A few hours before we talked on Wednesday afternoon, Falcons coach Dan Quinn called a noon staff meeting. During these strange days, he’s routinely scheduled those to start and end each week, to be done from everyone’s homes, but he threw this one in because he had a guest speaker lined up he wanted his coaches to hear from.
Trev Moawad is a mental conditioning coach that Quinn’s gotten to know through a common friend, Alabama coach Nick Saban, and he brought a very specific message.
Over the Zoom meeting app, Moawad went through themes from his new book, It Takes What It Takes, in emphasizing the power in staying “neutral” through adversity. He told the Falcons coaches that minimizing negativity is way more powerful than just trying to be positive. And he said that even though it is difficult to stay positive now, the coaches could control what they watch and listen to, and who they talk to, and there’s power in that, too.
Moawad’s the latest guy that Quinn has leaned on to get his team, his staff and himself through this very different and unique circumstance. He wasn’t the first, and won’t be the last. All the same, Quinn’s had coaches in other sports, and not just pro sports, lean on him for help.
Want to know what’s getting him through? That’s it, right there. And it’s why, as we talked, the excitement and enthusiasm that’s become Quinn’s trademark was every bit as present as it might’ve been a year ago at this point, and very plain to see.
“Staying connected has been a good deal. We wish the term had been physically distanced but socially connected instead of social distancing,” Quinn said with a laugh, from his home office. “Physically distanced is OK. But staying connected socially is the big piece for me. I’ve enjoyed calls with players, FaceTime with players on our team, just checking in where they’re at. There’s been a lot of changes for guys in the offseason that they’re having to deal with. We’re all battling through that together. It’s way better to talk about it.”
Back in 2011, the NFL lockout wiped out offseason programs for veterans, and kept rookies from getting acclimated to their teams until the summer. This situation has stark differences from that one, but some of the challenges for NFL teams are the same, and back then it was clear that some handled those uncharted waters better than others.
Along those lines, Quinn’s pulling every lever he can to make sure his ship stays on course.
First and foremost, I want to send my best to everyone reading, and my thanks to our best—the doctors and nurse who are keeping this country going right now. And if you want some football, we’re going to give you some in the GamePlan. In here, you’ll find…
• A ranking of the top free agents left on the market.
• An analysis of the NFL’s quarterback bubble, and whether it’s burst.
• A note on Aldon Smith, and the list he’s working to stay off of.
But we’re starting with how one coach is handling what we’re all up against now.
Quinn’s 24 hours leading into our talk were, for the most part, pretty packed. On Tuesday night, he and GM Thomas Dimitroff did three draft calls with prospects. After that, he went to bed, and woke up Wednesday morning for a four-hour draft meeting with Dimitroff. At noon, he had his staff meeting. That started with about 20 minutes from Moawad, then Quinn updated the coaches on the news of the day, discussed a few draft prospects, and opened the floor for some conversation.
After that, he had a call with his old college roommate (more on that in a minute) in the afternoon, and after we talked he was set to touch base again with Dimitroff on the next round of prospect interviews. In between all these things, he’s tried to keep connected to players as best he can—whether it’s to help them with a workout plan with gyms across the country and team facilities closed, answer football questions, or just see how they’re doing.
All of it is aimed in one direction, which is one reason why it was important for Quinn to squeeze Moawad into the schedule: His message really encapsulated what they’re doing.
“I’m trying to stay in the here and now,” Quinn said. “It’s not, ‘Will we have an offseason, won’t we have an offseason?’ Let’s control what we can. Which is totally, ‘Hey, if we have to start some of it virtually, then let’s start one kick-ass virtual program.’ I told them at one point our goal was to be the best stay-at-home football coaches, finding fun ways to go after it, it’s been a good challenge. You’re always up for a good challenge.
“As opposed to bitching about it, it gives you some juice. There’s a lot of negative reports out there, if you listen to them all, it can bring you down. So we’re choosing the other way. ‘This is the information now, let’s go after whatever we can in the meantime and find ways to provide great teaching and some uplifting,’ as opposed to all the negative stuff.”
And finding a way to do it has required some ingenuity. That college roommate of Quinn’s? He’s a college professor now, and Quinn talked to him to try and learn from his experience teaching online classes—which could be pretty much what he’s doing in a couple weeks. He had Moawad in. He also used Clippers president Lawrence Frank and coach Doc Rivers as resources for his staff, and for himself, since the NBA has been hit way harder at this point.
On the flip side, Duke lacrosse coach John Danowski—a friend of Quinn’s, going back to when the two overlapped for five years as coaches at Hofstra—brought Quinn in to talk to his players, some of whom are seniors trying to decide whether or not to return to school with the extra year of eligibility the NCAA is granting them, or go out into the work force at a very uncertain time.
“We were all on a Zoom call, there were guys from Texas to North Carolina to Florida to New Jersey and New York,” Quinn said. “I just talked to them, asked them some questions, told them about our team, and what they were dealing with and battling through. And I said, ‘Eventually, you’re gonna play again and I hope that whatever time that is, that you guys go after it, working on your skills to say this part of my game, I’m gonna work so hard at it, when I get back, it’s going to be a real difference.”
That, of course, reflects the message he’s sending his own players.
Were this a normal year, the Falcons would be starting their offseason program two weeks from Monday. Realistically, Quinn knows that’s not happening, and that the likelihood of any part of the program being conducted this spring is very, very low.
But he also knows there are plenty of other ways his team can keep taking steps forward over the next few months. That’s what consulting with Moawad and Frank and Rivers, and even Danowski and the college kids has been all about. And sure enough, he’s seeing it happen in real time in his every day work.
With draft prospects, that’s meant trying to get out of meetings through Zoom, FaceTime and Microsoft Teams what he otherwise would be looking for this time of year. One specific thing he raised was how he and Dimitroff love private workouts with college kids, because there you can see their enthusiasm and energy for the game. And Quinn made the point that they can still find that, they just have to look for it differently this time around.
So on Tuesday night, with the three aforementioned interviewees, Quinn and Dimitroff did just that.
“First, we talked about their families and how they were doing,” Quinn said. “I want to get that out, make sure they were doing OK. Because if that was the case, if there was a player saying, ‘Man, I’m struggling,’ I’d want to get back to his agent or the NFL and say, ‘Hey, this guy needs help.’ Then, we went into, ‘Hey, talk about your routine, what’s tomorrow gonna look like?’ There was Netflix, there was this and that, it was real open and honest talk.
“And there was real thought put into it, of how they do things. And most of them, I’ve said, ‘You’ve done such a good job, you’re gonna kick ass in the NFL. And I know this offseason may be different for you, but you know what? Everyone’s got the same circumstances.’ I wanted them to know it’s gonna be OK; we’re gonna play ball eventually, and when we do, do everything you can to be ready.”
And in having these talks, it’s gotten Quinn excited for what’s to come. “We were saying, ‘Man, wasn’t that cool last night? Three for three,’” Quinn said. “I was saying, ‘Wouldn’t it be cool if all three of those guys were on this team?’ They made that kind of impact on us.”
With his current players, there’s been the same idea. First, get them what they need. Second, get them working, which has meant working creatively with strength coach Jesse Ackerman to get the guys workouts that address the gains the players want, within the constraints of what they have.
“Some guys are like, “I’m really equipped at the house, I got a gym in the garage.’ And compare it to other guys who are like, ‘Man, I don’t have much,’” Quinn said. “If you were a rookie last year, you were in an apartment, you don’t have a garage yet. You’re just trying to figure it out. … It’s what do they have access to? That’s gonna be a piece for all the players in the NFL, and it might depend a little bit on where you live—you have access to certain things and certain things you don’t.
“What I do know is everyone in our league is so competitive, so they’re not waiting, like, ‘Oh, I’ll just hang out till it goes through.’ Guys are to finding a way that they can do things. Those specific things, heading into the ’20 season: What’s the one thing you want to improve on, and how are you gonna do that and what’s that plan look like?”
With his coaches, it’s meant a global adjustment. Quinn says his coaches have already filed their scouting reports, as assigned out by Dimitroff’s personnel department, on the draft’s prospects, and will stay involved on that front. Most scheme stuff is done, with Raheem Morris moving into the full-time role as defensive coordinator and Dirk Koetter taking on a little more responsibility, with de facto run-game coordinator Mike Mularkey gone.
There’s still some work to do, of course. One piece is the deployment of individual players and resulting scheme adjustments. Featuring Calvin Ridley more, with Mohamed Sanu gone, was one example Quinn raised. But some focus has now shifted to what is expected to be a virtual offseason program. Falcons coaches are readying by taking dry runs at teaching sessions, working with each other on how they’ll work with players via video conference.
“In other words, each player has what’s called a point-of-attack tape, so we’re teaching that to one another to see, how do we teach best virtually?” Quinn said. “Because you’re not in the room together, what are we gonna use with the player? How’s that going to go? And is it just best one-on-one or three in a row? How do we do that together? And as important, how do the players connect with one another using the technology too to share ideas and video?
“They’ll have a big responsibility in this thing to make sure that as a team they’re pushing one another to get themselves ready.”
With the overall group, Quinn says he’s already seeing benefits. At one point in our conversation, I told the Falcons coach about the talk I had with Jordan Palmer—and how Palmer had relayed how he used the 2011 lockout to bond with Bengals teammates, offensive and defensive alike, and was imploring Sam Darnold and Josh Allen to do the same. The idea, Palmer told me, was that making the effort to reach out in a challenging time would build stronger bonds, and Quinn was quick to jump on that one.
“No question it does,” Quinn said. “It’s not just like, ‘Hey, bro,’ walking past his locker. It’s intentional. It’s on point. He couldn’t be more accurate. There is a silver lining in this. Right now, we have a new coach on our staff, and he was at a new team last year, and he said, ‘I’m closer to this group of guys right now than I was starting the offseason program last year, because we’re checking in, and seeing how everyone’s doing, and making sure you’re OK.’
“It wasn’t about football yet, it was about building relationships and trust together. And the football piece will be built off that, not vice versa. So often it’s, ‘Hey, Albert, how you doing? Let’s sit down and start. And hey, so you’re a rookie, or a free agent, this is how we play football here.’ What’s happening now is you’re getting to know some people.”
So in all these ways, Quinn’s relentless optimism has positioned him well to lead the Falcons through this—and handle the challenge that his 31 peers are all tackling in their own unique ways. But what really gets him going is the idea of what football might be able to do once we’re out of this.
Quinn told me he felt it again, right after he got off the phone with the draft prospects on Tuesday night.
“Being on with them, amidst everything that’s going on, I certainly hung up feeling a great sense of gratitude, saying, ‘You know what’s gonna be really cool? Months from now, football is going to be a part of our country’s re-juicing,’” Quinn said. “That’s a cool feeling to know we’re a connector, and I think you’ll probably see that when the draft is on in a couple weeks. There’s a special spot for football in our country, I know you feel that way.
“And being on the calls last night knowing these guys are about to embark on their biggest journey yet as ballplayers, they weren’t intimidated by the circumstances they were facing. They just wanted to talk football.”
So they talked football. And Quinn has found, as so many of us have, that it can be a pretty decent way to keep yourself sane in a challenging time for everyone.
In that way, the work getting done, for him, was almost just a bonus.
We’re now more than two weeks into the league year, and there are a pretty healthy number of big names still out there—definitely more than normal, definitely because of the different situation we’re all in this spring. So how would I rank those guys? Glad you asked…
1) DE Jadeveon Clowney: The freakish former first overall pick showed in Seattle, despite the low sack total (3.5), that he’s got plenty left in the tank. The problem? Well, the problem is he clashed with coaches in Houston, and he has a microfracture surgery in his medical file, and that’s a lot to pair with his financial demands. A one-year deal back with the Seahawks might make the most sense.
2) QB Cam Newton: Part of Cam’s problem is obvious: He has a right shoulder and left foot that any team would want to look at before signing him, and he played in just two of his final 18 games on the Carolina roster. And then there’s the question of how he’d fit somewhere if he wasn’t the centerpiece of the whole operation, since that’s what he’s been going all the way back to junior college. If the Chargers don’t bite, and I don’t get the sense they plan to, I don’t know what the answer here is.
3) CB Logan Ryan: A really good starter for the last five years in both New England and Tennessee, possessor of two Super Bowl rings, and player of a premium position, his availability, even at 29 years old, is surprising to some. Maybe the answer’s not so complicated? He publicly said he wanted $10 million per year. And with the cap having come in lower than expected, it’s been harder for vets to get paid this year.
4) DE Everson Griffen: Off-field questions are there with Griffen after mental health issues took him off-the-field in 2018. So here’s another guy whose inability to meet with teams is affecting his signability. Plus, he’s 32. But on the flip side, he had 13 sacks in 2017, and managed eight in 15 games last year, so he’s still a good player with a specifically sought-after skill.
5) QB Jameis Winston: To me, Winston’s case is probably less about the limitations that the coronavirus has put on free agency than the others here. This just so happened to be the rare year where quarterback supply outweighed demand, and he didn’t have a chair when the music stopped. So now, he and his agent have to think creatively, and maybe even look at going to a stable place (Pittsburgh? Seattle?) strictly as a backup to rehabilitate his stock.
I’ll add this, too, as an addendum to the list: In running names by some pro scouts, both ex-Lions DT Snacks Harrison and ex-Giants DE Markus Golden came up as guys that could be a pretty good value as role players for someone at this late stage of the game.
THE BIG QUESTION
What has changed at the quarterback position to clog the market?
I’ve had a working theory on this for a couple years, that eventually the amount of capital poured into the quarterback position would create a bubble. And it’s starting to look like this year is the year the bubble finally burst—with Newton and Winston, and Andy Dalton and Joe Flacco too, as proof of it.
• In 2019, 18 quarterbacks were playing on contracts worth $20 million per year or more (as compared to five at all other positions combined). And two more, Dalton and Jacoby Brissett, were making more than $15 million per. Brissett, of course, replaced a 19th quarterback in the $20 million category when Andrew Luck retired.
• Additionally, in 2019 there were 11 former first-round quarterbacks still on rookie contracts who were not yet eligible for second deals. And two more (Winston and Marcus Mariota) playing out the fifth-year options on rookie deals with the teams that drafted them.
• So now, we’ve gotten up to 34 quarterbacks. And in doing so, we’ve accounted for 31 teams. The one team that didn’t have a quarterback either on a big veteran contract or a first-round rookie deal? The Cowboys, who caught lightning in a bottle in landing Dak Prescott in the fourth round.
On paper, you look at that and could say it’s a sign that the NFL is as healthy as it has ever been at the position. I’d mostly agree with that. But it didn’t stop 10 teams from racking up double-digit losses, and not all those teams are like, say, the Dolphins, and rebuilding. So this was probably coming, one way or the other, because as promising young guys like Joe Burrow, Tua Tagovailoa and Justin Herbert come in, others need to be pushed out.
Where are we now? Well, as it stands, 17 quarterbacks are again set to make $20 million per year or more, with Patrick Mahomes and Deshaun Watson now eligible to join the group, which they might at some point between now and September. And you’ll have seven guys, plus the guys drafted that high this year, on first-round deals with the teams that drafted them not yet eligible to get deals. Which is still a lot.
And that shows how we still might have a little ways to go before everything shakes out on this trend, with smart teams (keep on the Patriots here) looking to get ahead of the trend.
WHAT NO ONE’S TALKING ABOUT
How many guys just vanish from the NFL. I’ve thought a bunch about this, but we’ve seen a lot of players in recent years succumb to off-field problems after promising starts to their careers, and just fall off the radar altogether.
Justin Blackmon is a great example of that. Blackmon hid his substance-abuse issue during his illustrious run as an Oklahoma State Cowboy, to the point where some teams didn’t know of his habit of going way off campus to drink. Some found out about it before the 2012 draft, and it raised serious concerns. Others just saw him as a little bit of a recluse, with a different personality, not knowing what was really going on.
The Jaguars wound up taking him seventh overall, and a little more than a month later he was cited for DUI back in Stillwater. Even after that, Blackmon wound up leading all rookies with 64 catches and 865 yards in 2012, while scoring five touchdowns. But he was suspended for violating the substance abuse policy before the 2013 season, only played four games that year, and hasn’t played in the NFL since.
He’s still on the Jaguars’ reserve list. And he’s not alone.
At points over the last decade, Josh Gordon, Dion Jordan, Daryl Washington and Martavis Bryant have all fallen into this category.
So good for Aldon Smith, the troubled ex-Niner and Raider who agreed to a deal with the Cowboys this week. He’s another one of these, and if history has told us anything, it’s how hard it is to make your way out of that category. Here’s hoping he stays on the right side of it.
THE FINAL WORD
The draft is three weeks from today. And while I’d have trepidation about going forward with it if I were the league, and I know some coaches and GMs are against doing it, I will say I’m as excited as ever for it, because it’s one of my favorite weekends of the year.
So to everyone who’s looking forward to that escape? I’m excited for it too, even if I’m not wild about how the league has handled everything around it.
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