One-armed Knife Sharpener
- Apr 7, 2013
By Jon Machota Nov 16, 2021
FRISCO, Texas — After everyone at The Star seemed to downplay it all week, the postgame locker room celebration showed just how much the Cowboys wanted to win Sunday for Dan Quinn.
The Dallas defensive coordinator, who spent the previous six seasons as the Falcons’ head coach, was given a game ball by Cowboys coach Mike McCarthy as the entire team shouted and embraced Quinn in the middle of the AT&T Stadium locker room.
The locker room celebration videos that are posted on the team’s official Twitter account are usually a little longer than 12 seconds. But this particular one was cut short because of the high number of expletives shared immediately following the above video.
“It was a very cool moment, one I was taken aback by,” Quinn said. “I don’t think (everyone) saw what I said after, so I’m pretty sure that’s why it was cut pretty quick.”
What did he say?
“I can’t,” a laughing Quinn responded. “The clean version: I’m so darn excited. That was good. And they are some really tough guys.”
All joking aside, the Cowboys’ dominant 43-3 win over the Falcons meant a lot to Quinn. He mentioned how “embarrassed” and “pissed” he was to be fired last season after an 0-5 start.
“So to have maybe that moment come at the end of a game,” Quinn said, “I definitely wasn’t ready for it. But man, what a good feeling to know there’s a whole army of people that got your back. That’s one of the best feelings there is in football when you’re part of a team, knowing that there are people who are like, ‘We’ve got your back. We’re here with you and fighting.’ Probably the hardest part when you’re not coaching is not being on a team, so for someone like myself, who I love being part of the team, when you’re not, it definitely gets in the way.”
As much credit as the Cowboys’ talented offense gets, the team would not be sitting at 7-2, the fourth-best record in the NFL entering Week 11, if not for the outstanding turnaround on defense.
Through nine games last season, Dallas was 2-7, allowing opponents to score 32 points per game while averaging 381 yards per game. Through nine games this year, the Cowboys are allowing 22 points and 354 yards per game.
But the biggest difference has come in takeaways and on third downs. Through the first nine games last season, Dallas had seven takeaways and allowed opponents to convert 58 of 120 third-down attempts. That third-down percentage (48.3 percent) and takeaway total would both currently rank second from last in the NFL.
This year’s Cowboys have 17 takeaways, tied for fourth-best in the NFL, and have held opponents to 35 of 109 on third downs (32.1 percent), third-best in the league.
The key contributors at all three levels of the defense are well known, from second-year cornerback Trevon Diggs to veteran edge rusher Randy Gregory and then standout rookie linebacker Micah Parsons. All three are playing at a Pro-Bowl level. Parsons is the front-runner for Defensive Rookie of the Year. But Quinn’s ability to find important roles for others has led to players like defensive backs Jayron Kearse and Anthony Brown exceeding expectations this season.
And others have stepped up at different times when needed. For example, veteran slot cornerback Jourdan Lewis was particularly impressive against Atlanta. Following a field goal on their first possession, the Falcons were driving inside Dallas’ 40-yard line when Lewis came up with a textbook pass deflection while shadowing standout tight end Kyle Pitts on third-and-7. He then did the same to slot wide receiver Russell Gage on the following play, giving the ball back to a Dallas offense that would soon make it 14-3.
Lewis then began Atlanta’s next possession by making a stop on a short pass to wide receiver Tajae Sharpe for no gain. On third-and-6, Lewis got his hand on a low pass intended for running back Cordarrelle Patterson. The Falcons went three-and-out and the Cowboys made it 21-3 four minutes later.
Defensive end Dorance Armstrong also stepped up for a Dallas defense playing without it’s top two edge rushers, Gregory and DeMarcus Lawrence. Armstrong was moved all across the defensive line, finishing with a sack, a tackle for loss, three QB hits, three solo tackles and a blocked punt.
In the end, Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan, who has started 214 NFL games, finished 9-of-21 for 117 yards, no touchdowns, two interceptions and a career-low 21.4 passer rating against his old head coach.
“I thought he did a great job of putting those guys in position to be successful, and their guys made plays,” Ryan said. “I thought Dan coached a really good game.”
Parsons’ ability to move all over the front seven has gotten the most attention nationally. But he’s only a part of that game planning that changes from week to week. Like Kellen Moore has done offensively, the Cowboys are implementing more creativity defensively. McCarthy said a key to the success has been Quinn managing the volume he’s implementing.
There were certainly struggles with that last year. Former defensive coordinator Mike Nolan had to pare things down from his original plan because the overall play was so poor. Following an embarrassing 38-10 loss in Week 6 to the Arizona Cardinals last season on Monday Night Football, Nolan said that the defenses the Cowboys were using were ones “everyone in the league has played and, in fact, many high schools play those same defenses, so it’s not like they are too complicated.”
“We wanted to be more scheme-challenging,” McCarthy said Monday. “That was the goal since I arrived here, and Dan has definitely hit the target there. I think not only schematically challenging them, but the disguise is something I think we’re doing a much better job of. I think our pre-snap awareness, the instincts that our guys are playing with, the understanding of trying to control where the ball is being thrown or making the ball thrown to a certain matchup, tilt of the coverage, tilt of the leverage, the formation recognition. We’re off to a really good start.
“We have room for improvement, but it’s not the same game plan every week, that’s for sure.”
While Nolan as defensive coordinator didn’t work for the Cowboys, his philosophy on what the team needed to be defensively was correct. He wanted to increase the scheme and make the group more unpredictable. But the players never bought in and making drastic changes during a pandemic was less than ideal.
As Nolan explained it, Dallas needed to develop more scheme so when they eventually got to the playoffs, they wouldn’t be bringing a knife to a gun fight when facing elite quarterbacks like Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers and Tampa Bay’s Tom Brady.
The Cowboys are expected to get a Rodgers/Brady-type playoff test on Sunday against former NFL MVP and Super Bowl champion QB Patrick Mahomes. From what Quinn has shown over the first nine games, he should have Dallas ready to bring the correct weapon to the fight.
“He has such stature,” Cowboys owner Jerry Jones said Tuesday morning on 105.3 The Fan. “He’s played in the big games, he’s head-coached. He should have a Super Bowl. He really should. But I’m not only proud for him, I’m proud we got him. It’s contagious for the team. It was poetic for him to come in there, beaming in that dressing room after the game, (after) putting a plan together that was as effective as it was against his old team. … It had to feel good.”