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The Dallas Cowboys have opened up the man purse and ponied up for a three-year contract for Dan Quinn to be the club’s new defensive coordinator. Quinn has been out of work since October, when the Atlanta Falcons turned off his key card to Mercedes-Benz stadium in Week 5 of the NFL season.
The Falcons were 0-5 at that point, and were either being blown out or blowing huge leads, including to the team that just hired him, when Dallas pulled off the Watermelon Kick game in Week 2 to win 40-39. The next week the Chicago Bears ran off 20 unanswered fourth-quarter points to win 30-26.
Quinn wasn’t the DC of those clubs though, he was the head coach who hired Raheem Morris to do that job. Quinn brings an impressive resume to the fold, as a defensive line coach for several years and teams before leaving the NFL to be University of Florida’s DC for two seasons. He returned to Seattle to be their defensive coordinator and the club promptly won a Super Bowl, then returned to the big game the next year to defend the title.
So what will Dallas be getting with Quinn? It will be interesting to see how he fares as a DC to an offensive minded coach, as opposed to under Pete Carroll who cut his teeth on the defensive side of the ball as well. With what we do know about Quinn’s past, here’s what we came up with as an initial list of what there is to like about the hire, and what remains a question mark.
Pro: Return to the 40 Front
One of the first thing head coach Mike McCarthy said upon being introduced last January was that he and his staff would make the scheme fit the talent. Mike Nolan made him a liar. Nolan envisioned a team that used three down lineman and a system that included using linebacker types such as Jaylon Smith as more of a pass rusher. Now Leighton Vander Esch's Week 1 injury certainly played a role, but from the jump this was not a sound plan because the pandemic happened. A new scheme with no OTAs and Minicamps, a truncated training camp and no preseason games? Who in their right mind thinks this was wise? Hiring Quinn allows Dallas to return, in full, to a four-man front, allowing DeMarcus Lawrence to maintain his role in his preferred three-point stance, and stop the crazy idea that Dorance Armstrong is a more valuable weapon than Randy Gregory. There will be talk of the LEO front, which is three-down lineman and a stand-up edge rusher, but the fundamental is that the team's best defender (Lawrence) isn't asked to do something outside his considerable comfort zone. Lawrence's insane ability to stop the run, makes him the perfect base end 5-tech in the Quinn defense, and he has the ability to both one-gap and two gap.
Pro: The importance of the free safety in the Cover 3
Part and parcel with the 40-front for Quinn has been that Cover 3 is the secondary scheme of choice. Dallas has, forever and a day, neglected the safety position; the front office simply doesn't have any interest in paying that position or investing draft resources into it. Quinn had Earl Thomas, drafted in the Top 10 and for a while, the best centerfield safety in the league. The fact that Dallas was willing to move on from Nolan after one year is significant. Coaches salaries are all guaranteed. He'll be paid for the next two years. It would be really weird for Dallas to make this move and then not go out and get such a key piece for the new DC. The draft doesn't have an abundance of top-tier free safety options, but free agency does.
Pro: Dan Quinn's record as a defensive coordinator
Quinn was only a defensive coordinator for two seasons before he was hired away from the Seahawks to man the big chair for the Atlanta Falcons. During that time, though, Seattle had the No. 1 defense in points allowed and the No. 1 defense in yards allowed. Both years. There's more too it than that, but you simply can't ask a person to perform any better. He literally has never not been the best in the league when his primary job was defensive coordinator.
Con: Dan Quinn's defenses as head coach of Atlanta
Here's the alternate to that fact. While he was manning the Falcons' ship from 2015 through Week 5 of 2020, Quinn's defenses were only good once, in 2017. Even the year they went to a Super Bowl (2016) they were a bad defense as witnessed by their collapse and losing a 28-3 advantage over the New England Patriots in the big game. Sure, he had more to focus on, but his forte was as a defensive guru, and he ultimately had control over that unit as well. Quinn's defenses finished 14th, 27th, 8th, 25 and 23rd in his five full years in points allowed. In yards they were 16th, 25th, 9th, 28th and 20th in those five seasons. Using DVOA, a metric created by Football Outsiders that takes into account opponent strength and game situation, it wasn't much better. https://twitter.com/JohnOwning/status/1348778331148222468
Con: The defensive personnel is not the same
Here's a look at who Dan Quinn had on his famous Seattle defenses and who is in those positions on the current Cowboys' roster: SS Kam Chancellor - Donovan Wilson FS Earl Thomas - Darian Thompson CB1 Richard Sherman - Trevon Diggs CB2 Byron Maxwell - Anthony Brown 5T - Michael Bennett - DeMarcus Lawrence* LEO - Cliff Avril - Randy Gregory* SAM - Bruce Irvin - Dorance Armstrong MLB - Bobby Wagner - Leighton Vander Esch WLB - KJ Wright - Jaylon Smith 1T - Brandon Mebane - Antwaun Woods 3T - Tony McDaniel - Trysten Hill The asterisks indicate the positions where the Cowboys are even or superior.
On the bright side, the Cowboys don't need to have the No. 1 defense in the league in order for Quinn to be a good hire. With the offense expected to return to full strength, even a just a relateively-bad defense should be good enough for the Cowboys to return to the playoffs. A mediocre defense could see them as division champs and capable of winning a game or two in the dance. A somewhat-good defense may be enough to ride the offense to a championship.
Cons: Not fresh blood
There's a lot to be said about Quinn's experience. He's coached for six different organizations prior to Dallas along seven stops. He's cut his teeth in the NFL and has been a coach for more than half of his 50 years on earth. His first coaching job was with Hofstra in 1994. Still, there's something to be said about being daring in hiring an up-and-coming newcomer and the energy that can bring. Quinn's counterpart, Kellen Moore, is that guy for the offense. In Quinn, McCarthy and the Jones family decided to go with tried and true. He's unfamiliar as a coach with McCarthy, missing each other by one season in San Francisco as Quinn was there from 2001 through 2004 and McCarthy arrived to be the OC in 2005.