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To prove himself as a head coach, Dan Quinn must beat the person who made him a head coach

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Atlanta Falcons v Denver Broncos Photo by Dustin Bradford/Getty Images

Dan Quinn had a fairly quick ascent through the coaching ranks.

After finishing up his football career at Division-III Salisbury State University (I can hazard a guess as to why they eventually dropped the “State” and avoided an eternity of puns), Quinn began coaching defensive line at William & Mary, VMI, and then five years at Hofstra, eventually being promoted to defensive coordinator in his final season. Hofstra has been to the I-AA playoffs just five times in school history, and three of those came during Quinn’s tenure; that also includes their only two playoff wins, one of which came in his final season, 2000.

Without ever advancing to a division-I program, Quinn was hired as the defensive line coach with the San Francisco 49ers under head coach Steve Mariucci, who in 1997 replaced George Seifert after defensive coordinator Pete Carroll left to take the top job with the New England Patriots. Quinn worked under the new defensive coordinator who replaced Carroll: Jim Mora.

Despite winning a playoff game in 2002, Mariucci was fired following a 31-6 loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and replaced by former Seattle Seahawks head coach Dennis Erickson. “Mini-Jeff Fisher” Erickson retained Mora and Quinn but led the team to a 7-9 record in 2003 before the bottom fell out in 2004 when the Niners dropped to 2-14, setting in motion a seven-year stretch of nothing but sucktitude in San Francisco.

Mora left for the Atlanta Falcons a year earlier, Erickson and the remaining staff, including Quinn, were fired following the debacle of a season.

That’s when Quinn was called back by a college head coach, but not one who was currently in college; he spent two seasons with Nick Saban and the Miami Dolphins, who despite Saban’s reputation for “failing” in the pros, had a top-five defense in 2006. Quinn got the opportunity to work not only with Saban, but Jason Taylor, Kevin Carter, Keith Traylor, Vonnie Holliday, and Jeff Zgonina, some of the best veteran defensive lineman in the NFL at the time. Could you imagine a group of players more competitive than that?

That year he also worked under defensive coordinator Dom Capers, who had about 35 years of coaching experience under his belt and by the way, currently has the Green Bay Packers playing some of the best run defense of all-time.

But the Saban-Dolphins experience was over after only two seasons and Quinn was again looking for work. He spent the next two years as the defensive line coach for the New York Jets under Eric Mangini and defensive coordinator Bob Sutton, who has held that same position with the Kansas City Chiefs over the last four seasons; they’ve also been playing some pretty good defense lately.

Two more years with the Jets, another head coaching disappointment gone, and again Quinn was forced to relocate. This time, the job came by way of an era ending in Seattle — the Seahawks felt forced to move on from Mike Holmgren after an abysmal 4-12 season signaled the absolute demise of his rebuilding plan that began in 1999. There was plenty of success along the way, but maybe there was no more juice in that lime. They also felt forced to continue with the succession plan they had before the 4-12 season, which was to promote the assistant head coach ...

Jim Mora.

Mora hired a linebackers coach from the Buccaneers to be his defensive coordinator — Gus Bradley — and a defensive line coach who he remembered from his days as the DC in San Francisco: Dan Quinn.

As bad as Mora’s only season was as head coach of the Seahawks, he’s solely responsible for supplying the next regime with their next two defensive coordinators. After almost a decade at USC following his firing by the Patriots, Seattle hired away Carroll to be replace Mora and he retained several coaches, including Bradley and Quinn.

Now think of all the coaching trees from which Quinn has branched off of:

Mariucci (who was branched from Holmgren), Mora (who worked for Don Coryell, his father Jim Sr., and Holmgren), Erickson (who almost never worked for anyone), Saban, Capers, Mangini (Bill Belichick), Sutton (Andy Reid, Rex Ryan), Carroll ... There’s a lot of great resources there, a lot of information, and perhaps best of all, it all came within the span of under a decade. Being fired sucks, but if you are constantly getting work after you get fired, there’s plenty of opportunity there — if you choose to use it — to gain knowledge from every angle imaginable.

Quinn clearly is the type to absorb as much as possible.

After two seasons of learning to defensive coordinate under Will Muschamp at Florida, Quinn came back to take the same position with the Seahawks after Bradley became the first Seattle assistant under Carroll to get a promotion elsewhere. (Bradley is currently 13-39 with the Jacksonville Jaguars, but that’s neither here nor there.)

In his first season with the Seahawks, Quinn clearly brought something different to the defense and they had their best season in franchise history, winning the Super Bowl and becoming the first team since the 1985 Chicago Bears to lead the NFL in points allowed, yards allowed, and takeaways. After one more “prove it” season, Quinn was hired to be the head coach in Atlanta, same as Mora roughly a decade earlier.

But Falcons fans are hoping that Quinn’s tenure goes better than Mora’s did (same as what happened in Seattle, right?) but I’m sure they also remember that Mora got off to an even hotter start than the new guy has.

Mora took Atlanta to the NFC Championship game in his first season but was fired after going 15-17 over the next two years. Quinn opened his career with a 6-1 record to start 2015, but lost seven of the last nine games of the year to miss the playoffs entirely. Many of the losses were devastatingly close (OT to the Bucs, one point to the 49ers, three points to the Colts, four points to the Bucs, three points to the Saints) but a loss is a loss. Beyond all logic, some people were actually asking if Quinn should be fired after only one season — despite a 6-1 start, some could only think of the 2-7 finish even though this was a team that went 6-10 a year earlier with the 32nd-ranked defense.

But now people are taking Quinn more seriously as a head coach than ever.

Following a now-embarrassing loss to Tampa Bay in Week 1, the Falcons have won four straight and are ranking first in points, yards, passing touchdowns, and yards per attempt. It’s not the type of football output you’d expect from a guy who built his reputation on defense, but a win is a win. Atlanta is 26th in points allowed, yards allowed, and they’ve surrendered to 14 touchdown passes in five games — the Seahawks gave up 16 touchdown passes in all of 2013 under Quinn.

The Falcons are hot but Quinn’s hardly out of hot water.

Atlanta is currently wrapping up the most daunting three-game set that any team may have been facing going into the year: Carolina, at Denver, and at Seattle. That’s the two Super Bowl teams from a year ago and a team that went to two Super Bowls in a row before that. Win this Sunday and Quinn will lead his team to a 3-0 finish over those games, lose and they might head home on a sour note after two extremely gratifying victories.

If Quinn gets a win over his former boss, on the road, in one of the toughest NFL environments to play in, against perhaps the best defense in the league, he’ll almost assuredly be considered the right coach for the Falcons regardless of how poorly the defense has played this season. With recent draft additions like Vic Beasley, Keanu Neal, Deion Jones, and Brian Poole, plus Desmond Trufant, that side of the ball is bound to improve. Who could possibly question Atlanta after a 5-1 start like that? By then, they’d look far better than any of the Mike Smith-Matt Ryan teams, even the ones that went 13-3.

But lose, and the Falcons are 4-2, basically just another team “in the mix.”

Then people would start to take a closer look at Atlanta’s record. The fact that they did lose to Jameis Winston, who has thrown five touchdowns and seven interceptions since tossing four and one against the Falcons in Week 1. That the Oakland Raiders essentially demoted defensive coordinator Ken Norton (another Carroll disciple) after the game against Atlanta and have played much better defense since. That putting points on the Saints is not impressive. That they nearly blew a 24-point lead to a Derek Anderson-led Panthers team that is now 1-4. That they beat the Broncos without Trevor Siemian, which is suddenly an important caveat this year.

Those are the questions that will be raised if the Falcons lose. Those are the issues that will be understandably forgotten if the Falcons win.

Dan Quinn rose quickly through the ranks to become an NFL head coach in his mid-40s, and one on the precipice of success. As someone who worked for five head coaches in the span of eight years, he knows how quickly it can be taken away.