FRISCO, Texas – Things have come a long way from Flowery Branch.
That much goes without saying, as Sunday's wildcard meeting against the San Francisco 49ers is just another example of how things change in the NFL.
Because not only are Dan Quinn and his former offensive coordinator, Kyle Shanahan, working different jobs from their old positions with the Atlanta Falcons – they're executing them in entirely different ways.
"If you pulled out our tape from '15 and '16, from practice, both his offense and the defense that I'm using here would be quite a bit different," Quinn said on Monday.
It doesn't feel all that long ago that Quinn was the head coach of the Falcons, having hired Shanahan away from the Cleveland Browns to be his offensive coordinator. In the world of pro football it might as well be an eternity.
Shanahan is at the tail end of his fifth season as San Francisco's head coach, with this year marking his second trip to the playoffs. Quinn joined the Cowboys a year ago after being dismissed in Atlanta – and has already reinvented himself into one of the hottest commodities among NFL assistants.
"It is one of the coolest parts about coaching, because the changes that keep happening. And so the learning never stops," Quinn said.
That seems to be the case for both of these coaches, who are at the center of this game's most intriguing matchup – the league's fifth-most efficient offense against its second-most efficient defense.
And yet, for both of their sterling reputations, both Quinn and Shanahan are proving just how adaptable and versatile they are.
Shanahan's track record speaks for itself. As Quinn noted, he became a known name in the NFL a decade ago when he helped to light the league on fire by playing to Robert Griffin III's athletic ability in Washington. Under Quinn a few years later, he helped the Falcons reach a Super Bowl by playing to the strengths of Matt Ryan and Julio Jones.
"And now he's different again, in terms of how he's utilizing his personnel," Quinn said. "That's the sign of a good coach. He's tough, he's gritty, he knows how to attack not just the field vertically, but horizontally as well."
"Different" may be an understatement in this instance. This may not be the most explosive offense Shanahan has ever coached, but the 49ers once again boast one of the most effective rushing attacks in the league – though this time its buoyed by the dynamic skillset of second-year receiver Deebo Samuel.
If ever there was an example of Samuel's versatility, he showed it in Sunday's playoff-clinching win against the Rams. He toted the rock eight times for 45 yards and a touchdown, and completed a 24-yard touchdown pass to tie the game in the third quarter.
All of that pairs nicely with the skillset that got him drafted in the first place – the receiving abilities that saw him catch 77 passes for 1,405 yards and six touchdowns this season.
"I think that's one of the things I most respect about him, is utilizing and finding the unique stuff that a player has and featuring that in their very best ways," Quinn said of Shanahan.
Going back to the original point, that's not to say Shanahan is alone in adapting over the years. When the Cowboys hired Quinn at this time last year, it was widely assumed he'd be bringing the standard Cover 3 scheme that he became associated with in Seattle.
The reality has been anything but, as the Cowboys have varied up their looks all season, most notably showing much more willingness to play man coverage than outsiders might have guessed.
"What's probably different from my end is just the way that we use some of the coverages, the ways we use some of the pressures," Quinn said.
There's also the looming element that both coaches would probably prefer not be brought up. Their time together in Atlanta came following Super Bowl LI – one of the most gut-wrenching losses in NFL history. Painful as it might be to think about, Quinn said he thinks both coaches have used it as a way to improve themselves.
"I think, for both of us, you want to go back. It's certainly what we did," he said. "You talk about it and you say 'What'd you learn from it?' Because otherwise the pain of not completing the deal would be lost on it."
Shanahan used that experience to get back to another Super Bowl two years ago, though the taste of victory on that stage still eludes him.
As for Quinn, this is his first trip back to the postseason since 2017, when the Falcons fell in the divisional round the year after their Super Bowl run. With the changes he's made to this defense, this feels like the most complete Cowboys team to reach the playoffs in quite some time.
Whatever the next phase of his coaching career might look like, Quinn seems quite excited by the opportunity.
"I'm damn fired up, man," he said. "Are you kidding me?The early 90s Dallas Niners some of the championship games, for me, coming up and watching those ones, I can hear Madden and Summerall talking it through. My first Dallas and Niner playoff game, I'm pretty fired up to do it man."