Atlanta Falcons Coach Recovers From Surprising Super Bowl Loss

Eric Sutulovich speaks of keeping the faith.

(photo: Atlanta Falcons)

The Atlanta Falcons seemingly had it made. They were up 28-3 in the third quarter against the New England Patriots in the recent Super Bowl. It looked like it would only be a matter of time before head coach Dan Quinn and the rest of the team would be awarded the Lombardi Trophy.

Then it happened.

The Patriots’ dormant offense awakened in dramatic fashion, scoring 25 points in two quarters to tie the game. In overtime, they scored a touchdown to win 34-28. The Falcons had come so far, yet were unable to complete the job.

Falcons’ special teams assistant coach Eric Sutulovich is predictably down after the loss, but not out of hope for next season. He sees in the Falcons a young team with a strong core that has a great shot at next year’s Super Bowl. In fact, the Kansas native and father of four was in the office all last week, preparing to make that happen.

Always diligent in football, Sutulovich has also become an attentive student of Catholic apologetics. His beliefs were sharply challenged in college, and now, thanks largely to Catholic Answers, he has a better grasp of what the Church teaches and why. He spoke of his adventures in Catholicism and in football as the Falcons continued to process their tough Super Bowl loss.


The Falcons led the Patriots 28-3 in the third quarter, but ended up losing 28-34. How did such a surprising result come about?

We played very well into the third quarter to get that sizeable lead. We played so hard, for so long, that maybe we got tired or complacent. The bottom line was that we couldn’t finish off the game. The Patriots found the holes in our armor and took advantage of them just in time to win. Not every team would have been able to do that in such a short amount of time, so they deserve credit and congratulations for getting it done.


Are you still disappointed, or are you taking the Kansas City Royals “heartbreaking” loss in the 2014 World Series followed by a 2015 World Series victory as the pattern you’d like to follow?

It’s a little bit of both. We’re very disappointed to come that close and not walk away with a win, but we’re a young team with a bright future. Stepping back and looking at this season from a broader view than just the recent close loss, we did a great job to get to the Super Bowl with the rookies and other young players we have. If we can do that well this year, we can surely do very well next year.

People can see clearly that adversity can get us into a bad place if we let it, but what’s not as obvious is that success can get us into a bad place if we let it. It’s not the external circumstance that matters; what matters is how the individual — or team — sees the circumstance and responds to it. We can mess up a great thing with a bad mindset and get a lot of good out of a bad thing with the right mindset.


Were you able to enjoy the week leading up to the Super Bowl?

I estimate that, including games, I work about 100 hours per week during the season. That’s the type of schedule coaches have from July to January, so we’re busy any week during that time. That was certainly the case before we got to Houston for the week leading up to the Super Bowl, and that week itself had its own unique features.

We camped out at the hotel all week and worked from there. We had done something kind of similar in our road trip to Seattle earlier this season. We stayed at a hotel for many days leading up to the game against the Seahawks, rather than fly home first from our road game in Denver the previous week. The big difference this time was the media obligations and all the pomp.

I coached with the Houston Texans for four years and was there when NRG Stadium opened in 2002. However, the Patriots had already played a Super Bowl there in 2004 and won it, so there weren’t any secret advantages we had. NRG is a great stadium, though; there’s not a bad seat in the house. It’s one of the many things Texans’ owner Bob McNair is associated with that I respect a lot.


Last time we spoke, you mentioned your respect of Catholic Answers. Have you been engaged in apologetics since then?

I have kept up my interest in the topic. I even got to meet the people at Catholic Answers in San Diego since the last time we spoke. Karl Keating, Patrick Coffin and Trent Horn were some of the many people I met with at Catholic Answers. They do so many good things, and I think a lot of the time they help out in ways they’re unaware of. People all over the world are brought to an understanding of Catholic teaching — why it’s taught and how reasonable it is — through the efforts of Catholic Answers.

Even though I haven’t been a big reader in life overall, I have read quite few apologetics books. I even have a little library of them, in fact. Devin Rose, Steve Ray, Scott Hahn, Patrick Madrid and Mark Brumley are some of the authors whose books I’ve read, and I’ve heard CD talks from some of them, too. There’s also a great little book, almost like a pamphlet, from Joel Peters. It’s called Scripture Alone? and is published by TAN Books. It’s about how Christians should see the Bible — not as the sole rule of faith, but as one of the two major sources of faith, the other being sacred Tradition.

Last year we had to correct something that happened in my daughter’s school. A Southern Baptist was a guest speaker, and he said anti-Catholic things that didn’t sit well with us. He won’t be invited back, but that’s an example of how Catholics can be taken in by people who want them to leave the Church. Catholic Answers, EWTN, Ignatius Press and TAN Books all help to discourage this process by showing the tremendous good we have in Catholicism, and how anything good a Protestant might have — such as the Bible — originated in the Catholic Church.


You also mentioned public speaking in our last conversation. Do you still get to do that?

I went to one of the most amazing events in 2014. It was a conference put on by the National Fellowship of Catholic Men at the Church of the Ascension in Overland Park, Kansas. There were around 1,000 teenage boys, fathers and grandfathers at the church all day long. It was overwhelming to have that many men in church for such a long period of time. They listened to talks, went to confession and gathered in small groups to work on becoming better men. 

Interacting with so many other Catholic men like that was something else. I still communicate with a few of the guys who were there, and we help each other with various things. The National Fellowship of Catholic Men is doing outstanding things for the Church in our country, so men out there should look into the group’s events and get to one of them.

I was one of the speakers at the 2014 event; I just shared my story of growing up Catholic in a place in Kansas where no one asked about your religion, and then going to northern Louisiana, where I was told that Catholics were going to hell. That prompted my apologetics search and growth in knowledge of what we believe as Catholics and why we believe it.


You have a Catholic head coach in Dan Quinn. What is it like to work with a man who is so upbeat?

Coach Quinn is awesome. Every day he’s at 100%; there are no down days for him. He knows the tough schedule of coaches, so he’ll say to us, from time to time, that if we’re lacking “juice” that day, just stand next to him, and we’ll get some. He knows how to motivate coaches and players alike.

Dan does the traditional things you’d expect from a head coach, but he also thinks outside the box. We have a basketball hoop and Ping-Pong table in our meeting room that we use for friendly competition. One day in this room they played a video of an Olympic Ping-Pong player hitting the ball very quickly, as the best players do, and Coach Quinn asked if any of the football players could beat that guy on the screen. Julio Jones answered that he could.

Well, that player on the screen walked up from the back of the room and proceeded to beat Julio handily. Julio can beat anybody on the football field, but not always in Ping-Pong, although he is good at that, too.

It’s things like that — bringing in Olympic athletes to compete with our unsuspecting players — that Coach Quinn does to keep us on our toes, stretch our thinking, have fun and help the team play better as one unit. There’s never a dull moment with Coach Quinn, which is a huge boost for an intense profession.


Former Chicago Bears punter Maury Buford said that sometimes his preparation for games was “boring.” Do you think it’s possible to prepare too much?

You don’t want players to be bored in the sense that they don’t know what’s going on or that they have no motivation. Yet you can be “bored” in a good way — if you know the plays and game plan so well that, when you’re quizzed on them, you have the answers before the coach asks the questions. I’d rather have a “bored” player who thoroughly gets it than an energetic one who doesn’t know what is going on.

That would be the worst thing, from a coach’s perspective — that one of your players messes up, not because the other team did so much better, but because your player doesn’t even know what to do.


Has linebacker Paul Worrilow gotten to play on special teams regularly this season?

Paul does play for us on special teams quite a bit. He’s what you hope for in every player. He’s one of the first guys at practice and one of the last to leave practice. You can’t make him any better. He has character, class and a work ethic that are very admirable. He leads the team by example and is a good person outside of football, too.

Paul is one of the reasons we will be back next year. He and most of the rest of the team — I’d say 90% — pray as a group before each game. We want to take our talents as far as they can go, and that’s only possible with the help of God.


Register correspondent Trent Beattie writes from Seattle.

His book, Fit for Heaven (Dynamic Catholic, 2015), 

contains numerous Catholic sports

                                                                              interviews, most of which

have appeared in the Register.