HOUSTON — Catchphrases. Dan Quinn has a million of them.
“Fast and physical” was the mantra that made the Atlanta Falcons arguably football’s most explosive offense in their run to Super Bowl LI.
“Include everyone” is the top-down edict to ensure that all opinions are valued.
“In brotherhood” is a line he picked up from a visit by the Navy Seals before the start of the season that’s been the thread in a tightly bonded locker room.
But one of Quinn’s tag lines echoes in the ears of Falcons running back Taylor Gabriel whenever he steps on the field.
“Set it off.”
It’s like lighting a match in a propane-filled arena, a challenge to every player on the roster.
“Who’s going to set it off first?” Gabriel said. “Who’s going to be the first person to set it off and get the sidelines out of their seats? That’s one thing that always sticks with me.”
In two years as the Falcons head coach, Quinn has been a master culture-builder, with connections to his players that run deep enough to allow him to pull out qualities they themselves didn’t necessarily know were there.
“He’s a coach that you want to play for,” Gabriel said. “He’s a coach that you want to go out there and put everything on the line for, and I feel like that’s why we love DQ.
“He puts it in the players’ hands, not always in the coaches’ hands. He puts it in our hands to be perfect, to go out there and do the things that they expect us to do. So I feel like that’s why we go so hard for him.”
The thing about all of Quinn’s catchphrases: His players never have to question whether he means it. His sincerity is as much a part of his success as the skill he’s developed in a coaching career that’s spanned 23 years spent under the wings of giants such as Bill Parcells, Pete Carroll, and Nick Saban, all the way back to his salad days as an assistant at William & Mary under Jimmye Laycock.
The one constant with Quinn is his ability to be relentlessly relatable. He tweet-quoted Tupac on the late rapper’s birthday. Running back Tevin Coleman’s called him “the coolest coach in the world.” He doesn’t just put his players through drills; he occasionally participates in them. (“He’s a great athlete,” said receiver Julio Jones. “You’ve got to check him out.”)
He has relationships with starters and practice squad players alike. Safety Ricardo Allen came to him when he was having family issues, and Quinn shared issues of his own. More than just a players’ coach, Quinn treats players like peers, and the payoff is a locker room that trusts him completely.
“It’s just his style, his swag, his confidence, his knowledge, just the way he carries himself and, at the same time, he demands your best and nothing but your best and he don’t tolerate nothing but your best effort,” said defensive tackle Grady Jarrett.
“So it’s like as long as you’re trying to do your best and have fun, you’re going to be all right with him. It’s fun playing for a guy like that.”
“He’s a players’ coach, he understands where we come from, he understands what it’s like being in our position,” said linebacker De’Vondre Campbell. “I think the thing that makes him such a great coach is he’s willing to work with us.
“It’s not just like a dictatorship, it’s like a democracy where everyone has an opinion. It’s not just his. He’s always open to ways we can make practice run smoother or meetings or just in general with things around the facility, just making them smoother.”
Quinn came to Atlanta after being defensive coordinator for the Seahawks. He signed a five-year contract shortly after the Seahawks lost to the Patriots in Super Bowl XLIX in 2015. Seahawks defensive lineman Michael Bennett still praises Quinn as the reason he signed with Seattle.
Two years later, Quinn has rebooted a flailing Falcons team, taking philosophies he honed in Seattle and tapping into the talent in Atlanta. Still, he didn’t expect it to happen as quickly as it did.
“I didn’t put a timetable on it,” Quinn said. “I was just going to see how good we could get and as fast as we could. I never set out as a one-year plan, or a two-year plan, or a three-year plan or any of that.
“I don’t think that far ahead. I way more enjoy in the moment and seeing how good we can get week to week. Our team got a lot better as this season went on, and that’s the goal you want to have.”
Reaching the Super Bowl has become fairly routine for Quinn. He has been to three of the past four, twice with the Seahawks and now with the Falcons.
He explains the success simply.
“Well, No. 1, I’ve been around a lot of good players,” he said. “That’s the key. Having that connection with our team this year and seeing how these guys have gotten so tight, how hard they want to play for one another. That I’ve seen first-hand, so that’s why I’m so fortunate.”