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The Quinn Conundrum and 12 guys who could replace him as Cowboys DC

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Dan Quinn changed the Dallas Cowboys defense as he was exactly what was needed for a team that was rudderless and lost at sea under the previous coordinator. Things started out bad for Mike Nolan, a close friend of head coach Mike McCarthy, and got progressively worse. Instead of compromising and trying to fit his scheme around his players, he tried to force guys to do things they weren’t accustomed to (like asking DeMarcus Lawrence to rush from a three-point stance) and implement ideas that weren’t initially a good fit. The players rebelled initially and by a few weeks into the season anonymous complaints had made their way into the media.

It takes a couple years to turn a defense over, though, and there were things that started to work towards the end of 2020. Nolan was dealt a bad hand and the difficulties of installing a complex new system over Zoom meetings seems like the decision that most cost Nolan his job, and Quinn’s skillset reaped the benefit.

A player’s coach, Quinn came in enthusiastically and his personality immediately resonated with his players. A breath of fresh air to the veterans and a continued father figure to the young players worked out well, along with all that he studied about the NFL in the time he got to watch the 2020 season after being fired mid-year in Atlanta. Despite many feeling like Quinn was a great hire because he seemed to be someone who wouldn’t be looking to quickly jump back to being a head coach, Quinn is front and center as the guy every ownership group or standing GM wants to talk about for their openings.

Quinn turned down Jacksonville but has met with Minnesota, New York, Chicago. Miami and he’s meeting with the Denver Broncos for the second time. He’s clearly one of, if not the favorite to land that gig.

Entering the season, Quinn’s resume as a coordinator was just two seasons long. He adopted the league’s best defense in Seattle (one he helped raise), ranked No. 1 two years in a row for a Super Bowl winning and runner-up club, then parlayed that into the Falcons’ gig. There, he led that team to a Super Bowl so his head coaching ability can’t be questioned regardless of how his latter years went down.

The Cowboys defense turned the corner when it came to turning over the opposition. Their 34 takeaways lead the league and they had the most interceptions (26) in the league since 2018.

However folks may not remember that Dallas forced 20 turnovers over their final nine games under Nolan, a slightly higher clip (2.22 vs 2.12) than their rate for 2021. Readers shouldn’t misinterpret, the Nolan defense was a failure, but the talent was able to come through with an inferior leader so it will not be the end of the world should Quinn leave.

There are still, of course, areas of the defense that will continue to need to be worked on and Dmagazine’s Dan Morse outlined the issues still prevalent. Dallas finished middle of the pack in passing defense on yards-per-play basis and below average in rush defense.

Still, it was a far cry from where they were in 2020.

50% of their games last season resulted in allowing 400 or more yards. That was down to 29% in 2021, 35% if including giving up 399 yards to Arizona.

There was tangible improvement, but still room for more that could easily come as the result of continued maturation of the young talent.

Dallas drafting Micah Parsons has certainly helped cement Quinn’s reputation and while Parsons swears by his coordinator, no one looking at his skillset will think that will fall off a cliff if Quinn is no longer in the building.

Cowboys fans hope beyond hope that any of the teams Quinn would accept an offer from somehow choose another candidate and he returns to Dallas for 2022. Highly unlikely, but still possible.

If it doesn’t though, there’s no need for despair. At the end of the day, player talent is what is most important and there are plenty of highly qualified individuals who could continue this defense’s improvement.

Joe Whitt, Jr. – Internal

(AP Photo)

The odds-on favorite. Whitt came over with Quinn and is the Cowboys current secondary coach and passing game coordinator. While Quinn has primarily worked on the front seven, Whitt is in charge of the back seven, so Trevon Diggs’ 11 interceptions, career highs for Anthony Brown and Jourdan Lewis and a career-best showing for safety Jayron Kearse have come under his watch.

Whitt was actually interviewed last year as a Nolan replacement.

He’s currently being sought by the Seattle Seahawks and Baltimore Ravens, two of the most renown defensive gigs of the last 15 years, speaking to how well regarded he is across the league.

On top of the continuity aspect, he’s spoken publicly about how being the Cowboys DC is his dream job.

Brian Flores – External

Sam Navarro-USA TODAY Sports

Flores should be landing a head coaching gig after the weird split in Miami, but if not Dallas should definitely kick the tires. Strangely enough, he’s never been a defensive coordinator, maxing out as a linebackers coach in New England before getting the big chair in South Beach.

Vic Fangio- External

Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Fangio, rightly or wrongly, has been given credit for the demise of Kellen Moore’s 2021 offense based on the Broncos’ performance midseason. He’s been a DC in the league since 1995, finally earning the seat at the head of the table in this stint with Denver that didn’t work out.

Most recently he took the Bears defense from 31st in his first season as DC (2015) to first (2018).

George Edwards – Internal

Jason Parkhurst-USA TODAY Sports

Edwards came aboard with McCarthy as a senior defensive assistant but was the former coordinator for Mike Zimmer with the Vikings. He took on a larger role with the linebackers this season, and he started his NFL coaching career doing just that for Dallas in the early part of the millenium.

He’s also been DC for both Buffalo and Washington.

Mike Zimmer – External

Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports

Zimmer of course is a former Cowboys DC who went on to be the Cincinnati Bengals guy before taking the big chair in Minnesota. His Jones family familiarity puts him high on a potential replacement list.

Don Martindale – External

Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

Martindale is a blitz-heavy coordinator who’s defenses in Baltimore have regressed over the last couple of seasons and he and the Ravens parted ways.

James Bettcher – External

Bettcher was on this author’s list several years ago for his work with the Cardinals but he signed to coach the Giants defense in 2018 after Bruce Arians left Arizona. His two years in New York weren’t great, but he did show improvement before they switched head coaches. This year he’s been an assistant under Demeco Ryans in San Francisco.

Kris Richard – External

Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

Could there actually be a reunion? Richard was the DC in action but not title in the final years of the Jason Garrett era. This year he’s been at the helm of the Saints secondary, which finished fourth in the league in pass defense DVOA.

Jerod Mayo – External

Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports

Mayo is the top Patriots’ defensive assistant without the last name Belichick. He’s got a lot of buzz as a future head coach candidate but that’s not happening in New England.

Teryl Austin- External

Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

Austin is the secondary coach and passing game coordinator for the Steelers and has been since 2019. 2021 wasn’t the best season under Keith Butler, but the Steelers were No. 3 in pass defense DVOA in 2019 and No. 1 in 2020.

Chuck Pagano – External

Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

Pagano spent 2020 away from the league and was most recently the DC in Chicago, taking over from Fangio. Prior, he was the Indianapolis head coach for six seasons following four years in Baltimore with the final (2010) as the Ravens’ DC.

Patrick Graham – External

Graham is an interesting name as he was part of the Joe Judge staff that was recently let go in New York. He grew in the Patriots’ coaching pipeline and could be a consideration, though probably more of a longshot.

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