Call it radical, irresponsible and unprecedented, but what if the 2016 Atlanta Falcons had fired Dan Quinn after the 28-3 Super Bowl collapse and promoted offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan — the coach getting most of the credit for their success that season and Matt Ryan’s MVP award — instead? Shanahan was already committed to leaving the Falcons for the San Francisco 49ers, but the results since 2017 speak for themselves.
Quinn was fired after an 0-5 start this season, something Atlanta wouldn’t do after starting 1-4 in 2018 and 1-7 in 2019. They’ll be carefully monitoring the NFL this season and using every game as an opportunity to decide who Quinn’s successor will be. Their previous choice was Quinn, who was coming off of back to back Super Bowls as defensive coordinator for the Seattle Seahawks.
Will they be looking for a “defensive coach” (as if these monikers end up mattering often enough to merit mention, the Falcons-Quinn case being first and foremost) with that much success or someone to shuffle Matt Ryan off into the sunset and who will develop the next franchise quarterback with their probable high draft pick in 2021?
LA Rams offensive coordinator Kevin O’Connell could fit the bill for the latter option.
When Shanahan was working as offensive coordinator with the Falcons in 2015-2016, it was two years after he was fired from the same position in Washington. His quarterbacks coach in both Washington and Atlanta was Matt LaFleur, who left the Falcons to coach for Sean McVay in 2017 and then two years later took over as head coach for the Green Bay Packers.
When McVay took the job with the Rams, Washington head coach Jay Gruden replaced him with QBs coach Matt Cavanaugh and his replacement for his old job was O’Connell. Three years later, O’Connell is offensive coordinator for McVay in LA and the Rams are back to passing the ball as efficiently as they did during 2018’s Super Bowl run. Jared Goff seems to be playing some of his best games as a pro and O’Connell leaves little doubt that he understands 2020 football.
That’s not something that a lot of head coaches and coordinators around the league can say right now. Few are able to stop opposing QBs right now but actually LA is one of those teams that has been able to, albeit against the NFC East quarterbacks.
O’Connell is 35 with close connections to the Shanahans, the Grudens and McVay, as well as being an offensive assistant for Chip Kelly with the 49ers in 2016. He seems to be a sure bet for interviews and pairing him with Ryan and/or a quarterback of the future in Atlanta holds water for me as a concept.
Back to the Rams being able to stop opposing quarterbacks this season.
McVay let go of defensive coordinator Wade Phillips, unlikely to ever get another head coaching interview, and replaced him with 37-year-old Brandon Staley. A coach who also looks certain to draw interest based on previous connections and current production.
Staley has worked directly with Khalil Mack, Von Miller and Aaron Donald in his short career as an NFL assistant, and even if they are superstars already, they’ve all seemed to respond to Staley’s presence. Donald has 7.5 sacks this season, the most he’s ever had through five games. Staley has also been able to work with Jalen Ramsey this season and help him to get closer to reaching the top of the mantel for his position.
The Houston Texans would like to have a defense as good as the Rams and they probably expected to with the personnel that they have. Why not add J.J. Watt to the list of pass rushers to get a lesson from Staley or one of his assistant coaches? The Texans also have Zach Cunningham, Bernardrick McKinney, Whitney Mercilus and Jacob Martin at linebacker, a veritable forest of talent at Staley’s expert position.
It might also be worth asking if the Denver Broncos would look to bring back Staley if they have a poor season and decide to fire his mentor Vic Fangio.
McVay hiring a coach seems to have a twofold effect on their likelihood of getting hired away shortly thereafter: not only does McVay tab coaches who are already getting buzz as having a bright NFL future, but the fact that he shows interest and then helps them produce positive results has made it even more likely that they aren’t around for the long haul.
It’s only been five games into this NFL season and plenty could change, but O’Connell and Staley were already on short lists of interview candidates for some teams. If those teams are the Falcons and Texans, it could be that we start to see those dots connected more and more as the season goes on.