It's been beaten to death in sports pages all across America - America's Team had a terrible, awful, historically bad defense in 2020. The Dallas Cowboys couldn’t stop grandma using her walker; something had to be done. Usually it’s the coach that goes and not the players, but the Cowboys did a little of both for 2021. They swapped out beleaguered defensive coordinator Mike Nolan for Dan Quinn, the man who helped shape the Legion of Boom in Seattle. They also spent their fist six draft picks on the defensive side of the ball and brought in a handful of defensive free agents.
So far, the mix seems to be working. As reported from training camp, the front office and the players seem to believe in the Dan Quinn Effect.
Every team is optimistic in August, but the Cowboys’ giddiness overflows. There’s a sense of relief here, as in a feeling of “this is what we were supposed to be.” Coach Mike McCarthy getting his first full training camp in Oxnard with a healthy team engenders such feelings. But the buzz around defensive coordinator Dan Quinn is palpable with just about everyone associated with the team.
I’ll put it this way: Some with the Cowboys are already wondering whether Quinn will get another head-coaching job somewhere. That’s how sizable an impact Quinn has made thus far.
We haven’t even reached game one of the 2021 NFL season yet, so the idea that Quinn’s impact will create another head coaching gig for him seems entirely premature. But if an assistant coach is creating so much excitement that people are already thinking crazy things, that’s got to be taken as a positive.
Certainly Quinn’s hands-on style has endeared himself to the fans and to the players. The fact that he has yet to be a focus through two episodes of Hard Knocks is somewhat of a mystery. If any storyline seemed primed for exposure, it was Quinn’s.
But as mentioned earlier, it isn’t just Quinn that has been a change for the defense, they swapped out a lot of the players. Sill, even with some of those new players, the Quinn Effect is in effect.
Dallas has upgraded talent, to be sure, adding 15 new defensive players via free agency and the draft. But the Cowboys believe they are more organized — with more talkative players — under Quinn. He goes to great lengths to foster communication. Safety Damontae Kazee, who was with Quinn in Atlanta, told me Quinn once mic’d him up for Falcons training camp practices because he wasn’t vocal enough. The idea was, he could listen back and imagine he was an offense facing such a quiet opposing safety.
Quinn promises more variety with his scheme that he refreshed in between jobs this offseason, believing he needed a new look.
“This package is truly new, where we’re going,” Quinn said. “It [won’t] be just one thing that we’ve done before.”
The safety combination of Damontae Kazee and Malik Hooker is intriguing if they can stay healthy. Adding Kenau Neal at linebacker is a new wrinkle, and drafting some young cornerbacks gives hope for the coverage schemes. Even the defensive tackles have been revamped. But one new player on defense, above all others, seems to be the catalyst for renewed hope, and that’s Micah Parsons.
Dallas was concerned about overloading Parsons, who can blitz, cover and make open-field tackles. That’s a lot for any rookie. But Quinn and the staff believe they’ve streamlined all those duties so that Parsons can go downhill. It’s sort of a three-in-one approach: He can line up a certain way but make a move based on the play call or where he’s directed.
Even some grizzled veterans are liking what they see from Parsons. Nominally a linebacker, Parsons is expected to play in different spots and showcase his ability to get to the quarterback when rushing the passer. DeMarcus Lawrence hopes this will free him up.
I asked DeMarcus Lawrence walking off the practice field whether he expects fewer double-teams this year. “Hell yeah,” he said. Lawrence faced a reasonable 46 double-teams last year, per ESPN Stats & Information. But Lawrence gets plenty of attention from offenses because the Cowboys haven’t had dominant rushers on the other side. Lawrence seems to like the odds of that changing, either through scheme or personnel, including first-round linebacker Micah Parsons.
Certainly Randy Gregory will help in that respect, but the addition of Parsons, who already looks like a playmaker in limited snaps in two preseason games, has fans and teammates excited.
Dan Quinn’s job is to use Parsons to maximum effect. He seems to be doing a similar thing with Keanu Neal, who is getting some buzz about the role he will play in 2021.
Last year the Cowboys tried a lot of new things on defense and it didn’t work. A COVID offseason with no preseason games hampered that process, but Mike Nolan’s style of coaching never seem to work well with his players. It doesn’t look like that will be the case in 2021.
Call it the Dan Quinn Effect.