The Dallas Cowboys are 3-1, and morning talk shows have already been asking if Mike McCarthy is a Coach of the Year front runner. Keeping the team on track after losing Dak Prescott is an outstanding turnaround after an embarrassing Week 1 output against Tampa Bay, but the Cowboys’ true MVP is Dan Quinn.
If it weren’t for his creativity on the defensive side of the ball, the Cowboys wouldn’t be winning football games. There are many underwhelming teams so far in the NFL season, and if Dallas wants to keep this defense together, Quinn will have to be the head coach heading into 2023.
Why Dan Quinn Is a Hot Commodity
Quinn is everything that Jerry Jones wanted in a head coach when the team parted ways with Jason Garrett. Quinn is an experienced head coach with Super Bowl experience. But more than anything else, players love Quinn.
Quinn’s roster disintegrated in Atlanta, and while he definitely has value as a head coach given his defensive intelligence and likeability — as we may be seeing with Dennis Allen in New Orleans — having to delegate responsibility can negatively affect that side of the ball.
But even as we give McCarthy flowers for the team’s 3-0 run without their franchise QB, it’s important to note that Jones isn’t getting any younger. The success of a season in Dallas has nothing to do with regular-season results. Jones needs playoff wins like he needs to use inappropriate metaphors during radio interviews.
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Quinn’s defensive innovation and adaptability will make him one of the league’s top candidates, and Jones will have to make him head coach to keep him around. The Carolina Panthers are a possible destination, given their young defensive talent. The only problem there is the QB spot.
Aaron Wilson’s Insider Notebook discussed what David Tepper could look for in a head coach. Quinn fits the bill. The Cowboys’ DC has been in his bag all season, and it’s a big reason why Dallas is on a three-game win streak.
Quinn’s Front Seven Makes Opposing OL Answer Too Many Questions
According to Pro Football Reference, the Cowboys blitz at the 12th-highest rate in the league (25.6%) but rank second in pressure rate (32.7%). Quinn’s defense also ranks second in AY/A, fourth in ANY/A, and second in Expected Points. Much of it has to do with the defensive front.
Leighton Vander Esch is not a very good blitzing linebacker. The Thad Castle lookalike doesn’t possess that killer-induced attitude that made the fictional linebacker the top pick in the NFL draft. But anybody occupying the A-gap requires an opposing body to account for them, and Quinn uses that to his advantage.
It would take 3,000 words to discuss all of the different pressure looks Quinn has pulled out of his bag so far in 2022. Luckily for you true sickos out there, I joined coach Chris Vasseur on his YouTube channel to watch the film of all the Cowboys’ third-down looks so far through four weeks.
The defensive front is exotic. Dallas will line up in traditional four-person fronts sometimes, but that usually doesn’t happen when the Cowboys give offenses single-high middle-of-field-closed looks.
In single-high looks, Dallas often lines up in five- and six-man fronts to induce protection they want to exploit. They’ll show an overload blitz to a particular side and actually bring three from the other side. Dallas has also been mugging the A-gap quite a bit, a look that only actually brings both backers a fraction of the time but forces the offense to respect the two A-gaps.
Dallas aligns in five-person fronts with four down linemen and Micah Parsons on the edge, three down linemen with Parsons and Anthony Barr on the edge, and multiple fronts with the entire defense standing up on obvious passing downs.
Post-snap line games can provide easy pressure looks and free rushers to the quarterback, but they can also be dangerous for the defense, particularly against mobile QBs. The Cowboys’ defensive line does an outstanding job maintaining gap integrity when they do.
The defensive front also does a fine job collapsing things in their line games, which keeps interior rushing lanes closed against more mobile QBs. Quinn has even aligned Neville Gallimore on the edge with Parsons taking the role of 3-technique.
Everything works in congruence. These are “you-me” games, and each player must do their best to maintain gap integrity and not allow for large escape routes.
And while Dallas has been great up front, the back end has been just as impressive.
Adaptability in Coverage
In four weeks of NFL play, Dallas has implemented three main coverages depending on their matchup. But in addition to that, the Cowboys have shown an ability to adapt to looks that have been a spot of bother for them.
In Week 3, Daniel Jones and the Giants motioned their running back out of the backfield to create a four-receiver strong look, only to run a QB draw out of it. Both times New York did so they gained positive ground. Vander Esch vacated the box to chase the back in motion, and Dallas got outgapped in the run game.
Scott Turner and the Commanders tried their hand at that in Week 4, except they had no plans of rushing Carson Wentz. They ran a seven route from the slot that was completed out of bounds, but the important part is that Dallas adjusted from the week prior and added a rusher.
The Cowboys’ defense is arrogant. Against the Giants and Commanders, the defense ran a lot of Cover 3 and Cover 1. They blitzed more often against those teams and dared their receivers to win 1-on-1 matchups against Dallas’ DBs.
That is a lot to ask of defenders in a league that doesn’t allow for physicality in the secondary. But over the past two weeks, the backend has proven its worth. While there was a bit of pre and post-snap movement in the secondary, it paled in comparison to the Cowboys’ deployment in Weeks 1 and 2.
Quinn is no stranger to Tampa 2. It was the Falcons’ primary coverage against Dallas when he was still the head coach in Atlanta. The Bengals obviously weren’t expecting it against the Cowboys, even though they’d seen it in Week 1 against Pittsburgh.
Cincinnati probably figured Dallas would mix up pre- and post-snap looks between Quarters and Cover 3 the way they did against Tom Brady and Tampa Bay. However, Dallas showed a bit of Tampa 2 in the Week 1 matchup as well. They simply didn’t use it to the same extent as they did in Week 2.
And in theory, it makes sense. Tampa 2 is a “bend, don’t break” coverage, and the Bengals love to take deep shots and create explosive plays through the air.
If Dallas finishes with a top-five defense in efficiency for the second season in a row, their defensive architect is as good as gone if they don’t make him the head coach. Quinn built a defense on speed. They’ll sometimes struggle to defend against big runs (19th in rush EPA despite having the sixth-best success rate versus the run), but coaches aren’t worried about losing to a rushing attack in the modern NFL.
Dallas’ defense is incredibly fast. And the unit also plays with outrageous intensity. There hasn’t been a Cowboys defensive unit that flies to the football with the ferociousness that the 2022 team does.
Quinn has earned his second chance at success as a head coach.
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