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12 candidates to replace Dan Quinn as Cowboys defensive coordinator

Dan Quinn is gone, we have 12 replacement candidates for the Cowboys

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Washington Commanders v Dallas Cowboys Photo by Richard Rodriguez/Getty Images

We all knew it would happen at some point, but Dan Quinn is officially no longer a Cowboy. After three successive seasons of countless head coaching interviews, the defensive coordinator has finally accepted one, as he’ll be the new head coach for the Washington Commanders.

That means the Cowboys must now find a replacement, which may or may not have been the goal after some shaky defensive performances down the stretch of this most recent season. With that in mind, here are 12 potential candidates that the Cowboys could target to replace Quinn.

Internal Candidates

Joe Whitt Jr.

Update: it has been reported that Whitt is expected to follow Quinn to Washington as his defensive coordinator, though nothing has been confirmed. So we’re keeping him here to be complete.

The likely odds-on favorite to replace Quinn is already on staff in Joe Whitt Jr. Currently serving as the defensive pass game coordinator and secondary coach, Whitt works as Quinn’s right hand man up in the booth with him on game days, in addition to being a big part of the weekly game planning process.

Whitt was one of a handful of coaches that McCarthy interviewed for the coordinator role before hiring Quinn, and the two have a history together. Whitt spent 11 seasons on McCarthy’s staff in Green Bay, working as the pass game coordinator his final year there. Whitt also held the same role in Quinn’s final season as the Falcons head coach, offering rare familiarity with both coaches.

Whitt makes perfect sense as the continuity hire while still being in a position to implement some necessary changes. He’s well-versed in the scheme by now, and is a logical choice for a promotion. He’s even called plays in the preseason on behalf of Quinn, a usual sign that Dallas views Whitt as the next man up. One potential complication for Dallas: Quinn might seek to hire Whitt as his own defensive coordinator.

Aden Durde

Presumably, the Cowboys will want to keep the same scheme they’ve enjoyed success with under Quinn, which is why defensive line coach Aden Durde could be a candidate. The British coach has only ever worked under Quinn, joining the Falcons as a quality control coach in 2018. Prior to that, Durde had worked with the NFLUK on the International Player Pathway program.

Durde followed Quinn to Dallas, where he’s enjoyed success in developing several successful defensive linemen and building one of the best pass rushes in the NFL each year he’s been here. That said, Quinn is also a former defensive line coach and is known to be very hands-on with the position group, so it’s unclear whether or not Durde would be viewed as ready for a coordinator role.

There is also a much higher likelihood that Durde would follow Quinn to his new team in some capacity, given the close bond between the two.

Al Harris

Perhaps the most supported name among the fans is Al Harris, who has coached the defensive backs in Dallas since McCarthy showed up. Harris is a former standout player who spent eight seasons with the Packers, overlapping with McCarthy’s tenure there. He had a stint as an assistant defensive backs coach in Kansas City for a while before arriving in Dallas.

Harris has seen his stock rise significantly since then, as the Cowboys have watched two young cornerbacks turn heads in Trevon Diggs and DaRon Bland. Both players have earned All Pro honors after record-breaking interception totals, which has caused many to look at Harris and identify him as a rising star. Trevon Diggs has even come out for Harris as DC.

That said, Harris was quoted as saying he doesn’t have much to do with the scheme or game planning in a given week, instead focusing on the technique and fundamentals of his defensive backs. That would seem to indicate that Harris isn’t yet ready for a coordinator role, which is obviously very heavy on scheme. Still, some will want Harris to get the coordinator role now as a sort of reward for the great work he’s done as a position coach.

External Candidates

Don “Wink” Martindale

The Cowboys know Wink Martindale very well by now, as the highly regarded coach has spent the last two years running the defense for the Giants. There was a very messy divorce that just occurred between Martindale and Giants head coach Brian Daboll, which is why Martindale is even available, but there’s little denying his coaching credentials.

Martindale’s scheme can be best described by calling all the blitzes. His scheme is very aggressive and, in some ways, operates in a similar manner to what Quinn has been running. Martindale had a successful stint in Baltimore before being let go after an injury-riddled season stunted the defense’s growth. He joined Daboll in New York, inheriting a fairly bare cupboard on defense, but oversaw meaningful development from last year to this year.

Martindale would bring about a scheme change, as just about any external hire would, but his philosophy of aggression is at least on pace with what Quinn has instituted in his three years here. The main question, after how things just ended with the Giants, is whether or not McCarthy and Martindale can work together.

Sean Desai

If the Cowboys opt not to poach the recently ousted coordinator from one division rival, they could always poach the recently disgraced coordinator from another. Sean Desai arrived in Philadelphia last offseason, hired to replace Jonathan Gannon after he took the Cardinals head coaching gig. Desai didn’t even last a full season, getting unofficially demoted in favor of Matt Patricia.

Desai’s defense hadn’t been great, but many outside of the organization understood that much of it was due to some roster building misses on that side of the ball, with inexperienced linebackers and aging defensive backs. The defense made no improvements under Patricia and, in some respects, regressed even further.

Schematically, Desai is a disciple of Vic Fangio, having worked directly under him in Chicago before eventually taking over their defense. That would represent a bit of a shift in scheme for Dallas, but much of the emphasis would come on the back end in coverage. Desai is regarded as a football savant and an expert in his scheme, but the biggest question here is the fit.

Ron Rivera

If two recently fired NFC East coordinators weren’t enough to get the excitement flowing, how about a recently fired NFC East head coach? Ron Rivera just concluded his fourth season as Commanders head coach, going 26-40-1. That disappointing record is a big reason why Quinn is now in the nation’s capitol.

That said, Rivera had built a reputation for stellar defenses throughout his storied career. A former linebacker on the legendary 1985 Bears team, Rivera coordinated some elite defenses for the Bears and Chargers before landing the head job in Carolina. He enjoyed some success with the Panthers, even reaching the Super Bowl, and had a long run of success on defense that helped spawn some other great defensive coaches around the league like Sean McDermott and Steve Wilks.

Rivera also led some impressive defenses in Washington, though the bottom dropped out this season. Rivera’s scheme is similar in structure to Quinn’s, though notably less aggressive by nature. That said, there has been reported interest from the Cowboys, and Rivera’s profile is certainly similar to Quinn’s when he first arrived in Dallas. This wouldn’t be a popular hire, but it’s absolutely one that could happen.

Brandon Staley

One of the bigger appeals when the Cowboys hired Dan Quinn was the experience he brought as a former head coach, which made it easier for Mike McCarthy to entrust that side of the ball entirely to him. In fact, all but one of the five defensive coordinators McCarthy has hired in his head coaching career had been a head coach prior to working under him.

That’s a big reason why Brandon Staley would likely be considered. Like Desai, Staley is a devout Fangio disciple, so the scheme fit questions remains. However, Staley created a stellar defense with the Rams by molding his scheme around the elite talents of Aaron Donald and Jalen Ramsey. There is reason to believe that Staley would look to do the same in Dallas with Micah Parsons, Trevon Diggs, DaRon Bland, and others.

Staley is also coming off his own head coaching stint with the Chargers, going 24-24 in nearly three seasons before being fired during this most recent year. That experience would be something McCarthy could relate to, and Staley’s reputation as a fervent believer in analytics would also mesh with McCarthy’s approach. Things didn’t end well for Staley with the Chargers, but he’s likely to be a popular candidate for several coordinator openings around the league this year.

Clint Hurtt

The Seahawks shocked everyone when Pete Carroll stepped down as head coach, and their recent hire of Ravens defensive coordinator Mike Macdonald as the head coach would seemingly signal a big shift in defensive philosophies. That should make Clint Hurtt a hot commodity.

Hurtt took over the Seahawks defense two years ago, pairing with Desai to help tweak the defense formerly known as the Legion of Boom. Hurtt, a longtime defensive line coach, helped Seattle update their scheme - which had grown stale in the modern NFL landscape - while still retaining the core philosophical elements that had once made this team elite.

Hurtt never overlapped with Quinn in Seattle, but both coaches have cut their teeth under Carroll’s watch. That common link could prove a fertile ground for Hurtt’s ability to succeed in Dallas, but his unique background would also equip him with some different approaches as the Cowboys look to fine tune their defense.

Ejiro Evero

One of the hottest names in defensive coaching circles the last few years is Ejiro Evero, who just wrapped up his first year as the Panthers defensive coordinator. Evero is another Fangio disciple, but his schematic background is more diverse than others on this list, as he’s also worked under the likes of Dom Capers, Wade Phillips, and Raheem Morris.

Evero’s first stint as defensive coordinator came with the Broncos in 2022, and he crafted a stellar defense right away. When the Broncos fired Nathaniel Hackett, they initially offered Evero the interim head coach job, but he declined. Evero then went to Carolina, in what was considered a massive get for the Panthers, and once again saw his head coach fired midseason.

As of right now, Evero is still under contract with the Panthers. In fact, the team has already blocked requests to interview him for other coordinator vacancies, and the Panthers seem to be hoping that new head coach Dave Canales retains Evero. However, if that doesn’t happen, Evero would then be free to interview anywhere and would immediately become the bell of the defensive coordinator ball.

Mike Zimmer

Mike Zimmer is a very familiar name, and it’s the main reason he gets mentioned here. Zimmer has been coaching for a long time, and he spent the first 13 years of his NFL career with the Cowboys in various roles, eventually rising to defensive coordinator. He also served as the head coach of the Vikings from 2014 to 2021, during which time he was well acquainted with Mike McCarthy as division rivals. Zimmer went 72-56-1 in his career, with three playoff appearances.

Since his firing, Zimmer has mostly stayed out of the coaching world, though he’s remained in football. He joined the college ranks as a part time consultant at Jackson State for the 2022 season, offering support for his former player Deion Sanders. Of course, Sanders has strong ties still to the Cowboys, even being featured in attendance during a game earlier this season.

Zimmer’s name was floated as a possible coordinator pick last time Dallas was hiring, but they obviously went with Quinn. Zimmer fits the mold as a former head coach with tons of experience, but his scheme isn’t quite as multifaceted as Quinn’s and, at 67 years old, Zimmer might not be a long term option either. Still, he’s worth mentioning.

Mike Pettine

Going into what turned out to be McCarthy’s final year in Green Bay, he made a change at defensive coordinator, replacing Dom Capers with Mike Pettine. The fellow Pennsylvania native had just come from Seattle, where he worked as a defensive consultant, but Pettine was known for more than that. He was a longtime lieutenant to Rex Ryan and also spent two seasons as the Browns head coach, ultimately getting fired and replaced by Hue Jackson.

Pettine was brought to Green Bay to turn around a defense that had gone through a bit of a youth movement and, for the most part, it worked. Pettine was retained by Matt LaFleur, but let go after two seasons; the Packers defense declined in several efficiency categories every year since.

Pettine has since held a couple of off-field roles, spending 2021 as a senior defensive assistant for the Bears and then working as the assistant head coach for the Vikings the past two seasons. He interviewed for coordinator jobs last offseason, and could be a target in Dallas now given his history with McCarthy.

Shane Bowen

Some fans will undoubtedly call for Mike Vrabel to get this job, but the recently fired Titans head coach seems like an unrealistic choice for any coordinator job this season. Instead, the Cowboys could opt to target Shane Bowen, who was Vrabel’s defensive coordinator for the last four years.

Bowen is a young coach, having just turned 37, and all of his NFL coaching experience has come under Vrabel’s watch. When he took over the reigns of the defense in Tennessee, things improved dramatically for the Titans. Injuries and personnel changes impacted the defensive performance this past year, but Bowen received praise for getting the most out of his players, and notably led a stout game plan against the Dolphins to hand them their first home loss of the season.

From a scheme standpoint, Bowen’s philosophy is one of simplicity. Upon taking over the defense for the Titans, he worked on streamlining the scheme to make it easier for players to grasp, all while continuing to call an aggressive defense that sought ways to confuse the opposing offense. The Titans had been holding onto Bowen throughout this hiring cycle as a contingency option, but their recent coordinator hire means Bowen is officially available. And the young coach, considered by many to be a rising star, could draw plenty of interest from Dallas.

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