The Dallas Cowboys find themselves in many familiar places as they enter the playoffs as the NFC’s second seed. They’ve won 12 games for the third season in a row. They’ve won the division for the second time under Mike McCarthy. They are preparing to face the Green Bay Packers in the playoffs for the third time since 2014, and second time from AT&T Stadium with Dak Prescott at QB. Prescott is having the best season of his career in McCarthy’s first year as play-caller, and extending Dallas’ home win streak to 16 games dating back to 2022 is likely the first reason to have confidence in the Cowboys as a touchdown favorite to advance on Sunday to the Divisional Round, but it is also much more than that.
When considering Prescott is surrounded by other cornerstone players still on the rise like CeeDee Lamb. Jake Ferguson, and Tyler Smith, as well as core veterans still playing at a high level like Zack Martin, Tyron Smith, and Brandin Cooks, the Cowboys seemingly have some staying power at the top of the NFC playoff picture. They also - by their own admission - want to play with a sense of urgency, staying true to the “carpe omnia” (seize everything) motto instilled in the offseason.
Where might this sense of urgency come from for a team trying to do something no Cowboys squad has since 1996 - reach the NFC Championship Game - with players that can remember previous heartbreaking playoff exits to the Packers? This answer is likely on the defensive side of the ball, where the typical high-variance in year to year results hasn’t occurred in year three of Dan Quinn as defensive coordinator. Not all of the Cowboys defensive efforts leading up to the playoffs in December were as expected, but this unit ended the season locked in with strong performances against the Lions and Commanders. They forced five turnovers in those two wins and set the tone up front with five different players recording a sack over that stretch.
Like clockwork, Quinn’s name has already been linked to head coach openings around the league. The Panthers, Chargers, Commanders, and Titans have all requested to interview Quinn, the former Atlanta Falcons head coach that took them to a Super Bowl. The loyalty Quinn has shown the Cowboys organization paired with the unusually high number of strong coaching candidates on the market like Ben Johnson, Mike Vrabel, Bobby Slowik, Frank Smith, and now Bill Belichick has given Cowboys faithful some optimism that this playoff run won’t be the last we see of Quinn rocking a backwards ball cap with a star on it.
That outlook changed in a significant way on Wednesday, with the Seattle Seahawks moving on from Pete Carroll as their head coach. The Seahawks opening obviously makes a lot of sense for Quinn, as it didn’t take long for his name to be connected back to the franchise he coached with in 2009-10 and again as DC from 2013-14. Quinn is considered the architect of the “Legion of Boom” Seahawks defense that embarrassed Peyton Manning and the Broncos to win Super Bowl XLVIII. The Seahawks job being open this offseason comes as a bit of a surprise, but nonetheless is another attractive job on the market that could be something of a homecoming for the 53-year-old Quinn.
The Seahawks job opening up is the second so far this season that comes from a team that made the playoffs last year, along with the Los Angeles Chargers. The Chargers are not only talking to Quinn but Cowboys VP of Player Personnel Will McClay for their GM opening, and have former Cowboys offensive coordinator Kellen Moore in the same position working with Justin Herbert. The Chargers will be one of the more appealing jobs on the market for any candidate thanks to Herbert, particularly for a defensive-minded coach like Quinn who had his best seasons as a HC when Matt Ryan was playing at MVP level for the Falcons.
Quinn is a players first coach that has had a huge hand in shaping the early career of Micah Parsons, one of the more vocal supporters of Quinn as the defensive leader in the coaches box for the Cowboys. Similar to the Cowboys offense, this Dallas defense has not only Parsons but players like Osa Odighizuwa, Markquese Bell, Damone Clark, DaRon Bland, Donovan Wilson, and Trevon Diggs (returning next season off an ACL tear) that can all reasonably expect more opportunities to contend in the division and playoffs. If this postseason ends up being their last run under not only Quinn but possibly Al Harris and other position coaches, it could be just the motivation needed for this year’s Dallas team to truly be special and different from any past playoff squad.
When considering outside noise, narratives, and ghosts of Dallas Cowboys past, the task ahead in the playoffs seems daunting. They have to avenge two straight playoff losses to the Packers and potentially play on the road at the 49ers again, a team that beat them in Santa Clara 42-10 this season and knocked the Cowboys out of the playoffs the previous two years. For a team that’s cared so little about these factors and speculation about everything from McCarthy’s job status to Prescott’s long term future after trading for Trey Lance, why can’t the 2023 Cowboys just write their own story in the weeks to come? McCarthy, who’s Super Bowl win came on the same field the Cowboys will begin their playoff run at with the same Packers team arriving as the #7 seed in the NFC, is flanked by not only Quinn but Brian Schottenheimer and John Fassel - collectively giving the Cowboys a level of preparation that’s made a difference on game days.
Having coaching staffs like this is rare as the Cowboys are learning, even more so when considering the talent they get to coach across all three phases. Whether this means the pressure is turned up on this year’s team to make a deep run or see significant change in the offseason remains to be seen, but the Cowboys have all the ingredients for a recipe that gets them to Las Vegas for the Super Bowl in February. They were playing meaningful games to decide their seeding all the way until the last week of the regular season, they have an ideal mix of veterans and young stars, and an experienced coaching staff that can drive home the sense of urgency the Cowboys will need to capture to avoid any letdown on Sunday.
There will be a lot of reasons to compare this Cowboys teams to those of the past between now and kickoff in Arlington, but their best path forward is as the best version of their current selves with an opportunity in front of them that is never guaranteed again in the National Football League. The pieces are falling into place for this to ring especially true for the dynamic coaching duo of Quinn and McCarthy, with McCarthy previously saying as a younger coach he would steer Quinn into a HC opening to protect his own job security, but now is comfortable trying to seize the opportunity to win with Quinn calling the defense - something they get the chance to do against McCarthy’s old team in the familiar window of Sunday afternoon on FOX.