DALLAS — When the Dallas Cowboys replaced Mike Nolan with Dan Quinn at defensive coordinator as one of the major changes ahead of head coach Mike McCarthy’s second season, the hope was that the team could make strides to become a respectable unit.
After a dreadful 2020 season that saw the Cowboys field one of the worst defenses in team history, changes were clearly necessary.
The question was, could Quinn replicate the success that he had when he was leading the Seattle Seahawks’ defense in 2013 and 2014? When Quinn took over with the Seahawks, his defense led the NFL in yards allowed, points against, and takeaways in his first season. Quinn helped guide the famed Legion of Boom secondary, as his defense transformed into one of the best in the league.
This was a different challenge for Quinn with the Cowboys, as Dallas didn’t offer the same amount of defensive talent as those Seahawks. Yet Quinn still managed to lead an incredible turnaround in his first season with McCarthy.
The Cowboys forced a league-leading 34 turnovers, and the secondary had an NFL-topping 26 interceptions.
So, it should come as no surprise that Quinn was named the league’s second-best defensive play caller, according to Eric Eager of Pro Football Focus.
Per Eager: “Everyone will look at the breakout season of second-year cornerback Trevon Diggs and the Defensive Rookie of the Year campaign for linebacker Micah Parsons, but Quinn was also able to get great seasons from previously unknown players such as Jayron Kearse, who contributed greatly to the team's success in 2021.”
While many expected the Cowboys’ defense to improve under Quinn, no one could have anticipated the Dallas defense becoming a big reason for the team’s ability to win games last season. When the offense was sputtering at times late in the year, Quinn’s defense did their part to bring home the NFC East title.
Quinn was also able to get improvements from a defense that was missing key players for long stretches during the season.
Defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence missed 10 games, pass rusher Randy Gregory missed five, defensive tackle Neville Gallimore missed 12, safety Donovan Wilson was out for eight games, and the team cut starting linebacker Jaylon Smith just four games into the year.
And yet, Quinn’s defense was markedly better than the season before. However, there is more work to be done.
The Cowboys had trouble stopping the run last year and it was one of the main reasons for their playoff loss. With Lawrence returning, Diggs entering his third season as the interception king, and the expected ascension of Parsons in year two, Quinn has the pieces in place to build the Cowboys’ defense into a top unit.
The Cowboys drafted defensive end Sam Williams in the second round of the draft – who was a pre-draft workout favorite of Quinn’s – and brought in veteran edge rusher Dante Fowler to help ease the loss of Gregory. The team also re-signed safeties Kearse and Malik Hooker to fortify the back end of the defense.
Quinn was highly regarded when the Cowboys hired him last offseason, and his reputation for being a great defensive play caller was justified. Another season of improvement led by Quinn will help the Cowboys win games in 2022 and could lead to another chance at a head coaching opportunity down the road.
For now, though, the Cowboys are happy to have Quinn as their defensive coordinator.
Do you think the Cowboys will see even more improvement on defense in Dan Quinn’s second season in Dallas? Share your thoughts with Ben on Twitter @BenGrimaldi.