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Dan Quinn’s 3-step plan that took the Falcons from 8-8 to a Super Bowl

A thorough game plan and total buy-in goes a long way toward building a winner.

Dan Quinn has had a deliberate plan to get the Falcons to a Super Bowl, and he’s executed it meticulously over his two seasons as the head coach in Atlanta. His approach yielded an 8-8 record in his first season, but 2016 has been a major turnaround for the Falcons, who will face off against the New England Patriots in Super Bowl LI.

The culture Quinn has established in Atlanta is the driving force behind the team’s rapid rebound.

“I think it’s his consistency of what he’s preaching day in and day out,” veteran defensive end Dwight Freeney said. “I think it’s all about the brotherhood being tight, being together. I think it’s about focusing on the day and conquering the day, competing — that’s his deal. That’s his mentality, and it never changes.”

Quinn was hired by the Falcons following a disappointing 2014 season, which culminated in a 6-10 finish and the firing of then-coach Mike Smith. Quinn inherited a defense that finished that season ranked dead last for yards allowed per game, and an offense that averaged just 23.8 points, with essentially no running game and a weak offensive line.

The Falcons hired Quinn based largely upon his success as the defensive coordinator of the Seattle Seahawks. In the season before he accepted the head coach job in Atlanta, Quinn oversaw the top-ranked defense in the NFL. But the defensive improvement in Atlanta hasn’t been the key reason for the team’s turnaround.

Early in Quinn’s tenure, certain aspects about his approach were evident: his emphasis on teaching, his dedication to a routine, and the sense of brotherhood he’s instilled between his players and coaches.

As the Falcons get ready for only their second Super Bowl appearance in franchise history, it’s clear that Quinn’s approach is working.

Quinn is a careful planner

Quinn told reporters on the Monday following his team’s decisive NFC Championship victory over the Green Bay Packers that he had his plan for the Super Bowl set before they even took the field on Sunday.

He was confident his team was going to win, and he wanted to be prepared.

“We did all this planning during the bye, during the playoff bye. Quinn said. “So, I didn’t share that with the staff, but I did do the planning ahead. I thought that shift had happened where this team was heading in the right area, and were making the improvements necessary to play really well.”

That’s not a departure for Quinn. His plan for each week is precise, and it’s always the same. When you show up for a postgame press conference on a Monday, you know it’s “Tell the Truth Monday.” The Falcons have Competition Wednesdays, Thursdays are all about the ball, and on Fridays, it’s a focus on finishing.

That systematic approach to preparing each week has helped players maintain focus through the end of a long season and into the postseason.

At Falcons practice, things always feel loose and fun. There’s typically music blasting, and players are dancing and laughing. When players warm up, Quinn often jumps into the line and goes through drills with them.

Dan Quinn going through drills with the Falcons during the week prior to Super Bowl LI.

It’s an easy, comfortable atmosphere, yet it’s much more structured than it feels.

Quinn and his staff are fostering an atmosphere of brotherhood — or “brothership,” as it’s come to be known within the locker room.

The “brothership” matters

What is “brothership,” exactly? It’s the rare combination of brotherhood and friendship the Falcons have developed within the locker room.

The phrase was coined by fullback Patrick DiMarco, completely by accident.

“I was actually saying the team prayer after the game, and I guess I combined brotherhood and friendship and it just developed into brothership,” DiMarco told SB Nation prior to Week 17. ”And we’ve all been riding this brothership for the last 10 weeks or so.”

Every player on every team in the NFL would probably attest to the idea of his teammates being like brothers, but in Atlanta, they live it.

Cornerback Deji Olatoye is a name you might not be familiar with on Atlanta’s roster, and that’s the reason he has a unique perspective on the Falcons’ locker room.

Olatoye is a journeyman who has spent time with four different teams since being signed by the Baltimore Ravens as an undrafted free agent following the 2014 NFL draft. He said he’s never experienced anything like the culture Quinn has created in Atlanta.

“The difference from my experience is the brotherhood is real,” Olatoye said. “When I first got here, not many teams, you could walk into the locker room and have everybody saying ‘What’s up?’ From Matt Ryan, to Julio, to Matt Bryant.”

It’s one thing for star players to acknowledge a new teammate. It’s another thing entirely when the head coach takes the step of investing in players who may never see the field for a meaningful snap in a game.

“Everybody talked to me,” Olatoye said. “I met with Q the first day I got here. There’s been teams I came in, the head coach didn’t know my name until I got (on the) active (roster). So, it’s the brotherhood, the bond they’ve built here, and they take care of it. They make sure everybody protects it. The team’s No. 1 over everybody.”

Linebacker Paul Worrilow said this bond between players isn’t something that has come easily, but the closeness in this locker room has been worth the effort it’s taken to build.

“It takes work,” Worrilow said. “It takes the ping pong. It takes effort outside of the building. At least linebacker-wise, we’ve got a group text always going with jokes, anything — we’re always getting with each other that way.”

What’s remarkable is the camaraderie this team has built within an environment that emphasizes competition — not just with opponents, but against each other on the practice field.

Competition is a constant focus

This offseason, the Falcons redesigned the locker room. Lockers were narrowed and redistributed around the perimeter of the room. Ping pong tables and leather recliners now stand where lockers once divided the room, as a subtle way to encourage friendly interaction between teammates.

But there’s more to it than just that. Those ping pong tables foster the competitive spirit Quinn knew this team needed to embrace in order to win.

“Not only do they want to spend time together out of the building, but in the building, too,” Quinn said. “Having that competition is something as small as ping pong, just to go battle for it.”

Kicker Matt Bryant has been in the league since 2002, and he said the ping pong tables create a departure from the standard locker room environment.

“That’s the biggest difference in 15 years,” Bryant said.

It started in the preseason, when Quinn had Navy SEALs come in and work with the team.

The SEALs put players through workouts and classroom sessions, and players saw it as a turning point.

“That was huge in setting the standard, and I think that’s kind of one of the first stepping stones, and then it’s just continuing to grow from there,” DiMarco said.

Quinn’s culture shows up in different ways, like how players have enthusiastically adopted the little mantras he gives them each week.

You’ll often see players walking around the locker room wearing shirts that represent the attitude Quinn wants to play with — sayings like “Unf*ckwitable,” or “The only fight that matters is the one you’re in.”

On the Friday before the team left for Houston, nickelback Brian Poole was at his locker wearing an “Arrive violently” shirt. He said Quinn has urged the defense to do exactly that.

“I take it personally when coach challenges us to really do anything,” Poole said. “So whatever it is, I just kind of embrace it and try to add it to my game.”

That mindset translates to the football field, too. In the playoffs, Poole stopped Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson short of a first down with a hit that had Quinn’s signature all over it.

Poole, an undrafted free agent rookie out of Florida, has earned starter-caliber snaps in the nickel role for Atlanta. The coaching staff sincerely believes that the best players should be on the field, and that’s not something every young player gets to experience.

“It’s a great feeling, just knowing that here I’ve got a fair shot at anything,” Poole said. “It ain’t really no seniority or anything like that. Coaches just give everybody opportunities and a chance to show what we can do, and really, my job is just to embrace it.”

The coaches also issue black jerseys to three players each week. Those jerseys signify that each player has embodied the competitive standard Quinn has implemented.

Worrilow was the bearer of one of those jerseys in the week following the NFC Championship win over the Green Bay Packers.

“This is the first year and team I’ve been around where they hand that out and they recognize guys, because we preach competition and how good can we get each other, and that just really lets guys be known amongst teammates who was putting in the work that week,” Worrilow said.

“Every week, every Friday you wait and see who they put up in the PowerPoint,” he continued. “So, any time you get that, it means a lot, because it’s your service toward your teammates.”

“Iron sharpens iron” is a favorite saying of Quinn’s, and it’s a sentiment he encourages his players to live by.

The locker room feels different from last season. Even during Atlanta’s hot start in 2015, when the Falcons jumped out to a 6-1 record before losing six games in a row, the atmosphere wasn’t markedly different from the 2014 season.

This season, players have wholly bought into Quinn’s mentality.

DiMarco said the success the team has experienced has helped.

“As competitors, we want to win, and when you buy into something like that and the process kind of kicks in and you see results, that’s when it really starts to grow there, too,” DiMarco said.

Free safety Ricardo Allen said that perhaps the most important element of the culture in Atlanta is the accountability to teammates.

“Last year, our brotherhood wasn’t as close as it is this year, but this year, our brotherhood is so close, when things are not going right and we see things about to go wrong, I’m not scared to tell Keanu (Neal) he’s wrong,” Allen said. “Keanu’s not scared to tell me I may be wrong. (Desmond) Trufant and Rocky (Alford), they’re not scared to come and tell me, like, ‘Rico, we need you to do this.’”

The players believe the standard they hold each other to can propel them to their ultimate goal.

“If it’s not right, it’s not the standard, and we’re not scared to push that envelope,” Allen said. “We’re not scared to push that, and we don’t take it personal, because we will love each other. But we know that we’re going for it all, and if you have gray areas, it’s not going to work.”

The commitment to Quinn’s approach has gotten the Falcons this far, from a middling season one year to a Super Bowl appearance the next. The players are confident it can get them one step further: bringing the Lombardi Trophy to Atlanta for the first time ever.

Why can't you call it the Super Bowl?