DALLAS — The Dallas Cowboys were one of the most disappointing teams in the NFL last season. It started with dreams of competing for a Super Bowl under new head coach Mike McCarthy and ended when the team's slow start was compounded by a season-ending injury to quarterback Dak Prescott.
A late-season surge to make a run at winning the NFC East was fun, but even if the Cowboys had won the division, it was difficult to fathom them winning the Super Bowl.
There is no question that Dallas was hit hard by the injury bug, but they weren’t playing well enough even when guys were healthy enough to compete, especially on defense.
The Cowboys under defensive coordinator Mike Nolan fielded one of the worst units in team history, which led to his ouster.
Nolan’s replacement, Dan Quinn, arrives with a much better track record. Ironically, it won’t be the only time Quinn has followed Nolan.
Though Quinn followed Nolan as a head coach in Atlanta, and not as DC, his influence led to a sizable improvement on the defensive side of the ball. If the defense can make the same leap, to the middle of the pack, it should be good enough to give the Cowboys a chance at being one of the better teams in the NFC.
A healthy Prescott with a plethora of weapons on offense paired with an average defense would make for a scary proposition.
Quinn led a turnaround in Atlanta in his first season there, but how do the Cowboys measure up when comparing the two defenses?
During the 2014 season, the Falcons defense allowed the most yards per game, giving up almost 400 yards of offense and over 26 points per game. They also finished last in the NFL against the pass and were in the lower half of the league versus the run.
The Falcons did an admirable job of taking the ball away in 2014, creating 28 turnovers, but had just 22 sacks.
Meanwhile, Dallas’ defense in 2020 gave up over 386 yards a game, which included a rushing defense that was next to last in the league, allowing almost 160 yards on the ground per contest. It was also a unit that gave up close to 30 points per game, while only producing 23 takeaways and 31 sacks.
The following year for the Falcons, under Quinn’s purview, the defense improved to 14th overall, 14th against the run, 18th versus the pass, and they allowed just under 22 points per game.
If the Cowboys can see that same progress during the 2021 season, it could do wonders. With an offense that is expected to be elite, finishing in the middle of the pack defensively would lead to a better overall team in Dallas.
The Falcons’ offense in 2015 scored just over 21 points a game, which was less than the 23.8 ppg they had scored the year prior. Putting up yards and scoring points shouldn’t be an issue for the Cowboys, who averaged over 31 points when Prescott was healthy last season.
If Dallas’ offense comes back at near the same scoring output in 2021 with Prescott under center, a middle of the pack defense might be all they need to win the NFC East and make a run in the conference.
Quinn doesn’t need to be a miracle worker for the defense, but he does need to get modest improvement. It already appears as though the unit has taken to Quinn’s coaching style and it feels like a defensive turnaround is on the table.
The Cowboys spent the offseason remaking the defense and it all started with Quinn. His influence led to the organization adding size and skill to their defensive line, as well as speed and athleticism at linebacker and in the secondary. Almost the entire draft was an effort to get Quinn better players.
Now it’s up to Quinn to get the most out of his new defense. If the greatest predictor of success is past performance, the Cowboys can expect Quinn to lead the defense to a swift bounce back.
The veteran DC helped lead a defensive turnaround with the Seattle Seahawks, guided an enhanced defense in Atlanta, and now aims to do the same with the Cowboys.
If Quinn’s work with the Falcons is any indication of what the Cowboys can expect, the defense should be much improved this season. The similarities exist and the hope is the results are comparable.
Do you think new coordinator Quinn will have the necessary impact on the Dallas defense? Share your thoughts with Ben on Twitter @BenGrimaldi.