There is a ton of blame to spread around about the Dallas Cowboys’ pitiful showing against the Green Bay Packers. One target is defensive coordinator Dan Quinn. Not only did his defense turn to wet tissue paper for Jordan Love and Aaron Jones, it had similarly spectacular failures against the Arizona Cardinals, the San Francisco 49ers, and the Buffalo Bills. It also gave up the game winning drive against the Miami Dolphins, and nearly did so against the Detroit Lions.
Despite that, the news is that Quinn will be welcomed back if he does not get a new head coaching job elsewhere. Our David Howman and Tom Ryle take a look at whether that is such a good idea.
Tom: So the team is going with the approach of doing the same thing over next year and expecting it to change. Well, color me skeptical, with some tinges of disgust.
I was not as disappointed in the announcement that Mike McCarthy would get to finish out his contract, because there are some indications that he got some real improvements out of Dak Prescott and the passing game. He did show some concerning tendencies, particularly reverting to more conservative behavior when he faced good teams, but it is still something that could possibly be built on.
There was none of that from the defense under Quinn. 2023 was almost all regression on that side of the ball. Admittedly, there were key injuries that played a part, but other teams take those in stride. Dallas proved very inept in stopping other teams when they could not get turnovers and sacks. Both of those are hard places to maintain consistency, especially taking the ball away. When they failed, losses ensued.
The run defense was often suspect, with Johnathan Hankins missing time and Mazi Smith following the normal trajectory for a rookie DT, which is to not come into their own for a couple of years. But more important was the state of the linebacker corps. Promising rookie DeMarvion Overshown was lost in the preseason, then stalwart Leighton Vander Esch went on IR midyear. Nothing was done to address this. We don’t know how much of that was Quinn insisting he could get the job done with converted safeties, or if he was handcuffed by management, In any case, it was just a failure.
I am not at all optimistic Quinn is going to fix anything. I admit, I’m hoping he gets hired away. It is easier to see what needs to be fixed when the problems weren’t of your own creation.
David: I am very much on record that this defense needs to change, much in the same way that last year’s offense needed to change. Which is to say it doesn’t need an overhaul - any time you finish in the top five in defensive DVOA for three straight years, you know you’ve got a good thing going - but there are definitely some tweaks that need to be made.
I don’t have a single shred of doubt that Mike McCarthy and Dan Quinn are not blind to that fact. The question is whether they agree on how those tweaks should look. I do believe that this question will play a role in how Quinn evaluates the head coach jobs he’s interviewing for. Of course the team has come out publicly and said they’d love to have him here next year, but if McCarthy and Quinn ultimately disagree over what changes need to be made, it makes sense for both sides if Quinn takes a promotion elsewhere.
In previous years, he’s opted to stay in large part because he believed the Cowboys were on the cusp of greatness, but this offseason is the first time that Quinn and his defense have faced a crossroads like this. If Quinn really does stay in Dallas for 2024, that will tell me that he and McCarthy are in lock step on what needs to be fixed and how to do it. And why would that be a bad thing? This partnership is 36-15 together in the regular season.
Tom: You have the right to your opinion, no matter...
OK, I’ll stop with the snark. Look, last year, the 12-5 record looked a lot like it was almost in spite of the defense, not because of it. Just one late stop against the Dolphins would have boosted the total, and there were the three games where the other teams just breezed to big leads. I honestly don’t know just how they need to fix it. NFL coaches should, however. The fact Quinn came up with no answers as the season progressed, plus how his defense looked at its absolute worse in the biggest game of the year doesn’t exactly inspire confidence.
Now my fear - OK, concern - is that those other NFL teams are going to see the same thing and cool on wanting Quinn to come in. I do see teams that are looking for a culture change still having some interest, but to me, that would almost have to come with the requirement that Quinn bring in a defensive coordinator who would have real authority, with Quinn focusing on the overall team and letting his assistants handle the heavy lifting in game planning and calling the plays.
I may be affected by my almost total focus on the Cowboys, making the problems magnified in my view. That could be different for those not immersed in everything blue and silver. I certainly hope so. I think it is time for Quinn to move on.
Additionally, his departure would at least shake things up a little, if not enough to put Dallas on a different and hopefully more successful course. Keeping the staff together would likely make McCarthy more comfortable, and I don’t want that. I want him to feel the pressure, and urgency to turn things around in a year that is likely going to determine whether he keeps his job. I don’t think having Quinn, with whom he seems to have a very easy relationship, will do that.
Frankly, I would rather the team cut ties with Quinn already to send a bit of a message. I wonder if they did not do so because they did not want to mess up his chances to get hired elsewhere.
David: Unless something has changed that is not yet public, McCarthy is going to be coaching in the final year of his contract. The last time that happened in Dallas, it resulted in McCarthy having a sleepover with Jerry Jones and telling tall tales about watching every second of footage from the Cowboys’ 2019 season. So if you’re interested in him feeling the pressure, I think that’s already covered.
A year ago, McCarthy bet on himself by taking over the offense, and I think we can agree that he won that bet. Now, though, the biggest area for improvement is out of his control in the sense that McCarthy doesn’t coach defense. But if he felt enough pressure a year ago to take it upon himself to fix the offense, he surely feels as much - likely more - pressure to fix the defense. Naturally, it would make sense for McCarthy to assign that task to someone he trusts, which is why I believe we’ll see either Quinn or Joe Whitt Jr. (whose relationship with McCarthy goes back to Green Bay) calling the defense next year.
There are other defensive coaches out there that would be fun to see in Dallas - I’m especially fond of Wink Martindale - but very few of those coaches actually know McCarthy, and fewer know the players. As we learned with Mike Nolan, knowing your players and what they’re capable of can make a world of difference in on-field success.
If the fate of this team rests on the ability of the defense to take a step forward next year, I’d rather it be someone with a proven ability to work with these guys. Quinn has already proven he can produce top-level results. If he can’t figure out a fix, well, there’s another guy already in the building. But I think it’s a good thing that McCarthy feels he can trust whoever ends up coordinating the defense next year.
Tom: I guess trust is needed. I just worry about not enough changing. We have seen the cautious route play out before, and so long it has been a dead end. I am not going to get my hopes up next year until I see Dallas beat a team like the 49ers - and they will get that and other opportunities.