The six best options to replace Dan Quinn in Atlanta

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After dropping their fifth-straight game to start the season, the Atlanta Falcons face an uncertain future. Their present is reportedly a bit unclear as well. Following the loss, reporting surfaced that the decision to part ways with head coach Dan Quinn was “all but certain.”

Quinn led the team to Super Bowl LI, before losing to the New England Patriots 34-28 in overtime. That game was marked by Atlanta blowing a 28-3 lead, which in hindsight was a harbinger of things to come. The Falcons blew a few more double-digit leads this season, including a horrific loss to the Dallas Cowboys, and it seemed this was an inevitable conclusion to Quinn’s tenure in Atlanta.

On Sunday night, Falcons owner Arthur Blank made it official, firing both Quinn and general manager Thomas Dimitroff.

Now that the move has been made official, who are the six best candidates to take his place in Atlanta?

What makes the Atlanta situation fascinating is that it is unlike other recent head coaching situations, where an organization is looking to find the coach to guide their young quarterback. Matt Ryan is obviously at the other end of that experience spectrum, given that this is his 13th year in the league. But as far as problems go in Atlanta, Ryan is probably not anywhere near the top of the list. He has competed 64.7% of his passes for 1,246 yards, seven touchdowns and two interceptions, and entering into Week 4, his Adjusted Net Yards per Attempt of 6.97 was 15th in the league. Not earth-shattering, but better than players like Deshaun Watson, Cam Newton, Matthew Stafford, Kirk Cousins, and others.

So while getting that head coach to help develop a young quarterback is not the biggest need, getting someone to rejuvenate the Atlanta offense perhaps is near the top. That is where Eric Bieniemy comes in. The Chiefs offensive coordinator has been by Andy Reid’s side for the past eight seasons, first as a running backs coach and most recently as their offensive coordinator. He has seen first-hand a coach known for a specific system – Reid’s West Coast offense – rework that system to fit the players he has, and not force them into what he wants his offense to be.

That is what Bieniemy can bring to Atlanta. The openness to mold an offense around Ryan and the talent on the Falcons roster. That should help turn the offense around quickly. The defense might be a bigger question, so his choice of defensive coordinator would be huge. Regardless, Bieniemy should be at the top of Arthur Blank’s wish list.

In addition to Eric Bieniemy, other offensive coordinators such as Brian Daboll, Arthur Smith, and even Joe Brady in Carolina are getting a ton of attention as “upcoming head coach candidates,” but the job that Byron Leftwich has done so far in Tampa Bay makes him not just worthy of consideration, but perhaps the best man for the job. One of the more fascinating storylines of this entire NFL offseason was projecting how Tom Brady – often used as the definition of a “system quarterback” – would fit in Bruce Arians’ offense. After two decades in one offense, based around the quick passing game and reading concepts “low to high,” Brady now had to learn a new offense, based around pushing the ball deep and thinking “touchdown, checkdown.”

Who helped bridge the gap? None other than Leftwich, the offensive coordinator. It was the offensive coordinator who took the lead in putting together an offense in Tampa Bay around what Brady does, helping to meld the terminology that the veteran quarterback is used to with the Arians system. So far, the results are pretty solid, even if Brady perhaps lost track of what down it was at the end of Tampa Bay’s loss to the Chicago Bears.

But beyond that, Leftwich has made a name for himself as an offensive mind and a mentor to quarterbacks. When Josh Rosen had a chance to pick where he wanted to sign after being released by the Miami Dolphins, he chose Tampa Bay, because of a relationship forged when he was in Arizona with Leftwich as his offensive coordinator.

What could Leftwich do in Atlanta? Perhaps bridge another gap: Between the present (Matt Ryan) and the future.

This might be a bit of a twist, replacing one defensive-minded head coach with a former defensive coordinator, but let’s face it. The problems in Atlanta begin on the defensive side of the football. The Falcons surrendered 23 points to the Carolina Panthers this past week, and that was their best defensive performance (in terms of points allowed) of the season. Prior to Week 5 the Falcons had given up 38, 40, 30 and 30 points in their first four games.

Robert Saleh would be the first call from Arthur Blank if this is the mindset. Last year Saleh constructed one of the league’s better defenses, a unit that was perhaps just one more play from shutting down Patrick Mahomes and company. Saleh also has a long resume that he brings to the table, one that demonstrates the hard work he has put in to reach this point. He started out as an intern with the Houston Texans back in 2005, working his way up to become the Assistant linebackers coach before leaving to join…Quinn on the staff of the Seattle Seahawks.

In fact, the schematic overlap would likely ease the transition on the defensive side of the football. Much like Quinn, Saleh favors that Seahawks “Cover 3” that plays with more man coverage principles on the outside. If the organization wants continuity on the defense Salah might make a ton of sense, especially when you consider that the players they have targeted on that side of the ball in the draft and free agency would likely slide right into the Saleh system with few hiccups.

Offensively? Saleh could perhaps pry one of Kyle Shanahan’s current assistants, such as quarterbacks coach Shane Day, to take over as offensive coordinator. That would pair Matt Ryan with a coach in Shanahan’s tree, which would make sense given that Ryan’s best season as a pro came in that system.

What Robert Saleh was to the 2019-2020 season, Matt Eberflus might be to the 2020-2021 season. Through just the first quarter of the year, Eberflus’ charges are arguably the best defensive unit in football. Pro Football Focus made the case for that group just a few days ago:

It’s not something most people expected coming into this season, but the Colts’ defense has been the best in the league statistically through the first quarter of the 2020 NFL season. They rank first in both yards per play allowed (4.4) and expected points added allowed per play (-0.14) through the first four weeks.

Part of that is a favorable schedule against the Jacksonville Jaguars, New York Jets, Minnesota Vikings and Chicago Bears, but the Colts’ play itself shouldn’t be discounted. Several offseason additions have paid dividends early. DeForest Buckner has been the team’s best defensive linemen, posting a team-high 15 quarterback pressures and a 90.7 overall grade through four weeks. Success from him was to be expected, though. The bigger and more surprising development has been a resurgence of sorts from former Minnesota Vikings cornerback Xavier Rhodes.

Rhodes ‘ 82.0 PFF grade ranks third among cornerbacks this season. He has combined for nearly as many interceptions and forced incompletions (five) as he has first downs allowed in coverage (six), and he has been charged with just one penalty thus far. I wrote prior to the season about how the Colts’ defense was as good a spot as any for him to turn things around, and that’s exactly what he’s doing.

Indianapolis will be hoping that the groin injury that took Darius Leonard out of the game Sunday is minor because he continues to fly around the field and make plays. His 81.6 PFF grade so far this season ranks third at the linebacker position. Despite their early loss to Jacksonville in Week 1, the Colts look like real challengers to the top of the AFC. The play from their defense is a big reason why.

And part of the reason for the play from that defense is the influence of Eberflus. When he took over as the Colts’ defensive coordinator in 2018, he inherited a unit that was 30th in scoring defense and total defense the season prior. In just his first year, Eberflus turned the Colts’ defense into an impressive unit, ranking tenth in scoring defense and 11th in total defense. They finished 11th in total defense Defense-adjusted Value Over Average in 2018, and 19th last season. A huge improvement from the numbers posted by the group he inherited, and making it more impressive was that Eberflus did this with minimal personnel changes.

The system might be different for the Falcons players, as Eberflus relies more on Cover-2 principles in coverage, but it is hard to argue with his results.

After his one-year playing career ended following a stint with the Montreal Machine of the World League of American Football, Teryl Austin moved into the coaching ranks at the collegiate level. He worked his way from being a graduate assistant with Penn State up to becoming the defensive coordinator with both the Detroit Lions and the Cincinnati Bengals.

For the past two years Austin has been a senior defensive assistant and secondary coach for the Pittsburgh Steelers. In that time he has overseen a secondary that includes acquiring Minkah Fitzpatrick and turning him into one of the league’s elite talents at the safety spot.

Over his lengthy career, Austin has worked with some of the best defenses in the game, including a stint in Baltimore when he worked with Ed Reed and the Ravens’ talented unit at the back half. Reportedly, Arthur Blank has also been impressed with Austin:

This might be a name to keep an eye on. Austin would certainly help a defense, and in particular a secondary, that has struggled in 2020.

If the season ended right now, the team with the first-overall selection? The New York Giants. But with Daniel Jones in tow, they might not be in the market for a quarterback.

Again, we’re stepping outside of the box. There is a lot of football left to be played, and as we said earlier, quarterback Matt Ryan is well down the list of problems in Atlanta. But if the situation arose where Trevor Lawrence could find his way to the Falcons, who better to be his first NFL head coach than the coach he knows the best?

Would Swinney make the leap to the NFL? Hard to say. In many ways when you have a job like his, you are much better off at staying in college and running your empire than you are making the leap to the NFL, having to answer to ownership and dealing with professional players. Just recently, Swinney begged off a question about whether he would reunite with another former QB of his in Houston with Deshaun Watson, offering a curt “next question.”

Swinney has job security, a contract believed to be worth north of $9 million per year, and the ability to flash some national championship rings when he walks into a prospective recruit’s living room. It is hard to see him passing that up. But everyone has their price, and their dreams. It would at least be worth a phone call from Arthur Blank.

Especially if the Falcons, as it seems they will be, are drafting inside the top five.

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Source: https://touchdownwire.usatoday.com/lists/the-six-best-options-to-replace-dan-quinn-in-atlanta/

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