.
From the dynamic “quick game,” which features a host of bubble screens and slants, to the exotic play-action passing game, which comprises an assortment of run-action fakes from stationary and moving pockets, the cleverly designed passing game has put Ryan in his comfort zone by allowing him to quickly sort through his reads and deliver the ball as soon as he hits the top of his drops. Most importantly, the diversity of the passing game has prevented opponents from honing in on Ryan’s whereabouts within the pocket, helping the offensive line provide better protection for the veteran.
And we saw exactly that Monday. We saw it in the creative ways Shanahan deployed Matt Ryan, utilizing play action and a fast pace to turn an offense that has been so inexplicably boring into one that actually pushes the potential of its skills players. It is a reminder of Shanahan’s schematic brilliance.
How did we not see this coming? How did we so quickly forget what Shanahan did with Matt Schaub in Houston? Why didn’t we recall the transcendent rookie season Shanahan fostered from Robert Griffin III? Give the guy Ryan and Julio Jones and Roddy White, and you’ve got 2016’s front-runner for upcoming head-coaching vacancies.