The NFL coaching carousel took another turn last week as news broke that Dan Quinn was named the Washington Commanders’ next head coach. At first, it appeared the Cowboys would retain Quinn for at least one more season as reports surfaced that Washington would hire Detroit Lions’ offensive coordinator Ben Johnson. The deal that was once almost imminent between Johnson and Washington fell through, and now Quinn will lead the Commanders as head coach. Once Quinn’s departure was made official, speculation of who would be next to replace Quinn intensified. Among the names who drew consideration were former Minnesota Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer, recently fired Commanders head coach Ron Rivera, and Joe Whitt, who served as Dallas’ secondary and passing game coordinator since 2021. Whitt was scheduled to interview for Dallas’ vacant defensive coordinator job Monday. However, late Sunday night, the Cowboys learned that Whitt had opted to follow Quinn to the Commanders to serve as their defensive coordinator.
Why would Joe Whitt leave Dallas, a team contending for a championship, to coordinate a defense that is among the worst units in the NFL, for a team that needs a rebuild from the ground up? In contrast, the Cowboys feature three All-Pro defenders presently under contract: Micah Parsons, Trevon Diggs, and DaRon Bland. The Cowboys’ defense has also led the NFL in takeaways in two of the last three seasons. From outward appearances, based on the talent on the roster, the Cowboys should be an attractive defense to coordinate, let alone for a candidate who has overseen their growth over the last few years. However, all that glitters isn’t gold, and there are reasons for Whitt to turn it down. Let’s speculate on some.
Whitt and Cowboys’ head coach Mike McCarthy have worked together since their days in Green Bay, from 2008 to 2018. That’s a long time to work with someone to fully understand their habits, coaching values, and preparation, which are all characteristics that have come into question about McCarthy. McCarthy’s contract status with the Cowboys likely factored into Whitt’s decision to leave since there are no guarantees that McCarthy will be the coach beyond this season. The Cowboys’ ownership has yet to offer a new contract to McCarthy, and unless the Cowboys have tangible success in the postseason, he likely won’t get a new contract. Whitt hitching his wagon to McCarthy’s job could be a risk he is unwilling to take.
Another risk Whitt might be unwilling to gamble on was the makeup of the Cowboys defense down the road. There is the recovery of Trevon Diggs, who was injured during the season with an ACL tear, and the free agent status of Stephon Gilmore and Jourdan Lewis. If anyone has a good barometer of what state the pass game’s defensive personnel is in, it’s Whitt. Also, Parsons’ looming contract status casts a shadow on the future of the defense. Parsons is entering the final year of his rookie contract, although the team still has the fifth-year option. Parsons has already been effusive in his praise of Quinn. Would Parsons be a tough player for Dallas to re-sign? Would he be itching to follow Quinn, or try his luck elsewhere? The Cowboys have mechanisms to keep him around for a while, but does Whitt have insight into that? Purely speculation, but it is worth considering.
The front office for Dallas could be another force behind Whitt’s choice. Jerry Jones claimed the team would have an “all in” approach to 2024. Yet, we’ve seen with Jones that all isn’t necessarily breaking the bank with aggressive spending or risky trades. Whoever oversees the Cowboys’ defense will likely be asked to cook on a restricted budget. The idea of moving to a team with plenty of cap space and willing to spend in a re-build might be an intriguing prospect for Whitt. He could build a defense on his own terms.
Finally, Whitt might just prefer sticking with Quinn instead of interviewing for a job where he already works. He might have felt he should get an interview before the idea of outside candidates became a thing. Whitt is fighting against the front office’s preference for head coach experience to lead their defense and the ‘nepotism’ of Mike Zimmer’s candidacy, who the team has had an adoration for years. Whitt might be feeling a bit overlooked in this situation. Washington provides Whitt with a clean slate, the room to make mistakes, and the opportunity to grow with new ownership in Washington, a new coach, and a front office. Although he’s working under Quinn, Whitt can feel the space to make the defense his own and work uninhibited.
In the end, Whitt probably wanted to keep working with Quinn, and decided job security in Washington, even on a bad team, might be more than it would be for a turbulent 2024 Dallas Cowboys team that could be blown up after the season.