Turning the page: How Dan Quinn went from Falcons rut to Cowboys refresh

·11 min read

FRISCO, Texas — Cowboys linebacker Micah Parsons sees the laminated piece of paper in his locker daily.

His name is scrawled atop it, his expectations for himself below. Then stretch a series of handwritten messages from defensive teammates and coaches: Keep making plays. Keep being a monster. Keep growing. Keep learning.

The more the rookie reads his colleagues’ feedback, the more he realizes: His expectations are literally and figuratively on the same page. And he has written proof, thanks to the exercise coordinated by Cowboys defensive coordinator Dan Quinn.

“It’s positive to hear what your teammates think about you and what they expect from you because you always want to meet the expectations of people you look up to and people you work with,” Parsons told USA TODAY Sports. “When I’m getting that feedback that we’re all on the same page with what my sheet is, I’m like ‘I’ve got to stay on this track.’

“Never really done anything like that.”

Quinn’s early-season exercise—in which each defensive player and coach wrote their goals, passed the sheet of paper to the man to their right and then successively wrote what they sought from their colleagues until the paper had stopped at each man in the room—has reaped direct benefits for the Cowboys defense, further emphasizing Quinn’s commitment to defining expectations and teaching players not just what to play but also how and why.

But the exercise also resembles Quinn’s self-analysis from a year ago, when his five-plus-season stint as head coach of the Falcons ended abruptly after Atlanta fell into an 0-5 hole. On Oct. 11, 2020, Quinn was fired. Then, he was fired up. He asked himself: How could he get better?

“I didn’t just want a rinse and repeat,” Quinn said. “I wanted real feedback—right between the eyes.”

One year ago, Quinn was virtually passing his own paper around the room, asking former players and coaches for honest guidance and hard truths on how he should retool his coaching approach. By the time the Cowboys hired him as coordinator in January, Quinn had reviewed film cutups from his 2013 through 2020 teams as well as anecdotal feedback on his leadership. The concluding changes to his scheme direction and management philosophies, he believed, would enable him to “be a better version of me.”

Halfway through the season, Quinn has guided Cowboys defenders to become better versions of themselves. Rookies have overperformed and defensive cohesion has arrived far more quickly than in a disjointed 2020. The Cowboys have improved from the 28th-best scoring defense last season (29.6 points allowed) to tied for 18th (24.0), the 26th most likely to thwart third downs (46.9% allowed) to seventh (34.7%). Quinn considers the defense an up-and-coming unit rather than finished product; but ahead of his first rematch with former colleagues, progress is evident. So is this matchup of 6-2 Dallas and 4-4 Atlanta a revenge game?

Quinn insists Sunday’s 1 p.m. ET Falcons-Cowboys game is not about where he came from but where he and his current players are going.

“There ain’t no time to take a stroll down memory lane,” Quinn said Monday. “We got some [expletive] to fix. So I’ll be right where my feet are, right where I’m supposed to be going after it as hard as we can.

“Worry about the jersey I coach now.”

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Defensive coordinator Dan Quinn of the Dallas Cowboys looks on before the game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Raymond James Stadium on September 09, 2021 in Tampa, Florida.
Defensive coordinator Dan Quinn of the Dallas Cowboys looks on before the game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Raymond James Stadium on September 09, 2021 in Tampa, Florida.

The search for superpowers

Adopting a singular focus is in part a product of advice Quinn received a year ago when a Falcons tenure that peaked in a Super Bowl appearance ended unceremoniously with three straight losing seasons. Quinn says former coaching colleagues and players told him he stretched himself too thin. He was trying to do too much, intending to solve so many issues he unintentionally created new ones.

Arriving in Dallas, he wanted to position himself, his staff and his players to better excel in their areas of specialty. Before defining roles, he investigated the pieces available. That process began in free agency and the draft, where the Cowboys found seven defenders who started in their last game. These were defenders whom Quinn believed would fit into a culture that needed overhauling after miscommunication, lack of on-field trust and lack of belief in coaching compounded scheme misfits in 2020.

Schematically, he returned the Cowboys to the four-man front defensive ends were better fit for, complementing the rush with coverage almost always fielding five defensive backs. Quinn is more likely to field three safeties on a defensive snap than three linebackers. Because from a personnel standpoint, Quinn doesn’t base his vision only off what players have done but what he believes they are best equipped to do.

Quinn saw former Falcons safety Keanu Neal’s physicality in the box and thought: Let’s transition him to linebacker. He saw free-agent safety Jayron Kearse’s unique size/speed combination and empowered him with play-call responsibilities and featured matchups beyond what Kearse had seen in five pro seasons. For returning players, Quinn has guided defensive end Randy Gregory’s diversification of his pass-rush arsenal, Quinn demonstrating swim moves and cross chops himself with impressive suddenness. And in one-on-one sessions before and after practice, Quinn has tutored Parsons to become the best inside and outside linebacker he can be.

“Each week it’s something different,” Parsons told USA TODAY Sports. “He’s always said, ‘I know when you’re going downhill, that’s your superpower.’ So he always lets me go downhill. But with me and him, it’s focusing on the little things so I can become a better player.

“Just letting me do what I be best at.”

And Quinn doesn’t let his convictions keep him from adjusting. When a Saturday game-plan review has revealed that players only partially grasped a coverage call, he has stashed it to revisit later. When the Patriots gashed the Cowboys for 109 yards and two touchdowns on their first seven snaps in Week 6, Quinn moved Parsons from the pass-rush plan they had hoped to exploit to instead emphasize the run support that was clearly more needed. The Cowboys said their Minnesota approach further required in-game adjustments after the Vikings began the game with a seven-play, 75-yard scoring drive too lightly contested. Quinn signaled down package shifts in a performance that ultimately held Minnesota to just 16 points and an abysmal 1-of-13 third-down conversion rate.

“One of the most important things for a coach to have is, ‘OK, this [expletive] ain’t working,” he said. “ ‘We got to try something else.’ When those moments come, you better be able to adjust and adapt.”

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Cowboys defensive coordinator Dan Quinn spent five-plus seasons as head coach of the Falcons.
Cowboys defensive coordinator Dan Quinn spent five-plus seasons as head coach of the Falcons.

‘Damn sure glad that I did’

The Cowboys enter this Falcons game coming off a performance in which, to quote Quinn, "most [expletive]" was not working. The Cowboys were gashed by the Broncos for 30 points and 407 yards, including 179 yards on six devastating explosive plays. The Cowboys’ physicality was insufficient; even players said they were embarrassed. They missed a season-high 14 missed tackles, by Quinn’s count.

Quinn told his unit on Monday to sit with the anger and disappointment they felt after missing the target. But they must not despair too far.

“We lost the game,” he told them. “But we’re certainly not lost. There’s a big difference.”

The group conducted a stinging film review, reliving how many times they missed gaps and failed to provide proper tackling support. Players failed to win what coaches call the “post-2.3”—the finishing touches needed after 2.3 seconds of a play have elapsed, as the pocket breaks down or a running back reaches the second level.

“When you’re really humming and hauling ass, sometimes that can make up for a miss,” Quinn said. “Just remembering what that relentless nature of going and finishing can feel like and look like.

“We’ve got to capture that.”

Quinn reminded players that their nearly across-the-board statistical improvement has stemmed from their aggressive play style and physical attitude. They’ve proven what they’re capable of, even if they didn’t show it last Sunday.

“It stings to watch those moments happen,” Quinn said. “It’s a hard lesson to go through, but usually those are the ones that are most impactful, aren’t they?”

Quinn learned his own hard lesson a year ago after he was dismissed by the opponent who will visit Sunday. But the deep digging that followed yielded the clarity he believes he need for his coaching now and beyond.

Quinn declines to discuss whether he aspires to assume the role of head coach again, his insistence on “being where my feet are” overpowering any statements of future goals, particularly those beyond this season. During practice this week, his demeanor revealed no traces of those ties, Quinn instead coaching hands-on as he has since he arrived in Dallas. Quinn implored his players to lower their pad level on Wednesday inside the Star, demonstrating the power with which he wanted them to hit the sleds. “Get our hands on these [expletive] guys,” he told them when coaching hands technique. He was dialed in, active and intentional as he has been in each session since spring.

Sunday, expect Quinn to cycle through his usual pregame stairs workout at AT&T Stadium and then retreat to the more analytical, less emotion-charged booth to call plays from above. Reunions will no doubt come, Quinn noting this week that he discerns between the bulk of great memories formed during his 85-43 era and the disappointing ending. Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan told reporters this week that he and Quinn still exchange texts and check in on each other’s families as good friends. Ryan said he knows Quinn will engineer a competitive game plan matching up against a roster he knows unusually well.

“He’s going to have his guys ready to play, and they’re going to understand what they’re trying to do,” Ryan said. “Allowing them to play fast, physical and fly around.

“He’s done a nice job of using the guys.”

Cowboys players said neither Quinn nor they need extra motivation to rebound from a poor showing vs. Denver, even though Parsons does believe players let their coordinator down in the last performance.

How to rebound? Parsons and his teammates need look no further than their laminated lists of expectations and goals, the reminders of the power their group holds and the important role each plays in that group.

Odighizuwa's list details teammates’ reminders to play the run just as relentlessly as the pass. Cornerback Trevon Diggs, who intercepted seven passes the first six games, sees teammates imploring him to lock down receivers and get the ball.

Quinn sees the blueprint that has created the chemistry and system clarity to elevate a defense.

“It wasn’t the easiest process to go through, but I’m for damn sure glad that I did it,” Quinn said. “When I started here, I started fresh again.

“This is my team. This is who I’m with. And this is my crew. I will always think of the memories, but I’m where I’m supposed to be.”

Follow USA TODAY Sports’ Jori Epstein on Twitter @JoriEpstein.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Cowboys' Dan Quinn facing old team in Falcons, but no revenge at stake