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Unbiased, honest advice helped prepare Dan Quinn to be Commanders head coach


Dan Quinn knows that being an NFL head coach is not an opportunity anyone should take for granted. There are only 32 spots available, and there isn't a guarantee that anyone will get more than one shot at it.

So, when things did come apart in 2020 with the Atlanta Falcons, when the team lost its first five games, Quinn reached far and wide for input on what went wrong as well as some advice in case he got the rare second crack at leading a roster.

"There's some lessons that you want to take from there," Quinn said. "Because if you don't, then going through it wasn't worth it."

Not long after he was relieved of his duties as the Falcons' head coach, Quinn went on an information-gathering mission, talking to several players from 2013 to 2020 to learn more about what he could have done differently. Some tried to deliver softer blows at first, but Quinn wasn't interested in that. He didn't want any bias, nor did he care who said it. He wanted to hear it all, and the guidance he received during those conversations helped shape the coach that is prepared to lead the Washington Commanders.

"The silver lining of having a couple months in between leaving Atlanta and going to Dallas was, how could I make this time productive to see what needed to change?" the new head coach said.

Quinn is familiar with how important change is in the NFL. "It almost feels like every two years, there's new, innovative ideas and new things to come," he said, and what was clear to him was that whatever he did in his final three seasons with the Falcons wasn't working well enough. His tenure started about as well as one could hope; an 8-8 season was followed by a trip to the Super Bowl and a second straight postseason appearance the following year.

After that, however, things began to sour. The Falcons went 7-9 in 2018 and 2019, and after Quinn was let go, they finished the 2020 season 5-12.

Quinn didn't want to make the same mistake twice if he got another chance to be a head coach.

"By reaching out to people, I wanted to find out the good and the bad," Quinn said. "Were there any blind spots? ... I wanted to make sure that I wasn't going to miss this moment if it came again. That's why I reach out and dug in as hard as I could."

The biggest thing he learned was that he was spreading himself too thin in Atlanta.

Quinn considers himself a problem solver. He likes to help others and does what he can to fix situations. The list of projects can become too long at some point, though, and it can lessen his effectiveness. The solution for Quinn is to "keep this thing really tight."

"Make sure you keep the main thing, the main thing," Quinn said when asked about common themes from his conversations with players. "Your number one job here is to help develop the staff and the players and go kick ass."

Check out photos of new Washington Commanders head coach Dan Quinn at his previous stops with the Dallas Cowboys and Atlanta Falcons. (Photos via The Associated Press)

That was the most important lesson for Quinn on how to handle his off-field responsibilities as a head coach. On the field, Quinn knew that he needed to evolve as a play-caller. The Cover 3 system was great for the Seattle Seahawks, who boasted one of the best defenses in league history with Richard Sherman, Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor leading the "Legion of Boom," but as Quinn put it, "what was good once wasn't as good anymore."

Quinn's time as the Dallas Cowboys' defensive coordinator from 2021-23 was a good chance for him to apply some of what he heard from his former players. He wanted to maintain his ability to connect to players -- he had multiple players give him "great" feedback on that -- but he also wanted to make sure he was trying some new things in a different, yet still important role.

It didn't take long for him to see results.

"I wanted to take the good and import that in the locker room and the leadership and the things we had to do," Quinn said.

Over the course of Quinn's first season, the Cowboys' defense went from one that gave up almost 30 points per game to a talented unit that shut teams out of the end zone and created new opportunities for its offense through turnovers. They led the league in takeaways in 2021 and 2022, and in 2023, they allowed the fifth fewest yards per game.

"I had time to reflect," Quinn said. "I had time to study, go through the lessons, some through success, some through adversity. But once you learn them, you want to grab them and run like hell."

Quinn's improvements helped earn him another chance at being a head coach with the Commanders. He knows how important the team has been to the fan base for years, and to be part of a franchise that is "really pushing it and going for it in the biggest way" is what he wants as a coach.

And of course, Quinn will bring some of what he did with Dallas to the Commanders, but it's not going to be a carbon copy, either.

"Where were you strong? Where do you need to change?" Quinn asked. "And then as you go into the next, what does that look like into the next season? Not all the ideas that you try during training camp in the offseason do you carry into the season, but some of them do."

"So, how do you work those specific things over and over and over, so when you do get there, they are game-ready? I've never been one to try something new in a game that you haven't really done. I'd rather practice it, go through it, know exactly the strengths and weaknesses, then you go let it attack."

Quinn's biggest priorities for the next few weeks will be filling out the staff, evaluating the roster and getting ready for free agency in the draft. When things begin to pick back up in August, we'll get a look at how much he's learned over the past three years.

"I've got these lessons, and now I'm ready to go apply them," Quinn said. "I've been waiting on that time to do it."

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