In what has become something of a trend for the Dallas Cowboys, they have moved quickly to fill their vacancy at defensive coordinator. It only took days to replace Mike Nolan with former Atlanta Falcons head coach Dan Quinn, who first made his mark as the defensive coordinator for the Seattle Seahawks’ Legion of Boom. It is a bit amusing that, just like with Mike McCarthy’s hire, there were worries that the firing of the old coach was taking too long and would cost Dallas the best names out there, only to have the Cowboys get ahead of the rest of the league in filling a crucial vacancy. Many think this was pretty much the best possible hire for the Cowboys, while others are criticizing how they have gone out and hired another failed head coach and Mike McCarthy bud who had a brief flash of glory with one of the most talented defenses in recent memory.
How about we advocate a different stance here? One like waiting to see how things come together and then evaluating the success or failure.
Radical, I know.
Instead of staking out a position and pretending like we know all the answers, let’s look at some of the plusses and minuses for Quinn. Not all are about him, either, but very relevant to the situation.
A lot has been made about Quinn being a 4-3 coach. This has been latched onto as one of the biggest reasons why the change at defensive coordinator should help. Nolan was widely perceived as wanting to move the team more to a hybrid approach, especially early. He later backed off that as it became obvious that the defense was somewhere on the spectrum between struggling and unable to differentiate between their posterior and an excavation. This seemed to have been especially difficult for linebackers Jaylon Smith and Leighton Vander Esch, who seemed lost on the field on far too many plays. It also did not seem to do many favors to the best defensive player on the team, DeMarcus Lawrence, who just did not appear as comfortable rushing from a standing position as he does with one hand on the ground. Things were just compounded by the endless stream of injuries that led to an ever changing mix of players, many of whom were not really starting caliber.
No one really runs a pure 4-3 or 3-4 in the NFL, though. Most use some mix of four- and three-man man fronts. What is probably most important is putting the players in a position to succeed, which is buzztalk for adapting the coaching to the talents available rather than stubbornly insisting on doing it your way. This was perceived to be an issue not just with Nolan, but that of the previous Rod Marinelli/Kris Richard approach as well.
It does help, however, if the team has a coordinator who already seems to fit with the available skill sets on the defense. On paper or video, that seems to be the case for Quinn. It is not great that the veterans who have been around for more than a single season now have to go through the second change in two years, but at least is appears to be in the right direction.
In cases like this, it is often useful to get an opinion from outside the Cowboys media sphere. This one certainly seems like a reason to be optimistic.
Quinn is a very good DC who didn’t work out at HC and who probably didn’t need the extra burden of having the 53 in that HC position. He connects with players and can navigate divergent personalities. Easily the best DC that was actually a realistic candidate for the #Cowboys. https://t.co/svrCvjmbKq— Charles Robinson (@CharlesRobinson) January 12, 2021
That part about connecting with players and navigating personalities may be a lot more important than many think. There have been some apparent issues with players who felt that the coaches were not doing a good job that will hopefully be properly managed, if possible. It is also important to realize that dealing with some strong personalities is also extremely valuable on a team owned by Jerry Jones.
But Quinn will have the advantage of the buffer McCarthy provides, something he did not have when a head coach. He will be able to focus on understanding, properly deploying, and motivating his players. That is a frequently undervalued aspect of coaching in the NFL, where players often are paid more than the coaches and are concerned about their long-term career goals as well as winning now. These are professional players. They should take a lot of the burden of fitting the scheme and improving their own performance on themselves. That clearly is not universal. Hopefully Robinson’s view of Quinn above is correct, because that may be his most important attribute.
As fans of the team, we should always be pulling for coaches and players alike to succeed. That seems obvious. What is usually overlooked is that all coaches fail at some point. Even the vaunted Bill Belichick seems to have run smack into the obstacle of no longer having Tom Brady as quarterback. The fact the Tampa Bay Buccaneers are still alive in the playoffs while the New England Patriots are just five spots behind the Cowboys in the draft order is probably not just coincidental.
Very few coaches at any position leave their jobs due to being so successful. A handful of coordinators or assistants do step up to a head coach or coordinator job on their recent record, but most change jobs or retire because they were fired or not retained, which is just a more gentle way of being let go. Most of the NFL coaching hires are from the constantly rotating pool of experienced coaches, with just a handful making the leap from the college ranks. Part of that is because success in the NCAA is much more driven by recruiting than by the guys designing schemes and drawing up plays. The Alabama Crimson Tide has won another championship, and a look back at the incredible talent Nick Saban has assembled tells the real tale, and he has another class that may be the best in the nation to try and add yet another one in a year.
This is the main reason NFL teams keep recycling coaches like Quinn. They have a history that translates directly, and the success he had in his previous stint as DC of the Seahawks is certainly the main reason he got his new gig.
Now, he needs to have a huge input into the player acquisition and retention process. He knows how to win with a lot of talent. That is not the case with the current Dallas roster. While he has to show some progress this season, we have to be a bit tempered in our expectations. This is a situation that will be extremely difficult to resolve in just one year. It is notable that he is on a three-year contract, which matches that of the extension that Kellen Moore just received. It is a much more realistic time frame for fixing the manifold woes the defense exhibited last season. The fast hire also has the advantage of getting Quinn immediately involved in identifying who to retain, and who to go after in free agency and especially the draft. His opinion needs to be heeded as he tries to assemble the talent he needs to find success.
We need to be wary of collectively falling prey to convincing ourselves that things are better than they really are. It is an annual ritual for a fan base. We need to look for steady, but not too slow, improvement, not an immediate run to the Super Bowl.
That does not mean that we should have no hope for a breakthrough this year, just that it should not be assumed as imminent. But to be perfectly honest, we probably will eat the cheese again. It is just who we are.