HOUSTON — When a team reaches the Super Bowl, every little thing becomes a big thing. Each tiny wrinkle and minor storyline gets a second, deeper look, as fans, media members and opponents try to parse out how the teams still standing reached this point.
For at least one element of the Atlanta Falcons’ run to Super Bowl LI, however, there is no revisionist history.
Head coach Dan Quinn’s emphasis — some might call it an obsession — with turnover differential from Day 1 undoubtedly helped fuel the Falcons’ three-win turnaround from a year ago. No team in the NFC had a better ratio of takeaways to giveaways, and that’s a huge reason why Atlanta is here preparing to face the New England Patriots on Sunday.
“It’s been said ever since D.Q. got here,” Falcons running back Tevin Coleman said Tuesday. “It’s been said first day until now. It’s been said every day. He’s constantly putting that in our brains, to keep us out there on the field.”
The differences from last season are stark. Coleman, who lost three fumbles in 2015, lost zero this season. Matt Ryan, who threw 16 interceptions a season ago, more than halved that number this season to seven. As a result, the Falcons jumped from 27th in the NFL in turnover differential to fourth, despite their defense actually forcing one fewer turnover than last season.
“That’s why I love using turnover margin — because it’s a team stat,” Quinn said. “Now, you can say it’s just offensive-related or just defensive-related, but it’s not. It’s the way the defense goes after the ball, but it’s also the attitude the offense has to take care of it. We’re much clearer to that vision now than we’ve ever been.”
Every coach wants to limit his own team’s turnovers while forcing the opponent to commit them, obviously, but Quinn didn’t become as maniacal about the stat until last offseason. He realized, in hindsight, he loved some things his 8-8 team had done: The 2015 Falcons at times had run the ball effectively, converted reliably on third down and held their own in time of possession. But 30 giveaways versus 23 takeaways didn’t cut it.
This is the point where the running backs are supposed to say they carried a football with them 24-7 to cut down on fumbles, or Quinn is supposed to say he built in some sort of reward for the defensive player who nabbed the most interceptions.
But the players say those sports-movie cliches never happened. In fact, Coleman says he and fellow running back Devonta Freeman never felt any extra pressure to take care of the ball. Simply emphasizing the statistic, apparently, was enough.
“You really didn’t think about it like that,” Coleman said. “Things are going to happen in the game, so as long as your brothers are there with you, whatever happens isn’t going to be a problem.”
So far, he’s right. Turnovers certainly haven’t been a problem for the Falcons. If that continues one more game, they might make their own history — one that ends with them as Super Bowl champions.
Thumbnail photo via Kirby Lee/USA TODAY Sports Images