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Dan Quinn’s impact on defense extends beyond just X’s and O’s

The Cowboys’ new defensive coordinator knows how to get the best out of his players.

NFL: DEC 07 Saints at Falcons Photo by Todd Kirkland/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The Cowboys have begun to sign free agents to boost their defense, and they’re not done adding. But the overall sentiment around Dallas is that the biggest possible addition was hiring Dan Quinn as the new defensive coordinator, and it’s easy to see why. Not only is Quinn a return to a similar scheme that Dallas ran a couple of years ago, but he’s coached in three different Super Bowls, winning one.

But Quinn’s experience with both the Legion of Boom defense, and winning in general, aren’t the only thing that makes him such a valuable addition to the Cowboys coaching staff. Simply put, Quinn knows what it takes to get the best out of his players. Take Charles Harris, for example.

Harris was a star edge rusher at Missouri, recording seven sacks in his final season, and ended up being selected by the Dolphins with the 22nd pick in the first round in 2017. Coincidentally, Harris was one of several prospects connected to the Cowboys that year, but after Miami took him, Dallas infamously opted for Taco Charlton.

Harris ended up performing similarly to Charlton, which is to say not very well. He accumulated just two sacks in his rookie year and quickly fell out of favor with the coaching staff, adding just one sack in his sophomore campaign. When Brian Flores became the head coach in 2019, it was supposed to be a shot at a fresh start for Harris, but he continued to struggle, logging just a half sack the whole season.

In the offseason, Miami traded Harris to the Falcons for a seventh-round pick. At the time, the former first-rounder had totaled a disappointing 3.5 sacks and 61 tackles in 41 games with just eight starts. In his lone season with the Falcons, Harris accumulated 18 tackles and three sacks across 13 games.

Those aren’t Earth-shattering numbers, but it marked a significant improvement for Harris and it resulted in him signing a one-year prove-it deal with the rebuilding Lions. During his introductory press conference in Detroit, Harris credited the Falcons culture for helping him improve in such a dramatic way last year:

Of course, Quinn was fired five games into the 2020 season, so he wasn’t there for the majority of Harris’ games. But the culture Harris is referring to was absolutely something Quinn played a large role in building, especially on the defensive side.

Quinn’s ability to build a successful, team-oriented culture in Atlanta was often credited for the team’s quick turnaround during his tenure, reaching the Super Bowl in only his second year on the job. And it’s why players like Matt Ryan were vouching for Quinn right up until the day he was actually let go.

It’s this kind of culture that Harris says helped him turn the corner and start producing in a rotational role last year, and it gives some insight into the effects Quinn can have on this Cowboys roster. After such a horrid year on that side of the ball, the Cowboys need much more than just new players at a few positions. Players like Jaylon Smith, Leighton Vander Esch, and the recently re-signed Jourdan Lewis all need to bounce back in big ways, because Dallas can’t replace everyone on this unit.

No one will question Quinn’s X’s and O’s, as his defensive mind is well proven in this league, but if he can replicate what he built in Atlanta and help these players grow and improve the way Harris - and several others in Atlanta - did, it would go a long way towards helping the team as a whole in 2021.