Emotional team meeting helped Falcons move past Super Bowl

FILE - In this Feb. 5, 2017, file photo, Atlanta Falcons' Matt Ryan walks back to the locker room after the NFL Super Bowl 51 football game loss to the New England Patriots in overtime, in Houston. Time for the Falcons to move on. The team begins offseasoon workouts with an eye toward getting over a stunning Super Bowl loss.  (AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez, File)
Matt Ryan walks back to the locker room after Atlanta's Super Bowl 51 loss to the New England Patriots in overtime, –AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez, File

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FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. — It was April 17, 70 days after the Falcons’ historic collapse in Super Bowl LI.

Falcons coach Dan Quinn gathered the team together for the first time since that game. A team meeting was held and anyone could stand up and share emotions, good, bad or otherwise, in front of the entire team.

“I’m not going to lie to you, there was some frustration,” said left tackle Jake Matthews about the anger in the room. “Everyone was (upset).”

The Falcons knew they had a golden opportunity to claim the NFL’s Lombardi Trophy, but they let the New England Patriots off the hook. They were still steaming mad 70 days later.

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Wide receiver Taylor Gabriel believes the meeting was important for the team to move on.

“[Quinn] told anybody that has anything on your chest, get it off your chest right now,” Gabriel said. “It was a group setting, and after that meeting our focus has been this year. I feel like everybody feels that way. At the end of the day, we have to move on.”

Gabriel didn’t speak up at the meeting.

“I felt like there wasn’t anything I needed to say,” Gabriel said. “We all came back. We were upset about the outcome. … As long as we stay focused. … We went to a Super Bowl last year, so there was nothing we did wrong.

“If anything, I feel like it makes us hungrier.”

Linebackers coach Jeff Ulbrich doesn’t believe many other coaches would let the team deal with such a controversial matter in an open team forum.

“Q is the best in the business,” Ulbrich said. “He’s a great human. He’s one of the best humans that I know. Two, he’s got this authenticity, grit, blue collared-ness, that most head coaches don’t have.”

Quinn’s confidence and persona allowed for the meeting to take place.

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“He’s very relatable to this group of people, but at the same time has this amazing polish and understanding of how to really communicate and organize,” Ulbrich said. “At the same time he has what almost no head coaches have, the humility to ask everybody on a daily basis what he can do better.

“How many head coaches are asking everybody that? Their so-called subordinates? It makes you just want to do everything for him, anything for him.”

Tight end Austin Hooper felt the discussions, some of them raw, scored major points in the locker room for Quinn and the newly aligned coaching staff.

“Yeah, I thought it was cool that Coach wanted to do all of that,” Hooper said. “It was just exactly that, whatever you wanted to say, get it off your chest and we’ll move forward.

“After that, it just kind of cleared the air for some guys who wanted to voice some stuff. After that we moved on. New team. New year. New identity. That’s the cool part.”

The Falcons say they are finished dealing with the Super Bowl debacle. It likely won’t go away easily, but in their minds, to try to get back to the Super Bowl, they must move on.

“Yeah, this is the next season, and we’re excited to be out here and getting ready for this year,” Matthews said. “Hey, but like we heard in that meeting, that was it. We’re done with it.

“We’re out here working now and getting ready for the 2017 season. We are really confident that we’re going to go out there and do good things this year.”

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The time between the game and the meeting was important.

“Yeah, it was refreshing because everyone still had emotions from it,” Matthews said. “We had to wipe it clean and be done with it. We all feel good and are ready to go.”

Outside linebacker Vic Beasley also points to the meeting as a pivoting point for Quinn, who’s set to enter his third season. He’s just the second coach to guide the Falcons to the Super Bowl.

“It went well,” Beasley said. “We were able clear the air. Put those things behind us that happened in the past and learn from them. We were just trying to make sure that nobody was holding onto any weight from the past.”

Who were some of the speakers?

“Actually a couple of coaches came up and said some things that was on their hearts from the past,” Beasley said. “It was good to see that from a couple of coaches.”

The Falcons, who started play in 1966, never had back-to-back winning seasons until 2007 and 2008. A back-to-back Super Bowl trip would be historic.

Coach Dan Reeves led the 1998 team to Super Bowl XXXIII, which it lost to Denver 34-19 on Jan. 31, 1999. Former head coaches Jim Mora Jr. and Mike Smith took Falcons teams to NFC Championship games, but lost to the Eagles and the 49ers, respectively.

Mora’s Michael Vick-led team lost Jan. 23, 2005, and Smith’s Matt Ryan-led team lost Jan. 20, 2013.

“Me personally, I couldn’t speak for other people, but I had already moved on,” free safety Ricardo Allen said. “Once I start training for the next season, yes, it was motivation in my head, but that stuff was already gone.

“There is nothing that we could do right now. There was nothing that we could do off the field that could change what we did last year. So, we’ve already moved on from that. I really didn’t have much to say. I just knew that I was grinding.”

D. Orlando Ledbetter writes for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Email: dledbetter(at)ajc.com.

Story Filed By Cox Newspapers