Given that we’re in the midst of the down time of the NFL offseason calendar, perhaps it’s time to talk about Atlanta Falcons head coach Dan Quinn’s job security.
While openly discussing the job security of a second-year NFL head coach seems premature and unnecessary, it is a worthwhile discussion given some of the statistics I was able to recently uncover.
I have been concerned throughout this offseason that Quinn’s seat is going to get considerably warmer if he cannot elevate the Falcons to having greater success in 2016 than he had in 2015 after the team finished with an 8-8 record, and the numbers appear to back that.
I went back and looked at all the coaching hires made since 2003. I chose that year so I could get a 10-year sample leading into 2012, as the coaches hired that year are now potentially entering their fifth seasons in their current steads.
Five years in one spot seems to be an effective cut-off for determining whether a coach had some modicum of success. NFL coaches tend to be signed to five-year contracts when they are first hired and I discovered the average coaching tenure for the 65 coaches hired between 2003 and 2012 lasted on average about 4.05 seasons. If you remove 10 active coaches from the sample, then the average drops to about 3.36 seasons.
Of those 65 coaches hired over that 10-year period, only 20 of them (31 percent) made it to their fifth seasons as head coach in their given city.
Of the 55 non-active coaches hired over that period of time, only 10 of them (18 percent) made it to their fifth seasons.
But we should probably extend this sample a bit as there are coaches that were hired prior to the 2013 and 2014 seasons that have already been fired from their respective jobs.
Doing so would add eight coaches from 2013 (four active, four fired) along with the three already dismissed from 2014, bringing our sample to 76 coaches hired between 2003 and 2014.
Early Playoff Appearances Keeps Coaches Employed Longer in NFL
Let’s also lower the threshold for a moment to four years instead of five because that too also illustrates some interesting points. If the average coaching tenure hovers somewhere between three and four seasons, then we can say with some confidence that a coach that can make it to his fourth year is at least above average.
How many of the 76 coaches were able to coach into their fourth seasons? 36, which is nearly half (47 percent). But the interesting thing beyond that is to realize how much early success seems to preempt this long-term job security with coaches.
That’s because of the 36 coaches that made it to their fourth years, 21 of them (58 percent) were able to lead their respective teams to a playoff appearance within their first two seasons on the job.
To better illustrate this point, we should now separate these 76 coaches into two categories: those that led their teams to playoff appearances within their first two seasons on the job and coaches that did not have a playoff appearance within their first two years. For clarity, this doesn’t count any time as an interim coach as their first year, instead it will only begin their first full year on the job as their first year.
There are 28 coaches that fit in the first category and 48 that fit in the second. Again, 21 of the coaches in the former category (75 percent) were able to make it to Year Four on the job. Only 14 of the latter group (29 percent) made it to their fourth seasons with their respective teams.
That’s means that a coach that can successfully earn a playoff bid within his first two years on the job more than doubles the likelihood that he will be able to keep that job beyond a third season.
And that’s where we can jump off to revisit Quinn’s future job security. Basically that means that if he is able to lead the Falcons to the playoffs this year, history tells that there is a 75 percent chance that he will still be the head coach in 2018, his fourth season on the job. If not, then there’s a 29 percent chance that he’s still around two years from now.
What it means that there is pressure on Quinn to get this Falcon team to the postseason as soon as possible. If that doesn’t happen this year, then the chances that he gets more than one more opportunity drop dramatically.
Also the chances that he gets a fourth opportunity should he not get the Falcons to the playoffs by 2017 also drop. That’s because only eight coaches were successfully able to make it to their fourth seasons without making a playoff appearance within their first three years.
Three of them are active coaches in Jason Garrett (Dallas Cowboys), Jeff Fisher (Los Angeles Rams) and Gus Bradley (Jacksonville Jaguars). Garrett was able to lead the Cowboys to a playoff appearance in his fourth season and is now entering his sixth season with that team, not including half-a-year as the interim head coach after the mid-season firing of his predecessor in Wade Phillips back in 2010.
Both Fisher and Bradley have yet to elevate their teams to records above .500, and both are likely in make-or-break seasons entering years five and four, respectively. Fisher just mortgaged his teams future to trade up for 2016 No. 1 draft pick in quarterback Jared Goff, presumably understanding that if Goff doesn’t elevate the Rams to a playoff team, he’s likely going to be ousted.
Although recent reports of Fisher receiving a contract extension indicate that his job is a bit more secure than one would expect. That may have a lot to do with the fact that the Rams just moved to Los Angeles this offseason and are trying to secure stability during this adjustment. And it also makes sense from the perspective that it’s probably not great for the development of Goff if he is going to be forced to learn a new system in his second NFL season. History tells us that isn’t conducive to the long-term success of young quarterbacks.
Bradley’s Jaguars just spent a heap of money in free agency with the expectation that it will be what pushes that team over the top to at least produce that team’s first playoff appearance since 2007. Jaguars owner Shad Khan already indicated this offseason that he expects a winning season in 2016. Bradley’s teams have yet to win more than five games in any of his three seasons on the job.
Of the remaining five non-active coaches that made it to their fourth seasons without a playoff appearance in their first three, three were fired midway through their fourth seasons: Mike Nolan (San Francisco 49ers), Dick Jauron (Buffalo Bills) and Joe Philbin (Miami Dolphins).
The remaining two “outliers” are Gary Kubiak and Romeo Crennel. Kubiak didn’t lead the Houston Texans to a playoff appearance until his sixth season on the job, but he managed to produce a 9-7 season in his fourth year there. After two playoff appearances in years six and seven, Kubiak was fired 12 games into his eighth year in Houston. Two years later he was able to hoist a Lombardi Trophy after leading the Denver Broncos to a Super Bowl victory this past February.
Crennel also was able to lead his Cleveland Browns team to a winning season in 2007 with a 10-6 record, marking his third year there. The Browns went 4-12 the following year and Crennel was thereafter ousted.
In a 76-coach sample, those eight mark the outliers that indicate that if a head coach wants to stick more than three years in their respective city, they need to get to the postseason.
But making it to a third season is not even a given if a coach can’t find early postseason success. Of the 48 coaches that failed to lead a team to the playoffs within their first two seasons, 25 (or 52 percent) of them were fired before even reaching their third seasons.
Of the 28 coaches that were able to make it to the playoffs in those first two years, all of them made it to their third years. Only two (Chip Kelly and Todd Haley) failed to finish their third seasons with their respective teams.
Putting those numbers in perspective, one only has to look at Quinn’s fellow 2015 hires. Four of the six coaches hired last offseason failed to reach the playoffs this past year: Quinn, Rex Ryan (Bills), John Fox (Chicago Bears) and Jack Del Rio (Oakland Raiders).
Should all four of those coaches once again fail to lead their teams to the playoffs this upcoming season, the numbers indicate that two of them will be fired.
Reports emerged at the end of this past season that Ryan has already been given a “playoff-or-else” ultimatum heading into 2016. It’s not crazy to think that should the Falcons, Bears or Raiders suffer a major regression this year that potentially Quinn, Fox or Del Rio could join him on the hot seat.
Falcons Offense Showed Clear Decline in Shanahan’s First Year
To put it mildly, Shanahan has a very contentious relationship with the team’s fanbase. And because of that, he is a perfect, ready-made scapegoat should things go awry for the Falcons in 2016 by failing to reach the postseason.
Quinn, a supposed defensive guru hailing from the Seattle Seahawks, has already seen positive results thanks to his presence on defense. The Falcons were the league’s worst defense in 2014 and managed to improve to the middle of the pack in 2015. While there are still other areas of the defense that must improve, there’s already clear evidence that Quinn is capable of getting significantly more out of the defense than his predecessors in former head coach Mike Smith and defensive coordinator Mike Nolan.
The same cannot quite be said (yet) of Shanahan’s influence on the offense. While the Falcons finished about the same in total offense from 2014 to 2015, there was a dramatic decrease in the amount of points scored in those years. The Falcons ranked 12th in points scored in 2014, but fell to 21st this past season.
Shanahan’s influence was able to increase the team’s rushing output and bring more balance to the offense, yet there was significant regression in the passing game. The 2015 Falcons offense too often stalled in the red zone, proved turnover-prone and far less explosive than the previous year’s incarnation.
There’s reason to be optimistic that the team’s offseason additions will help improve and stabilize some of those deficiencies on offense, but the team’s struggles a year ago have added a significant amount of pressure for Shanahan.
The reality is that every game where the Falcons offense fails to perform at peak efficiency is going to be one where Shanahan is firmly in the crosshairs and fans’ angst and ire. Shanahan has less of a margin for error,and some of that is through his own making.
Red-Zone Struggles and Turnovers “Typical” in Past Shanahan Offenses
When one looks over Shanahan’s past record as an offensive coordinator, there isn’t a strong history of success. In eight years as an NFL play-caller, his teams have managed to finish higher than 16th in scoring offense just twice.
Shanahan’s offenses have also historically struggled to convert in the red zone. The Falcons’ 18th-ranked red-zone efficiency last season was the third-best finish of any Shanahan-led offense behind the 2009 Houston Texans (finished 13th) and 2012 Washington Redskins (fourth). In the other five seasons Shanahan’s offense ranked somewhere between 21st and 29th in terms of converting red-zone trips into touchdowns.
His teams also have had a tendency to be turnover-prone. The Falcons finished tied for fourth last season with the most turnovers. Four times has a Shanahan-led offense finished among the 10 most turnover-prone teams in the previous seven years, and two more times were they tied for 15th or higher.
Meaning that there’s only been one season where a Shanahan-led offense managed to avoid turning the ball over at an above-average rate: 2012. And interestingly enough that was the year where Shanahan made significant modifications to his system to feature Redskins rookie quarterback Robert Griffin III in a scheme more similar to the one he ran in college.
So if one is making an argument that Shanahan’s system is conducive to high turnover rates and poor red-zone management, that appears to be the smoking gun. The one season where his offense managed to avoid similar traps that befell it in 2015 was also the year where it was the least “Shanahan-like.”
Of course a major defense of the past mediocrity of Shanahan’s offenses has been that he’s been handcuffed by mostly subpar quarterback play. That has been a worthwhile argument when outside two good years with Matt Schaub in Houston and the one great season of Griffin in 2012, Shanahan’s teams haven’t had much to work with in terms of signal-callers. Few would argue that a significantly diminished Donovan McNabb, a young Kirk Cousins, John Beck, Rex Grossman and Brian Hoyer are a “who’s who” of top-shelf quarterbacks.
However that argument seemed to hit a major snag this past season in Atlanta with Matt Ryan. Despite being hands down the most polished and proven passer Shanahan has had the opportunity to work with, Ryan had one of his worst seasons as a pro.
The numbers strongly suggests that the Falcons offensive output from a year ago is pretty typical for one that features Shanahan calling plays, raising concerns over whether the Falcons can shake their funk.
Excuses Will Be Limited Without Falcons Offensive Improvement in 2016
Quinn is clearly in the midst of rebuilding the defense and whether the team makes significant strides forward in 2016 on that side of the ball will depend heavily on the growth and/or early impacts of several young defenders. Should the Falcons defense fail to take significant steps forward this season, there is already a built-in excuse given their youth on that side of the ball.
There won’t be the same excuses for an offense featuring veterans like Ryan and Julio Jones alongside an emerging young running back in Devonta Freeman. That trio is joined by a group of veterans across the rest of the roster, including an offensive line newly anchored by center Alex Mack.
The perception is that the Falcons offense should be poised to be one of the league’s better units in 2016 and if Shanahan isn’t capable of getting them there this year, he never will be. It’s nearly impossible to dissuade that perspective given how much of Shanahan’s fingerprints are all over this team’s offense.
One just has to look at the team’s coaching staff to see a heavy amount of Shanahan influence. The team’s quarterbacks, running backs and offensive line coaches all have previous experience working with Shanahan in previous stops. One of the offensive assistants (Mike McDaniel) was an assistant under Shanahan in two of his previous stops and the other is the brother of the quarterbacks coach.
It’s one of the reasons why the team’s decision to switch assistant coach Raheem Morris from defense to the offensive staff this past offseason was very intriguing. If the Falcons coaching staff was a televised drama, this would signify Quinn trying to put one of his guys into the offensive meeting room to keep tabs on Shanahan. But then again, Morris and Shanahan also worked together in Washington, so it’s not as if the former is a true outsider.
Quinn’s Job is Tied to Shanahan’s 2016 Success
This might be getting too far ahead of myself, but it’s difficult to imagine the Falcons making the playoffs this season without a significant step forward from the offense. Thus it isn’t far-fetched to assume that should the Falcons fall short of the postseason this year, much of the blame will be directed at Shanahan.
This of course throws a potential wrinkle into the question of Quinn’s job security. Should this scenario play out, there will be increased pressure on Quinn to fire Shanahan and bring in a new play-caller.
As previously pointed out, missing the playoffs this year could potentially put Quinn in a make-or-break position in 2017. Say what you will about team owner Arthur Blank, but his past record suggests that he’s not one to set low standards.
He oversaw one of the relatively rare instances in which a coach managed to take his team to the playoffs within his first two seasons and failed to make it past his third season. That of course happened when Jim Mora was the head coach of the Falcons, leading the team to the NFC Championship Game in his first year in 2004 followed by being fired after a disappointing 7-9 finish in 2006.
Of course one must acknowledge that Mora infamously had a radio interview that probably lubricated his exit from Atlanta, but the point still remains that Blank isn’t an owner that has historically shown a great deal of patience with losing. Since Blank’s stewardship of the franchise began in 2002, no Falcons coach has manage to survive more than two consecutive seasons finishing .500 or worse
If anybody is going to break that streak, it’s likely going to be Quinn should the Falcons fail to finish above 8-8 this season. But the possibility that Quinn survives a third losing season in 2017 is tenuous at best.
Therefore should the Falcons miss the postseason in 2016, there’s not only going to be pressure from the fan base to oust Shanahan. Quinn can easily avoid his twitter mentions, message boards and talk radio to avoid the fan base’s fury, but won’t have any such refuge should calls for Shanahan’s head come from ownership.
Should Shanahan be ousted, it’s unlikely that Quinn would promote from within given the presences of the former’s “cronies” on staff coupled with the fact that none of the team’s current offensive assistants have any experience calling plays at the pro level.
Quinn’s Lack of Experience With Shanahan Could Prompt Future Changes
The most fascinating aspect of the Quinn-Shanahan relationship is the fact that both were basically strangers prior to their conjoined stint here in Atlanta. The only time that Quinn was on the sideline of a game where his opponent had Shanahan calling plays came in 2009 when the latter was still in Houston and Quinn was the defensive line coach under the Mora-led Seahawks. The two times that the Shanahan-led Redskins played the Seahawks under head coach Pete Carroll came in 2011 and 2012-13 playoffs when Quinn was the defensive coordinator at the University of Florida.
So the reality is that two had little to no first-hand experience of not only working with one another but against each other prior to 2015. I could write another lengthy column theorizing why the pair opted to hook up in Atlanta, but I’ll summarize simply by suggesting that Quinn was looking for a play-caller that could mirror the West Coast-based, zone-blocking offensive system that he had been around throughout his tenure in Seattle under both Mora and Carroll.
It all makes one wonder in the event that Shanahan is dismissed after 2016, what sort of coach that Quinn would hire to replace him.
It’s unlikely that Quinn would roll the dice on another coordinator that he has little experience working with or coaching against especially if he’s put in a position where he’s looking to save his job.
It’s one of the reasons why I’ve mentioned a name like Greg Knapp in the past as a very strong candidate. Quinn worked with Knapp both in San Francisco and Seattle when they both were assistants under Mora. Knapp is currently the quarterbacks coach for the Denver Broncos and probably could be enticed to leave there if given a promotion in Atlanta.
The other thing that Knapp would bring to the table is an offensive philosophy and scheme that isn’t too dissimilar to Shanahan’s. That’s important because in the aforementioned scenario where Quinn is coaching for his job potentially in 2017, he cannot afford to have to completely overhaul and reshape the offensive personnel away from a system and scheme too unfamiliar from the one used by Shanahan.
Now I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that Knapp has his own less-than-glowing reputation among the Falcons fan base after being the team’s offensive coordinator during the days when Mora coached the team. And it’s not as if he’s garnered a high approval ratings in stops after Atlanta. But as they say, beggars can’t be choosers.
Optimism For Quinn’s Future Must Be Reserved Until Results Are Better
Now I should probably pull back since I’ve done a lot of speculation in this week’s column in discussing potential replacements for Shanahan as well as the notion that Quinn could be on the hot seat next season.
Obviously if the Falcons manage to be successful in 2016, then all of this speculation will go down as the futile fancy of an imagination run amok thanks to not having much else to write about in the “dead zone” of the offseason.
But at the same time, I don’t think this is a topic that is completely irrelevant to the upcoming season. This is essentially that single dark cloud looming on the horizon that one wonders might approach should the winds change.
And from my perspective, it’s a lot more fanciful to assume that the winds won’t change. Not to suggest that things will certainly go one way or the other, but the future of the Quinn-led Falcons is probably a lot more nebulous than many might want to believe.
I’ll be the first to admit that this uncertainty about Quinn’s future has fueled much of my widely perceived “negativity” this offseason.
I certainly don’t begrudge optimism in anyone believing that Quinn will lead the Falcons back to the postseason this season and remain a fixture on the team’s sidelines for many years to come.
However I would argue that the amount of confidence one has in Quinn’s future success should be tied very closely to the amount of confidence one has in Shanahan’s ability to get more out of the offense.
If you find yourself very confident that last year’s offensive struggles were just the first-year growing pains of a burgeoning Falcons offensive attack, then this column has probably read to you like pessimistic “scare-mongering.”
But whether you choose to ignore or acknowledge it, the clear reality of the NFL is that coaches don’t have an eternity to get the job done. And even if you choose to ignore all the wild speculation that came after it, one can’t dismiss the statistics that show that what a coach does in his first two years correlates highly with whether or not he’ll be a long-term solution for his team.
And for the sake of both Quinn and Shanahan, here’s hoping that are able to accomplish their goals by getting the Falcons back to the postseason in 2016. If so, then that will certainly inspire optimism in even me that the Falcons are on the right path for long-term success under Quinn’s guidance.