Sturm: Why Dan Quinn is the Cowboys’ best bet to get their defensive overhaul right

dpf1123

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Why Dan Quinn is the Cowboys’ best bet to get their defensive overhaul right


By Bob Sturm 3h ago

It’s rather easy to assume that the courting of new Cowboys defensive coordinator Dan Quinn did not just begin Friday when Dallas officially dismissed former DC Mike Nolan.
Quinn has been available for conversations about his next gig — surely, a coordinator to rebuild his standing in the league — since the day he was fired. That day came back in early October after a Week 5 loss by his Atlanta Falcons to the Carolina Panthers. Since 2017, when the Falcons were still considered an NFC power, his teams had won just 14 of their last 37 games, and the question wasn’t if he was going to get fired. It was when.

Team owner Arthur Blank resisted the urge to pull the trigger a few different times because he knew Quinn was once considered one of the best and brightest young head coaches in the sport. By bringing Quinn to take over the Falcons at age 44, after just two years of running the Seattle defense, Blank surely was betting on getting in at the ground level on this new trend of winning with a defensive coach and a bullying team. The plan was to join NFC powers in San Francisco and Seattle that had pretty much run the conference for the last three to four years with power football on both sides of the ball.

One way to try to figure out how they are doing things in Seattle is to take the highest-ranking Seahawks coach available. That was Quinn.

Quinn took over when Gus Bradley left the same post and took the head coaching job in Jacksonville after the 2012 season, leaving Quinn at the helm for the pinnacle of the Legion of Boom era in 2013-14. No team in the NFL gave up fewer points and fewer yards than the Seahawks did in 2013-14. They were the gold standard in every regard. They were doing this with a cheap, young “bus driver” QB in Russell Wilson and a team that appeared to be almost entirely homegrown since the organization had paired Pete Carroll and John Schneider in 2010.

Bradley left, and Quinn was brought back from Florida to rejoin something he helped start in 2010 as defensive line coach. I would not suggest for a moment that he didn’t have to do much, but by that time, the Seahawks were ready to contend. Over Quinn’s next 24 months in office, the Seahawks were dominant on defense with almost no historical equals. They destroyed everyone in their path with great ease en route to a 25-7 regular-season record, led by a defense that was dominant by running a rather simplistic defensive structure yet one that was difficult to counter. They also went 5-1 in the postseason, with a singular and historical play call and interception by Russell Wilson being the only thing that stopped Seattle from becoming the first and only back-to-back Super Bowl Champions since New England in Super Bowls 38 and 39 (2003-04).

The Seahawks had won Super Bowl 48 in what is often considered a textbook of defensive genius. The work they did against Peyton Manning and Denver’s No. 1 offense was incredible. They didn’t just beat the Broncos; they simply humiliated them up in New York City to the tune of a 43-8 destruction. I distinctly remember after the game that there were many wonderful breakdowns of the work the defense did that had arguably the greatest QB ever, Peyton Manning looking completely perplexed. You can find many, but here is a look from Bucky Brooks of NFL.com:

To their credit, the Seahawks’ coaches understood that a simple game plan would reduce the clutter in their players’ minds, allowing them to play faster and without hesitation. Consequently, Seattle could spend more time focusing on the Broncos’ formational tendencies by down and distance rather than worrying about various checks and adjustments out of multiple coverages. This approach minimized the risk of mental breakdowns, which typically result in big plays surrendered by the defense. It also gave Seahawks defenders a chance to master the Broncos’ favorite concepts and anticipate those plays in the pre-snap phase.

Looking at the All-22 film, I discovered that the Seahawks remained in single-high-safety coverage (Cover 1-Robber and Cover 3) the majority of the night, with the team employing more zone tactics than man coverage throughout the game. Although defensive coordinator Dan Quinn sprinkled in a handful of pressures from multiple fronts, the Seahawks didn’t tweak or adjust their approach from the regular season. In fact, Seattle used a game plan that was very similar to the one from a 40-10 win over the Broncos in Week 2 of the preseason (a game that featured three first-half turnovers with the first-stringers in the game). Of course, neither team openly game-planned for that preseason affair, but the Seahawks certainly walked away with a feel for the Broncos’ personnel, concepts and tempo.

In Seattle, Carroll has preached the importance of hunting the ball since his arrival in 2010. He has talked about it consistently in meetings, and Seahawks practices feature several periods devoted to knocking the ball loose or snatching errant passes out of the air. Additionally, the defense is encouraged to run and hustle to the ball, spawning turnovers off tips and overthrows (see: Smith’s game-sealing interception in the NFC title bout).


I encourage you to read the entire piece, as it will tell you about Seattle’s plans pretty clearly. The most common criticism of the hire is that Quinn had the ability to move these chess pieces around because he benefited from extraordinary talent. Sure, but did he have more talent than the Broncos offense of 2013? You saw them score 51 points in Dallas without even breaking a sweat. They were no slouch.

Then, in Super Bowl 49, we have that fateful moment against the Patriots in a postseason where every round was full of coin-flip historic endings (including one Cowboys fans may never get over and another Packers fans may never get over). The Seahawks defense had a good day and forced two Tom Brady turnovers. On offense, Seattle slightly outgained the Patriots, but in the end couldn’t get that last yard. This is one Pete Carroll may take to his grave, as Marshawn Lynch stood idly by. The shot at a dynasty would elude the Seahawks.

Regardless, that is Super Bowl 48 and Super Bowl 49 where Dan Quinn is front and center facing down Tom Brady. This would lead to a third Super Bowl in four years for Quinn, as his Falcons would suffer the most momentous collapse in NFL history, blowing a 28-3 lead and ultimately losing in overtime an epic 34-28 thriller to the Patriots in Super Bowl 51. At one point, Atlanta had a 99.8 percent probability to win the game. It was unreal.


Atlanta, Dan Quinn and Kyle Shanahan may never live it down, but at least as Shanahan was building a new power in San Francisco. Quinn, on the other hand, was presiding over the Falcons’ blown leads in 2020. During consecutive weeks in September, Quinn was the coach who saw his squad blow a 20-point lead in Dallas and fall victim to the watermelon kick, as well as losing a 16-point lead to Nick Foles and the Chicago Bears. One week later, the Falcons were trounced by Green Bay, and he would be fired. Quinn evidently had ascended to a level where he was not only in charge of the entire team but also had the authority to make draft picks: a similar situation to Shanahan, Carroll and Sean Payton (among others). The GM essentially worked under him and did the heavy personnel lifting while the coach picked out his groceries.

It is quite possible that ascension was a little too high up the board for Dan Quinn. Many of his personnel decisions — especially on defense — never played to their evaluation. Ultimately, he paid for it with a defense that sullied his defensive name and got him fired from the biggest job he may ever have.
Quinn has signed a three-year deal to run this defense. What does that mean for Dallas in 2021 and in the future? Why are so many people citing his collapse in Super Bowl 51 as a reason to be cynical about yet another Cowboys hire?

Probably because it is what this Cowboys culture has done to its loyalists.

Once upon a time, Rick Pitino tried to revive the Boston Celtics organization with a young and rebuilding team in front of a bitter, cynical, and disgusted fanbase. They were not interested in hearing why they weren’t a contender anymore and why they couldn’t dominate the league the way Celtics fans had enjoyed for many decades. Pitino had very high hopes that he could reconstruct a contender, but he reacted to the constant negativity of the city towards a young team that wasn’t winning enough and labeled the media and fanbase as the “Fellowship of the Miserable” for the way that everything was seen as “more of the same” and always the wrong move. He made a rant famous by reminding the fans that “Larry Bird isn’t walking through that door. Kevin McHale isn’t walking through that door. And if they do, they will be old and gray.”

I think it is possible that the general vibe among Celtics loyalists in the year 2000 actually may have been more positive than among Cowboys fans in 2020. Celtics fans did not have to endure 25 years of disappointment right after their best dynasty like Dallas Cowboys fanatics have. You have had enough, and trust me, those of us who cover the team would love nothing more than prolonged excellence. We have experienced the opposite, and it has proven to be disappointing.

I do think that Year 1 of Mike McCarthy has proven to fit the Fellowship of the Miserable pretty well, though. And if you say anything remotely supportive of giving a chance to a Super Bowl winner, then you are accused of being biased and misleading in commentary. Surely, the only answer is that the Cowboys made a mistake by hiring a head coach who had gone to four NFC Championship Games in a decade and won a Super Bowl. Right?

I only say that because much of the negativity around hiring Dan Quinn focuses on his epic collapse in Super Bowl 51. Surely, the answer to fix this defense and to get the Cowboys going in the right direction cannot be someone who blew a Super Bowl lead to the Patriots. How could that be the answer?

My counter would be this: There is not a more qualified person to take over a defense that has lost its way than the guy who presided over defenses in three Super Bowls in four seasons. Are you kidding me? His defense was so fundamentally sound and capable of winning games that he went to three different Super Bowls and only won one? And he is joining a head coach in McCarthy who went to only one Super Bowl but went to three other NFC championship games, too, and sometimes lost? Including the 2014 and 2016 NFC Championship Game where he lost to Dan Quinn’s defense?

Do you know how good you have to be to fail in your third Super Bowl in four years?

It sounds to me like the Cowboys have two guys who know a little about winning on their coaching staff, and they have recently taken the spots of guys who did not know nearly as much. You can tell me that they needed incredible players to get there. I agree. Every coach does. Quinn and McCarthy do not have magic spells and enough sleight of hand to replace the talent deficiency this defense surely has. But you cannot add that in January. It arrives in the spring.
I will leave you with a tweet exchange with Adam, who has a chart for the Fellowship of the Miserable’s response to any hire made by a coach who just went 6-10:



Let me say it again, despite the overall cynicism: I am not saying Quinn is a great head coach or a great GM. But if you are looking for someone who understands how to coordinate a championship defense, you have one in Dan Quinn. There is a very long list of excellent coordinators who were not excellent head coaches. It happens. That doesn’t mean this pairing will automatically work, but in a world where there was literally nobody they could hire who would be better, I suggest we take a deep breath and enjoy a solid move for once.
 

Simpleton

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Agree 100%.

You never know how it'll work out in reality but there aren't many options out there as it stands today than Quinn. Sure, we can wish that Fangio or Zimmer were fired, but they weren't, so you play the hand you're dealt.

It's interesting to hear that Quinn supposedly had a big say in their personnel decisions, perhaps even more so than the GM. That of course won't be the case here and hopefully he's learned to more or less stay in his lane. Our front office obviously has a good amount of familiarity with the scheme he wants to run so if they can continue to do a solid job in the draft Quinn should be able to put together a respectable defense.

One legitimate FA signing and a draft mostly dedicated to defense should be enough to compete at the top of the NFC with our offense.
 
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