The departure of defensive coordinator Dan Quinn from the Dallas Cowboys to take the head coaching job with the Washington Commanders has a good side. His defense got torched repeatedly during last season, especially against good teams. Things seemed to really fade in December. Still, it leaves a hole at the most important coordinator position for a team with an offense-oriented head coach like Mike McCarthy. Now the Jones family and McCarthy need to get cracking on finding a replacement, if they haven’t had some preliminary talks already in anticipation of Quinn’s exit.
Conventional wisdom says that Jerry Jones can just point to the prestige and attention that come with the job in Dallas, open up his checkbook, and hire pretty much whomever he wants. In this situation, however, there are a few rubs.
McCarthy’s status is one of them. He is now a lame duck head coach fighting for his job. The odds are good that he will not be offered a new deal after the 2024 season. We may not be happy that the cause for that would be one more disappointing performance, but if the head coach is not able to get the team back to at least the NFC championship game, it makes no sense to give him a few more years to try. That means that the new defensive coordinator is very likely to be looking for another job after a major housecleaning.
That may keep some of the more commonly mentioned former head coaches like Mike Vrabel and Ron Rivera from having interest in the job. Having just been cut loose themselves, they are more likely to want a more stable situation where they would have at least a couple of years to get their scheme working well to show what they can still bring to the table, and maybe set themselves up for another crack at a head coaching gig. Beyond the professional implications, there is also the prospect of having to relocate again after just a year for anything but another promotion.
Circumstances have Dallas looking for someone who is more of a hired gun to come in and help McCarthy get things right. Hopefully the head coach will have a major voice in hiring someone he trusts and would be a good fit. That is always a bit of an open question in the unique organizational structure of the Cowboys. Having the owner who writes the checks also serving as the general manager makes it too easy for him to go his own way and saddle McCarthy with a coordinator he doesn’t really want. There will always be a suspicion that is what really happened with Kellen Moore when McCarthy was first hired. It is hard to see how that would be a good situation.
One thing that might tempt a coach to take the DC job in Dallas is that he might see it as a way to audition to be McCathy’s replacement. Like with Moore, there is precedent. Jason Garrett did just that when things went south with Wade Phillips, and had a long run despite rather mediocre results on the field. That would be a real prescription for dysfunction. But everything that makes the Cowboys a plum job, at least for some, would be in play. It’s kind of like the old joke. Anyone who would be eager to take the job is probably not someone you want here unless you are happy with the HC and DC basically being in competition with each other.
There is naturally a lot of speculation about other possibilities, some less realistic than others. But I want to throw out one name that falls in the more far-fetched category. That is Bill Belichick. As indicated, that seems highly improbable. But if his name does surface as one that Jones is actually considering, McCarthy would have to see it as hiring his replacement early. That would be a nightmare for him, and possibly very demotivating.
Another way to fill the vacancy would be to promote from within. The current defensive assistants are mostly also in the last year of their contracts, and moving up to the coordinator job would come with a nice pay bump. Additionally, it would be a way to showcase their abilities to set themselves up for the future. They would not be nearly as great a threat to replace McCarthy, plus they already have a working relationship with him.
That has a fly in the ointment. There are reports that Quinn plans to take one of the top names from his former staff with him to Washington.
Name I heard that Quinn had told other teams he'd bring as DC: Dallas secondary coach/pass game coordinator Joe Whitt, Jr. Nothing official.— John Keim (@john_keim) February 1, 2024
Al Harris has also made comments in the past about following Quinn. Aden Durde is another name that has been floated as a possibility, and we just don’t know if Quinn also wants to take him, or what Durde’s own plans are. He has drawn interest from other teams as well, and may have the same motivation to go somewhere that offers more stability. For the coaches currently under contract, the team could not let them go if it was a purely lateral move. The danger with that is having a disgruntled man that could disturb the working environment.
There is a strong potential that McCarthy and the management are going to have to build an entirely new defensive staff. Whoever gets the DC job may only do so with the freedom to rebuild his own staff. All the various considerations come into play there. Further, Quinn getting the final head coach opening in the NFL puts Dallas behind the curve. A lot of good coaching talent has already been snatched up by the other teams with defensive openings, up and down the staff. While it is for different reasons, it puts the team in a similar situation as they have faced so often in free agency, where they are having to work with a pool of candidates that has already been picked over.
Things are developing quickly, and some of these questions may already be answered before this is published. In the long run, replacing Quinn was probably going to be necessary. The timing, however, is unfortunate. It was out of the team’s control. But it comes with a lot of issues that they are now forced to address. Those may wind up very difficult to handle.