Watching the Dallas Cowboys dig themselves a hole against the Green Bay Packers in front of the home crowd of AT&T Stadium felt like déjà vu from back in the Divisional Round of 2016. If you remember, the Packers scored 21 unanswered points in the first half to take a big lead, causing the Cowboys to play catch up the rest of the game. We all know how that one ended.
2016 was also a year that Dan Quinn led his Atlanta Falcons to the Super Bowl. While Quinn was the head cheese, he was surrounded by great up-and-coming offensive minds. Kyle Shanahan was his offensive coordinator while Mike McDaniel and Matt LaFleur were his offensive assistants. It should come as no surprise that the Falcons were the highest-scoring team in the league that year.
Things have changed since then. All three of those guys have moved on to head coaching jobs while Quinn has settled back into the defensive coordinator role. Not only are his former assistants running the show now, but they all have had success in the NFL.
Shanahan turned a two-win team into a team that has made it to the NFC Championship game in three of the last four seasons, including a Super Bowl appearance in 2019. And if the 49ers win this upcoming weekend, it will make four of the last five. That’s quite impressive.
LaFleur has had great success as well. After taking over for Mike McCarthy in 2019, he proceeded to have three straight 13-3 seasons. His Packers have made it to the playoffs in four of the last five years with their lone absence coming in Aaron Rodgers worst season as a pro last season. Now, he’s found something in Jordan Love and the Packers are once again trending up.
And finally, the Dolphins have made it to the playoffs in each of the first two years since McDaniel took over.
Not only are his assistants having success around the league, but they are dominating their former boss. Since becoming the Cowboys defensive coordinator, Quinn has played a total of six games against these three coaches and the Cowboys have lost all six of those games, including their last three playoff exits. The Cowboys’ defense allowed 40+ twice this season, once to Shanahan’s 49ers and then again on Sunday to LaFleur’s Packers. Even his best showing against the three was against McDaniel’s Dolphins, but his defense wasn’t able to make one final stop to preserve the win.
We don’t want to discount what Quinn has meant to this Cowboys defense. They have finished in the top five in DVOA in each of Quinn’s seasons in Dallas after being one of the worst in 2020 under Mike Nolan. The coach has gotten some incredible play from several unsung guys who were late-round draft picks or low-cost free agents, and he’s been able to get them to work well collectively a great majority of the time.
Then there are other times when things don’t go so well. Sadly, this was on full display against the Packers on Sunday. LaFleur came out with an effective game plan that exploited the Cowboys' biggest weaknesses on defense and Quinn’s squad looked helpless.
Starting with the obvious one, the Packers were heavily invested in blocking on running plays getting their athletic players in space by washing out the Cowboys defenders. It was a hot mess as defenders were scrambling, getting shoved aside, and seldom times even contacting Aaron Jones until he was several yards downfield. Whether it was a linebacker or a hybrid whatever, defenders were put into a blender creating a defensive smoothie that was tough to stomach.
And it wasn’t just the running game where the Packers’ offense feasted. LaFleur was a genius in sneaking pass catchers on delayed routes where the Cowboys’ safeties were already committed elsewhere, leaving guys wide open. The Packers created coverage breakdowns again and again and again. It was nauseating how many times a Packers player was just hanging out downfield all by his lonesome. The Packers' offense repeatedly put the Cowboys' safeties to the test and unfortunately, they failed that test.
A lot of things didn’t go right for the Cowboys on Sunday, but the way the defense played, this team never had a shot. Even when McCarthenheimer finally started figuring out the holes in the Packers' defense, it was too little too late because the defense could never stop the bleeding.
On the year, the Cowboys' defense did a lot of good things, but it’s clear that this defense still has some issues and has a lot of work to do if they expect to be a defense with more consistent stopping power. They need bigger linebackers and more sound defensive backs, but they also need a defensive coordinator who can show up, make the necessary adjustments, and counter-punch when he’s squaring off against some of the better offenses in the league.