The Mighty Quinn

Ev’rybody’s in despair
Ev’ry girl and boy
But when Quinn the Eskimo gets here
Ev’rybody’s gonna jump for joy
Come all without, come all within
You’ll see nothing like the mighty Quinn

The mind behind one of the greatest defenses of all time is Atlanta-bound. Photo: Scott Eklund / AP Photo

Tom Brady just won the Super Bowl MVP at age 37. He and the Patriots are pretty good on offense, if you haven’t heard. So good, in fact, that they’ve scored in 134 straight games, including the playoffs. The last time Tom Brady’s Patriots were shut out was on December 10, 2006. Brady went 12/25 that day for 78 yards – the only time in a HOF career that Brady attempted at least 20 passes and came away with less than 80 passing yards. His 3.12 yards per attempt that day remains the lowest of any start of Tom Brady’s career. Brady was harassed left and right that day, taking 5 sacks and fumbling twice. It was arguably the worst game ever played by one of the best to ever play.

Their opponent? The Miami Dolphins, led by a tenacious defensive line. That defensive line’s coach? Dan Quinn.

Quinn more famously coordinated a defense that stifled the 2013 Denver Broncos in a 43-8 Super Bowl whipping. We all saw it. It was ugly, and hard to watch. Dan Quinn’s coaching made it hard to watch (and not in the way that Mike Smith‘s coaching made the final 2 minutes of games hard to watch).

We don’t really know how Dan Quinn will do in Atlanta. Dan Quinn has never helmed a team, put together a roster how he wants, or, well, performed any function outlined in the job description of Head Coach. However, throwing our hands in the air and saying “nobody knows” isn’t particularly interesting, so let’s have a look at Quinn’s background and what that might tell us about his future, which I’ll go ahead and tell you is… probably nothing.

Quinn began as a positional coach in 1994, coaching William & Mary’s defensive line. The following season he coached in the same capacity at VMI. He moved to Hofstra in 1996, where he’d coach DL for 4 years. In 2000 at Hofstra, he got his first experience as a Defensive Coordinator.

Quinn’s first NFL job came in 2001, in charge of Defensive Quality Control for the 49ers. If you don’t know what a quality control coach does, I recommend this 2011 post from Mile High Report. QC coaches don’t always have precise job descriptions, often just doing what needs to be done. They might compile and break down film for other coaches, run the scout team in practice, or act as an advance scout. Quinn’s two years as a DQC coach in San Francisco likely prepared him for this Atlanta job as much as any other. In 2000, the 49er defense was atrocious, ranking 28th in the league with a +16.0% DVOA (and since DVOA is an expression of offense, a good defense will have a negative rating). In Quinn’s first year, the team doubled its win total (from 6 to 12) and reached the playoffs behind a much improved defense; the Niners allowed the 9th fewest points per game in the league and had a 15th ranked DVOA of 0.1%, essentially league average. I don’t want to credit Quinn for too much, but he was part of a big turnaround in his first year on the job. In 2002 the team again hung around average or a tad below – their DVOA of 2.1% ranked 20th.

In 2003, San Francisco promoted Quinn, giving the coach his first NFL positional job coaching the defensive line. Quinn’s DL had a strong year according to Football Outsiders’ rankings; they got after the QB, finishing 10th in Adjusted Sack Rate. After this season, Quinn’s DC, Jim Mora, left the Niners to become HC of the Atlanta Falcons. Quinn was retained under new DC Willy Robinson. Robinson’s defense collapsed in 2004, and while Quinn certainly stewarded a terrible DL, Robinson might have been to blame. Either way, San Francisco wiped the slate clean, and Quinn moved on.

Quinn accepted the DL coach job with the Miami Dolphins in 2005 under new HC Nick Saban. Saban and Quinn engineered a quick turnaround of the defensive line. The ’04 Dolphins line had ranked 22nd by FO’s metrics, but the ’05 iteration ranked 2nd against the run and 3rd in pass rushing. The DL remained a strength for Saban’s Dolphin in 2006, ranking 6th against the run and 4th in Adj. Sack Rate. The Nick Saban era at Miami is often misunderstood (it wasn’t akin to Steve Spurrier‘s failure in Washington, an oft mis-used comparison) and underrated, but suffice to say the successes weren’t overwhelming. For whatever reason things didn’t work out for Saban (who it’s worth noting wasn’t fired but left for Alabama). One aspect of his team that wasn’t to blame, however, was his defensive line – the line responsible for the worst Sunday Tom Brady ever had.

Even as a positional coach, Quinn always seemed to get the most from his players. Photo: Getty Images

The 2006 New York Jets, under first year HC Eric Mangini, went 10-6 and made the playoffs. In their 6 division games, the Jets struggled offensively most against the Dolphins, scoring just 33 points in the pair of matchups (they scored 34 against the Pats and 41 against the Bills). Despite the playoff run, Mangini’s DL was a weakness, ranking 18th in adjusted sack rate and a dreadful 32nd against the run. When Saban left for Tuscaloosa, Mangini hired Quinn to fix his DL. In 2007, there wasn’t much of a difference – the Jets improved slightly against the run but still ranked dead last in FO’s Adjusted Line Yards, and improved only slightly rushing the passer, going from a 6.3% sack rate to 6.6%. Quinn’s magic seemed to return in 2008, as the Jets DL jumped to 10th in Adjusted Line Yards and 12th in sack rate. Unfortunately for Quinn, he again helmed a great unit on a sinking ship, as Mangini was fired after the season.

In 2009, Quinn wound up back under his ex-DC, Jim Mora, now the HC for the Seahawks. Again, he coached the DL. The ’08 Hawks DL wasn’t bad, ranking 18th against both the run and pass, and Quinn’s first DL was a mixed bag; it improved to 11th against the run but plummeted to 29th in pass rushing. When Mora was fired and Pete Carroll was hired in the offseason, Carroll kept Quinn on as DL coach, but the DL still struggled. After that season, Quinn got the opportunity to coordinate a college defense loaded with talent, at the University of Florida, and he took it.

In just two years in Gainesville, Quinn turned a mediocre Florida defense into one of the nation’s best. Photo: Matthew Sardo

The 2010 Gators, Urban Meyer’s last team in Gainesville before he quit to snicker spend more time with his family, was one of the worst Urban Meyer teams, going 7-5. The defense wasn’t bad, rating 30th in defensive F/+, but for a Gator squad loaded with NFL-bound SEC talent, that wasn’t great; it ranked only 7th in the conference. Incoming HC Will Muschamp hired Quinn as DC, having coached with him for the Dolphins. In year one, the Gator D stayed mostly the same, finishing 33rd in F/+. In 2012, however, the Gator D ranked 2nd in the FBS behind Alabama according to F/+, and the Gators rode that incredible defense to an 11-2 record.

That same year, the Seattle Seahawks had the NFL’s #2 ranked defense by DVOA, which, at -14.5%, suggested the Seahwaks D was very good. The Jacksonville Jaguars promptly hired Seahawks DC Gus Bradley to lead their team. With an opening available, Pete Carroll hired his former assistant, fresh off a dominant coordinating debut in the SEC. Quinn’s first defense in Seattle wasn’t very good. It was historic.

Football Outsiders’ DVOA metric is available for seasons dating back to 1989. Now, I should point out that DVOA isn’t some end-all, be-all statistic. It doesn’t claim to be. It is better than points per game, which is affected by all parts of a team, and it’s better than total yards, which provides zero context or meaning. It’s the best quick and easy stat that we have for general efficiency, which is why I’m using it. Anyway, using DVOA, here are the 25 best defenses in the last 26 years:

  1. -42.4% – 1991 Philadelphia Eagles
  2. -31.8% – 2002 Tampa Bay Buccaneers
  3. -29.0% – 2008 Pittsburgh Steelers
  4. -28.5% – 2004 Buffalo Bills
  5. -27.8% – 2008 Baltimore Ravens
  6. -26.7% – 2012 Chicago Bears
  7. -25.9% – 2013 Seattle Seahawks
  8. -25.5% – 2009 New York Jets
  9. -25.0% – 2000 Tennessee Titans
  10. -25.0% – 2003 Baltimore Ravens
  11. -24.5% – 1991 New Orleans Saints
  12. -23.8% – 2000 Baltimore Ravens
  13. -23.7% – 1995 San Francisco 49ers
  14. -23.6% – 2008 Philadelphia Eagles
  15. -23.0% – 2006 Baltimore Ravens
  16. -22.4% – 1998 Miami Dolphins
  17. -21.6% – 1990 Pittsburgh Steelers
  18. -21.2% – 1997 San Francisco 49ers
  19. -21.1% – 1991 Washington Redskins
  20. -20.8% – 1999 Baltimore Ravens
  21. -20.7% – 2010 Pittsburgh Steelers
  22. -20.1% – 2006 Chicago Bears
  23. -19.9% – 2004 Baltimore Ravens
  24. -19.4% – 1999 Tampa Bay Buccaneers
  25. -19.4% – 2005 Chicago Bears

Quinn’s first Seahawks defense was the 7th best defense in the NFL since 1988. This year’s D wasn’t quite as good (-16.3%), but that’s still very good, and good enough to be the NFL’s #1 defense in 2014.

In summation, the man can coach defense. But does that translate to Head Coach success? Using the above list, here are the DC’s responsible for the 25 best defenses of the last 26 years:

Rex Ryan (#5, #15)
Marvin Lewis (#12, #20)
Dick LeBeau (#3, #21)
Mike Nolan (#10, #23)
Monte Kiffin (#2, #24)
Ron Rivera (#22, #25)
Bud Carson (#1)
Jerry Gray (#4)
Rod Marinelli (#6)
Dan Quinn (#7)
Mike Pettine (#8)
Gregg Williams (#9)
Steve Sidwell (#11)
Pete Carroll (#13)
Jim Johnson (#14)
George Hill (#16)
Dave Brazil (#17)
John Marshall (#18)
Larry Peccatiello/ Richie Petibon (#19)

Let’s cull the list a bit. LeBeau’s great defenses came after his stint as a HC. Monte Kiffin, similarly, was too old to get HC consideration. Bud Carson, Jim Johnson, George Hill, and Dave Brazil were essentially in the same boat. Jerry Gray is still an assistant. Steve Sidwell, Larry Peccatiello, and John Marshall never received HC jobs. That leaves:

Rex Ryan: 6 years, .479% Winning Percentage
Marvin Lewis: 12, .526
Mike Nolan: 4, .327
Ron Rivera: 4, .508
Rod Marinelli: 3, .208
Mike Pettine: 1, .438
Pete Carroll: 9, .576
Richie Petibon: 1, .250

That’s pretty underwhelming, admittedly. However, Petibon took over a mess of a team and was thrown under the bus by his owner. Pettine seems to have improved the Browns in year 1. Carroll has a ring, Rivera is making the playoffs in Carolina, and Ryan and Lewis, while frustrating to their fanbases, haven’t been busts. Really, the only true failures of the bunch were Mike Nolan and Rod Marinelli – and Marinelli had Matt Millen running his roster, so I’m not sure if it’s even fair to call him a bust.

Any time Grantland does a Championship Belt article, drop everything and read it. They’re fantastic, and recently one was written on NFL Defense. Click it, read it, thank me later. Now that you’re done, let’s look at the DC’s behind the defenses selected by Grantland over the years. We’ll gloss over ones covered above, which might explain any gaps:

1969-71 Vikings: coached by HC Bud Grant
1972-73 Dolphins: Bill Arnsparger – HC for NYG from ’74-76, .200 winning %.
1977-78 Broncos: Joe Collier – was HC previously, never again
(this is the part where I planned to bitch about the omission of the 1977 Grits Blitz, but seeing as how there was no single DC responsible, I just moved on. This is me moving on.)
1979 Steelers: Woody Widenhofer – never HC
1980-81 Eagles: Marion Campbell – was HC 3 years previously, would coach 6 more, winning just 30% of his games.
1983 Dolphins: Arnsparger again.
1984 49ers: George Seifert – would coach 11 years with a .648% wp, a 10-5 postseason record, and 2 SB wins.
1985 Bears: Buddy Ryan – coached 7 years, winning exactly half his games.
1986-88 Bears: Vince Tobin – coached 5 years, with a .394% wp
1989-90 Giants: Bill Belichick – probably the greatest coach in NFL history
1994 Browns: Nick Saban – 2 years, .469% wp, arguably the greatest coach in college history
1996 Panthers: Vic Fangio – no HC job yet, appears to be a lifer DC
1997 Chiefs: Gunther Cunningham – 2 years, .500% wp
2001 Bears: Greg Blache – never HC
2003-04 Patriots: Romeo Crennel – 6 years, .336% wp
2007 Colts: Ron Meeks – never HC
2012 Seahawks: Gus Bradley – 2 years, .219% wp

Again a mixed bag, with some real duds (like Vince Tobin and Romeo Crennel) but some gems elsewhere, like George Seifert and Bill Belichick.

Is there any reason to expect Dan Quinn to be inherently successful or unsuccessful because of similar coaches who have made the jump before? I answered this near the beginning of the post – no, there’s not. It’s a really small sample size, that of dominant DC’s making the jump to their first HC job. But it’s fun to at least look at the list. Still, don’t focus on the list, and don’t get hung up on the names on it.

Focus on this: one day, Peyton Manning and Tom Brady will be in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, arguably as the two greatest players to ever play QB. And when they are, if they ever discuss their worst games, they’ll both have to give some considerable thought to one man. That man is the new head coach of the Atlanta Falcons.

Quinn the Eskimo is here. Now it’s time to jump for joy.

About Brent Blackwell 172 Articles

Brent Blackwell also writes for College Football By The Numbers at www.cfbtn.com.

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