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Dan Quinn’s departure could provide new perspective on several Cowboys defenders

How much has Dan Quinn’s presence allowed Micah Parsons, Trevon Diggs, DaRon Bland, and others to prosper? We may soon find out.

NFL: Carolina Panthers at Dallas Cowboys Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Dan Quinn is taking command in Washington, leaving a big void on the Cowboys’ defense. After three years of league-leading work as Dallas’ defensive coordinator, with several big stars made along the way, how much will Quinn’s departure affect Micah Parsons, Trevon Diggs, DaRon Bland, and other prominent Cowboys defenders?

The Quinn effect was given an ideal starting point for perceived value. The season before, Mike McCarthy’s buddy Mike Nolan was brought in and reminded everyone why he hadn’t held a defensive coordinator position since 2014. His schematic changes neutered what talents he had on defense, adding to the disaster that McCarthy’s first year in Dallas proved to be.

With the bar set about as low as it could get, Quinn arrived in 2021. While his head coaching run with the Falcons came with red flags, he still had cachet as a coordinator from the “Legion of Boom” days with the Seahawks. There was little doubt that he would improve things from Nolan’s brief tenure, but just how much would be for time to tell.

Now we get into the big “chicken versus egg” part of this conversation. In the same offseason that Quinn was hired, Micah Parsons was drafted 12th overall. The pick was maligned by many at the time for being too high for a linebacker, but even proponents didn’t foresee what an immediately impactful edge rusher Parsons would be.

You’ll find varying opinions throughout Cowboys Nation for who, between Quinn and Parsons, was the tide that raised all ships. The answer is far more nuanced than any black-and-white choice could provide; Quinn’s tutelage and scheme no doubt enhanced Parson’s natural gifts, especially given Parsons’ increased pass-rushing prowess in the NFL compared to college. But there are plenty of times that Parsons does things few players could be coached to do.

With Quinn and Parsons as the catalysts, plenty of other Cowboys defenders have reaped benefits. Trevon Diggs and DaRon Bland have become household names as cornerbacks with record-breaking and threatening interception totals. DeMarcus Lawrence has returned to Pro Bowl recognition and league-wide respect in 2022 and 2023. Jayron Kearse, another 2021 arrival, went from a journeyman backup to a team leader with the Cowboys. Leighton Vander Esch also saw his stock rise in 2021, thanks partially to better health but also more success in Quinn’s defense.

Some of these guys probably won’t get to show their stuff in the post-Quinn defense. Kearse is a free agent and unlikely to be re-signed with Malik Hooker, Donovan Wilson, Markquese Bell, and Juanyeh Thomas all under contract for 2024. Vander Esch has one more year on his deal but may retire given the latest setbacks with his neck. And while it will be a tough call, Lawrence’s high salary cap hit makes him a target in discussions for cap casualties.

Will the next defensive coordinator build on Quinn’s work or look to do more of a renovation? Thankfully, individually gifted stars like Parsons, Diggs, and Bland will still be here to help him along. But as we saw in 2020 with Mike Nolan, some new coordinators are too intent on making their mark and end up trying to force square pegs into round holes.

There’s little doubt that Parsons will shine in any defense. But could schematic changes make it harder for Diggs and Bland to attack the ball and maintain their reputations? How much will losing the big-play potential of Quinn’s scheme, which has mitigated some of the weaknesses in coverage and run defense, make the Cowboys more reliant on the dirty work?

To be clear, Quinn wasn’t perfect. It was especially evident when Dallas would get completely outclassed against certain opponents, particularly in the playoff losses during his run. When Kyle Shanahan or other coaches had his number, Quinn seemed unable to adjust.

We don’t know who the Cowboys’ next defensive coordinator will be, but now we’ll just how much credit Dan Quinn deserves for the last three years. Did he make his players better, or did Micah Parsons and others’ individual efforts make their coordinator look good? The truth is probably somewhere in the middle, but it will become clearer as we move into a new era for Dallas’ defense.

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