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Dallas Cowboys coaching spotlight: Special teams coordinator Keith O’Quinn

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A new coach is taking over to make special teams remain special.

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Dallas Cowboys 2010 Headshots Photo by NFL via Getty Images

After the 2017 season ended, Jerry Jones and Jason Garrett decided to make some wholesale changes to the structure of the Dallas Cowboys to avoid another disappointment, if 9-7 can really be called a disappointment. While offensive coordinator Scott Linehan and defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli both remained with the team, much of the staff around them has changed. This series is meant to profile each coach, including the ones who stayed, and analyze how their presence will contribute to the 2018 Dallas Cowboys. Today, we are looking at a very special coach, special teams coordinator Keith O’Quinn. Be sure to check out our other profiles below:

The Dallas Cowboys are currently blessed with some very good specialists on special teams. After years of instability at the kicking position, Dallas found Dan Bailey in 2011, Garrett’s first full season as head coach. Bailey has become one of the best kickers in the game today, and is currently the second most accurate kicker in NFL history, having converted 88.2% of all field goals and 99.3% of extra points. Moving on from Mat McBriar after the 2010 season, Dallas brought on Chris Jones who has turned into one of the better punters in the league. And then there’s long snapper L.P. Ladouceur, who’s literally never made a mistake in his entire career.

However, the Cowboys will have a new man in charge of the special teams unit in 2018 after Rich Bisaccia left to take the same position with the Oakland Raiders. The Cowboys promoted their assistant special teams coach Keith O’Quinn to the position. O’Quinn has spent 12 seasons with the Cowboys in multiple roles, and his most recent work assisting Bisaccia is the main reason why Dallas felt comfortable promoting him.

Growing up in San Antonio, O’Quinn played safety at North Texas University. After graduating, O’Quinn started coaching football and baseball at Texas high schools and small Texas colleges until 2006, when he became a pro scout for the Cowboys. In that role, he primarily helped to prepare for free agency and tracking player movement throughout the NFL.

In 2009, O’Quinn left the Cowboys to become the Director of Pro Personnel for the Cleveland Browns. Several other future Cowboys coaches were also with that team: Gary Brown, Matt Eberflus, Jerome Henderson, Ben Bloom, and Rob Ryan. After one year in the Browns front office, O’Quinn returned to Dallas, but this time as a coach.

In 2010, O’Quinn was a quality control coach/offensive assistant that primarily worked to break down opponent game film each week for use in constructing the game plan. From 2011 to 2013, O’Quinn added responsibilities of working with the wide receivers, assisting Jimmy Robinson, the assistant head coach and wide receivers coach at the time, and later Derek Dooley.

It was in 2014, though, that O’Quinn became the assistant special teams coach. This was the year that Bailey became the most accurate kicker in NFL history, if only for a couple years, and Jones posted career bests as a punter. In 2015, Bailey and Jones both continued to improve in big ways and new return man Lucky Whitehead was effective as the Cowboys’ special teams unit was ranked as the 4th best in the league by Rick Gosselin. The next year, Bisaccia and O’Quinn’s unit fell to 11th in Gosselin’s ranking despite great play from Bailey and Jones. Nevertheless, special teams was a strong point for the Cowboys yet again.

It became even better in 2017, ranked as the 5th best unit in the NFL by Pro Football Focus. Rookie Ryan Switzer, taking over after Whitehead’s release, was graded by PFF as the 9th best returner in the NFL as he averaged 8.8 yards per punt return and 25 yards per kick return, and took a punt return to the house against the Washington Redskins. Jones and the punt coverage team took a huge step forward, allowing only 75 yards to opposing returners. However, the kicking game surprisingly took a step back. Bailey missed four games with an injury, and the Cowboys had to bring in Mike Nugent, who had some early struggles but did an admirable job given the circumstances. When Bailey returned, he wasn’t himself. He missed five field goals over the last five games, and missed his first ever extra point, causing many to wonder if he was still experiencing some injury issues.

In taking over the special teams in 2018, O’Quinn is entrusted with effectively keeping the status quo for this unit. Bailey should be back to his excellent self after a full offseason to recover and rehab, and Jones will hopefully continue to pin the opposing offenses in bad field position and dole out hits that earned him the nickname “The Puntisher,” such as this one:

The return game is going to see a big change, though. Once again, the Cowboys will have a new return man after trading Switzer during the draft. It seems likely that Tavon Austin will get plenty of looks at the job. Ever since running a 4.34 40-yard dash at the Combine in 2013, Austin has been known for his electric speed and agility, which has helped him on special teams. In his five years as a punt returner for the Rams, Austin averaged 8.6 yards per return and also had three touchdowns.

However, Austin hasn’t been as effective as a kick returner, averaging 18 yards per return and never scoring. Another Cowboys receiver, though, could secure the kick returner position. Deonte Thompson actually ran a faster 40 than Austin, with an unofficial time of 4.23 at his Pro Day in 2013. While Thompson hasn’t seen significant time as a kick returner - his 35 returns in 2016 are a career high - he does average just under 25 yards per return and has had 6 returns of over 40 yards.

The Cowboys under Garrett have traditionally preferred to use one guy as their returner in both kickoffs and punts, while substituting in others such as Cole Beasley and Dez Bryant in certain situations. However, O’Quinn’s promotion, and the change in personnel, might be just the time to make a change. Austin’s tremendous initial burst and lateral quickness makes him a dangerous punt returner, and Thompson’s talent as a sprinter makes him ideal for kickoff returns.

Whatever route O’Quinn takes in the return game, though, he can rest easy knowing that the trio of Bailey, Jones, and Ladouceur are some of the best in the business. O’Quinn’s long-standing history with the franchise, as well as his personnel background and recent experience under Bisaccia, make him well-equipped for this new role. Of course, having the second-most accurate kicker in NFL history and a perfect long snapper help, too. There are questions to be answered in the return game, but O’Quinn should continue the high quality play fans have come to expect from the special teams.