MINNEAPOLIS — Less than four years removed from their infamous overtime loss after blowing a 25-point lead at Super Bowl LI, the Atlanta Falcons hit the reset button by firing their head coach and general manager after another poor start.
The Minnesota Vikings, who reached the NFC title game three seasons ago and won a playoff game this past January, were already taking the long view this year. They moved on from several established players for younger and cheaper replacements and doubled down on a commitment to leadership continuity during the offseason.
Now the Falcons and the Vikings are matched up in Week 6 with only one win between them, with Sunday's game in Minnesota providing another reminder of how fast an NFL team can find itself veering off the contender track into the pack of also-rans, works in progress and full-on rebuilding projects.
"Right now, we've got a lot of people in disarray, both on the personnel side and the coaching side, and everybody is trying to figure out what to do and how we're going to do it next," said Falcons interim coach Raheem Morris, who was promoted after Dan Quinn was fired last Sunday night, five games into his sixth season.
Thomas Dimitroff, in his 12th year as Atlanta's GM, was also let go in a pair of dismissals announced hours after the Falcons fell to 0-5 by losing their NFC South opener to the Carolina Panthers.
The Falcons have scored first in four of five games, not that it mattered. They held a 15-point lead over the Dallas Cowboys and a 16-point advantage on the Chicago Bears, both times past the midpoint of the fourth quarter, and still lost. Seven-time Pro Bowl wide receiver Julio Jones has been sidelined for all but one half of the past three games due to a hamstring injury. Team owner Arthur Blank, in his video news conference to discuss the Dimitroff and Quinn firings, declined to commit to quarterback Matt Ryan for the future.
"We still have a long way to go this season, so we can't get stuck in this woe is me feeling over how we started," Ryan said. "We've got to find a way to win this week and change the narrative."
Though the Vikings (1-4) reached the divisional round of the playoffs last season and extended the contract of quarterback Kirk Cousins, their recent spending spree on premium players — primarily new deals for homegrown stars — forced them into a transition mode this year. Salary-cap constraints triggered a major cornerback overhaul. Wide receiver Stefon Diggs was traded, partly due to tension created by his dissatisfaction in the offense. Nose tackle Linval Joseph and right guard Josh Kline were let go, and both players have been missed.
Coach Mike Zimmer, who received a three-year contract extension along with general manager Rick Spielman over the summer, acknowledged last month he misjudged the amount of development work that was needed on the revamped defense. Seven of the 16 Vikings who were in on more than one play in the 27-26 road loss to the Seattle Seahawks last weekend were picked in one of the past three drafts.
Still, after two ugly games to start the season, the four teams the Vikings have lost to have a combined 16-2 record. Two of the defeats were by one point, and the game against the Seahawks — who rolled to a 38-25 win at Atlanta to open the season — still bred some confidence for the rest of this strange season altered by the COVID-19 pandemic.
With Cameron Dantzler and Jeff Gladney giving them two rookies in the starting lineup at cornerback for the first time since 1999, the Vikings played their best pass defense of the season against the Seahawks as star quarterback Russell Wilson had his statistically worst game of 2020.
Despite eight incompletions in 12 attempts on the final drive, though, Wilson took advantage of Dantzler's inexperience and hit D.K. Metcalf for a 39-yard completion on fourth-and-10 and the winning touchdown from 6 yards out.
"I still feel good about Dantzler. I think he's going to be a heck of a player," Zimmer said. "We're probably not the last team that Russell Wilson will come back in the fourth quarter on."
Cousins, 32 and in his third season with the Vikings after starting his NFL career with Washington, doesn't seem discouraged at all.
"When I look around our locker room, I don't see guys who are a problem, and you would be surprised at how often that can be the case in a locker room where you have certain guys who just haven't figured it out," Cousins said. "Down to the very last guy, I just feel really good about our group."
One of the bright spots for the Falcons in the 23-16 loss to the Panthers was the performance of Todd Gurley, the former University of Georgia star in his first year in Atlanta. The former Los Angeles running back had his most productive game of the season, totaling 14 carries for 121 yards — his first 100-yard rushing performance since Jan. 12, 2019, in a divisional playoff win against the Cowboys, or the first time in 22 games — and catching four passes for 29 yards.
It was the two-time All-Pro first-teamer's 15th career game with at least 150 yards from scrimmage since entering the NFL in 2015, passing the Cowboys' Ezekiel Elliott and Carolina's Christian McCaffrey for the most in that span.
Gurley's deal with Atlanta is just for one year, though, and it's fair to wonder how much roster overhaul might happen once a new GM and coach are in place. The team culture could change even if the personnel doesn't dramatically.
Quinn, who had not been a head coach before being hired by the Falcons in February 2015, believed in a player-friendly approach, often referring to his team as "The Brotherhood." Blank was asked if he'll prioritize a full-time replacement with a similar ability to relate or instead seek more of a disciplinarian.
"This is a situation where you can and probably should have both," the 78-year-old team owner said, before using a golf analogy. "You use different clubs for different reasons. I think it's important to have a leader."