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Kyle Shanahan, Dan Quinn bring painful past to 49ers-Cowboys meeting

Then Atlanta-coach Dan Quinn, right, talks with offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan when the two were with the Falcons in 2017.  (Associated Press)
By Schuyler Dixon Associated Press

Kyle Shanahan and Dan Quinn will always share the painful memory of coaching in the Super Bowl together with Atlanta five years ago when the Falcons couldn’t hold a 25-point lead in the second half of a loss to New England.

At least now the San Francisco coach and the Dallas defensive coordinator will be able to talk about a more recent postseason moment they have in common.

The wild-card meeting Sunday between the visiting 49ers (10-7) and Cowboys (12-5) is the first in the playoffs involving both coaches since that crushing loss in Houston. Back then, Shanahan was Quinn’s offensive coordinator when Atlanta’s infamous 28-3 lead evaporated in a 34-28 overtime loss to Tom Brady and the Patriots.

“I think for both of us, you want to go back and certainly what we did and you talk about it and you say, ‘What did you learn from it?’ ” Quinn said. “Because otherwise the pain of not completing the deal would be lost on us.

“It’s a shared experience that we have but one hopefully years from now they’ll be some other things to talk about and in a better way. But hey I get it. A couple of years ago, I would’ve been (upset) about it and tried to blow it off. I’m never going to look past it and (I’ll) just take the things I learned and rock it from there.”

Shanahan took over the 49ers after the Super Bowl loss while Quinn led the Falcons to the playoffs the next season before consecutive losing years set the stage for his firing with an 0-5 record last season. The Cowboys hired him in the offseason.

Now both have experienced Super Bowl losses as head coaches after San Francisco lost a fourth-quarter lead to Patrick Mahomes and the Kansas City Chiefs to finish the 2019 season.

They’ll be two of three coaches at AT&T Stadium who have led teams to Super Bowls. Dallas coach Mike McCarthy is the one with a victory, leading Green Bay over Pittsburgh at the home of the Cowboys during the 2010 season.

“I think anytime you have a common experience there may be some value to it,” McCarthy said. “There’s a lot more conversation in today’s NFL between coaches, particularly in the young generation, than I experienced in the earlier days.”

The matchup of Shanahan and Quinn is one of the storylines in a matchup of old playoff rivals that haven’t seen each other in this setting since the last of three consecutive NFC championship games during the 1994 season.

While the 49ers are more defined by their top-three defense, the multifaceted rushing attack could present problems for Dallas’ middle-of-the-pack run defense. Quinn, however, has revitalized a defense that was gouged repeatedly in McCarthy’s Dallas debut last season. The Cowboys have done it with takeaways.

Plus, Quinn has reached the Super Bowl each of the previous two seasons he was a defensive coordinator, with Seattle. The Seahawks won the first and lost the second before Quinn was hired by Atlanta in 2015.

“I’ve got as much respect for him as anyone I’ve ever worked with,” Shanahan said. “It doesn’t surprise me how much he’s helped them this year. They’ve got a real good one, and I have a feeling he won’t be in that position very long.”

To Shanahan’s point, multiple teams with head coach openings have already requested permission to interview Quinn. He turned down the initial request from Jacksonville, and this week didn’t want to get into reports that Denver was interested.

Part of Quinn’s reticence comes from how difficult his firing was on him emotionally and knowing the fired coaches are probably feeling the same way.

“It’s nice to hear if someone is interested,” Quinn said. “That’s not lost on me. I had a difficult 2020 season that didn’t go so good. So that’s not lost on me, but there’s really nothing to add on my end.”

Quinn’s quick reconstruction of the Dallas defense could result in his next opportunity coming this year, which means he and Shanahan would be head coaches again. But their next meeting, if it happens, won’t be their first. Quinn’s Falcons beat the 49ers 29-22 late in the 2019 season.

“They were very similar in ’19 to how it was when I was there,” Shanahan said. “But just watching him now, in Dallas, it’s still his style. They play the exact same way and it’s very obvious when you see them on tape and that’s the coolest thing about Dan. But just coverage-wise and stuff, it’s very different. That’s impressive for Dan to do it a certain way his whole career and then to make the adjustments.”

Quinn has seen the same in Shanahan, from designing the offense for a mobile quarterback in Robert Griffin III in Washington, to a drop-back style with Matt Ryan in Atlanta and now the run-first mentality with the 49ers.

“I think that’s one of the things I most respect about him: utilizing and finding the unique stuff that a player has and featuring that in their very best ways,” Quinn said. “Both of us have changed some over the years based on personnel and how to use them.”

Now both should have something else to talk about when it comes to their shared postseason history.