It didn’t take long at all for the Cowboys to find a new defensive coordinator. After firing Mike Nolan on Friday, Mike McCarthy hired former Falcons head coach Dan Quinn on Monday. Prior to his five and some change seasons in Atlanta during which time he had a career 43-42 record and appeared in the Super Bowl, Quinn was the Seahawks defensive coordinator from 2013 to 2014, winning a Super Bowl in the process.
That in and of itself is one of the reasons why the Cowboys honed in on Quinn; very few coaches can say they’ve been to a Super Bowl with two different teams. As such, Quinn was someone the Cowboys had their eye on for a while now, even before Nolan’s fate was decided:
Sources close to search have considered Dan Quinn a favorite for Cowboys’ DC job from start. Quinn was Seahawks’ coordinator in 2013-2014. Has D-line background. Mike McCarthy’s past three DC hires — Mike Nolan, Mike Pettine and Dom Capers — were all former HCs. https://t.co/OFsfKgzJmu— Michael Gehlken (@GehlkenNFL) January 11, 2021
Now he’ll be tasked with improving a defense that had its fair share of issues in 2020. Nolan was brought in to diversify the scheme, which had become bland and predictable under Rod Marinelli and Kris Richard. But in an offseason shortened by COVID-19, Nolan was unable to properly install the scheme change, which led to the players often being unsure of what they were doing. Nolan admitted as much on Monday in his first public comments since being let go.
Ironically, Quinn’s hiring marks a rather large shift right back to the same overall philosophy Richard was running in 2018 and 2019. Both rose through the ranks in Seattle under Pete Carroll from position coaches to coordinators. Quinn was the defensive line coach in Carroll’s first year in Seattle before leaving to run the Florida Gators defense for two seasons. He returned to the Seahawks as their defensive coordinator when Gus Bradley was hired as the Jaguars head coach. When Quinn got hired by the Falcons two years later, it was Richard, then the defensive backs coach, who was promoted.
But while Richard and Quinn both built their careers on their time with the Legion of Boom, they’re not exactly the same, and their defenses won’t be either. When Richard came to Dallas after being fired by the Seahawks, he attempted to replicate the Seahawks’ formula exactly. It didn’t quite work out. Quinn, on the other hand, has been more willing to change things as it fits his personnel.
Dan Quinn is from the Carroll coaching tree, but he's not as devout of a follower as Richard was with DAL.— John Owning (@JohnOwning) January 12, 2021
As @mattyfbrown told me, "Quinn thinks for himself when it comes to scheme."
That’s more or less been the story for defensive minds coming out of Seattle lately. Their championship defense was headlined by some incredible players like Richard Sherman, Earl Thomas, Kam Chancellor, and Bobby Wagner. It was a perfect storm of talented players and fundamentally sound scheme. But the rest of the NFL doesn’t have that perfect storm. Richard learned that the hard way in Dallas, as did Bradley in Jacksonville.
Quinn understood that reality, and was thus willing to make changes as needed in Atlanta. For starters, he didn’t value size in his defensive backs above all else. In 2016, the year Quinn’s team went to the Super Bowl, three of his top four cornerbacks were under six feet, for example. Quinn’s willingness to adapt is reminiscent of Robert Saleh, another former Seahawks assistant who adapted the Legion of Boom scheme in San Francisco and has become a top head-coaching candidate because of it.
One of Richard’s biggest problems with the Cowboys was that his area of expertise - the secondary - did not marry well with Marinelli’s area of expertise along the defensive line. Marinelli wanted undersized and athletic defensive linemen who shot the gap on every play, whereas the Seahawks defense sought to use bigger defensive linemen to plug holes more easily. As a result, Richard was calling plays like he did in Seattle but without the beef upfront, and it exposed his linebackers to a lot of offensive linemen getting to the second level. That had a domino effect that hurt the pass defense as a result.
Quinn won’t find himself in that kind of conundrum. He’s shown in Atlanta that he has the awareness to adjust to his defense and what he does or doesn’t have from a personnel standpoint. It’ll definitely be a return to the familiar, and his defense isn’t anywhere near as complex as Nolan’s was, so the install will be a much easier process.
Perhaps the best part about Quinn’s arrival, though, is his ability to connect with his players. While it wasn’t really a problem for Nolan, it also wasn’t a strength of his; nobody really raved about him as a coach. Quinn, on the other hand, was universally loved by his players in both Seattle and Atlanta. You don’t have to look to hard to find players talking about how much they love and respect him. When Atlanta reached the Super Bowl in Quinn’s second season, Bleacher Report wrote a lengthy column about how Quinn’s culture had helped the Falcons become so successful so quick:
Some coaches want to build a wall between themselves and their players. That isn’t Quinn. Relationships are at the core of his coaching. From players who appreciate a coach who plays Tupac in his office to 74-year-old Falcons owner Arthur Blank, Quinn connects.
“He can fit in any group. And it’s his true self. It’s not made up,” Atlanta defensive line coach Bryan Cox says.
If something is important to one of his players, Quinn wants to know about it. Falcons safety Ricardo Allen was impressed when Quinn started talking to him about his hometown of Daytona Beach, Florida. Quinn knew Allen and teammate Eric Weems had lived in the same area as kids. He talked about the Daytona 500. Allen learned things about his own hometown from talking to Quinn.
“He must study it,” Allen says with a shrug.
The fallout from the now-infamous Super Bowl loss that year led to a precipitous decline for the team as a whole, resulting in Quinn’s ousting just five games into the 2020 season. But that never stopped players from supporting their coach, even until the end.
Now he’ll be walking into a locker room for a defense that just had its lunch handed to them week in and week out, and will almost surely be cycling players in and out throughout the offseason. Between a return to the familiar schematically, the self-awareness to adapt when necessary, and the ability to motivate guys and get immediate buy-in, Quinn is exactly what the Cowboys needed.