FRISCO, Texas — Ninety-two days separate Oct. 11, 2020 from Jan. 11, 2021.
After being fired as head coach of the Atlanta Falcons following an 0-5 start and the ghosts of Super Bowl LI still chasing him, Dan Quinn could have retreated to anywhere in the world to decompress and get away from football.
Instead, he spent most of those 92 days analyzing how he came so close to the NFL’s pinnacle, the Vince Lombardi Trophy, while holding a 28-3 lead against the New England Patriots, to how it ended with a loss.
He called it an “after-action.” He wanted a 360-degree review of his five-plus years in Atlanta that ended with a 46-44 overall record. He talked to friends, coaches and personnel executives across the league to get their feedback on his coaching.
“I want it right between the eyes. Give me your vision, your truth,” Quinn told them.
So when he was hired as the Dallas Cowboys defensive coordinator on Jan. 11, he was armed with new ideas for himself and his defense.
“I did a lot to try to make sure as the defensive coordinator opportunities were going to present themselves that I would have to be a better version of me as opposed to right at the end of the season, you’re going to the next lap, ‘Hey, this is the system. This is how we’re going to go,'” Quinn said.
“It allowed me some time to study some teams. It allowed me some time to study some offenses. And at the time it was painful to go through, but I would say looking back now, it was some of the most rewarding time because you just don’t get to generally do that kind of deep dive and background on yourself. Your season ends. You’re here and you’re usually at the combine, and you go. And, so, for me, having those couple of months to reflect and say, ‘What did you like? What do you want to do better?’ and now you can apply it. I wouldn’t recommend doing it, but I would also say it was really valuable for me.”
And there will be some changes for the Cowboys.
A large makeup of the Dallas defense will be what worked in Seattle, where as the Seahawks’ defensive coordinator Quinn won a Super Bowl and went to another with the best defense in the NFL in 2013 and 2014. He also will add some 3-4 scheme principles in a base defense he used earlier in his time in Atlanta.
The Cowboys need Quinn, 50, to provide an immediate boost to a defense that was lost for most of the 2020 season. Coordinator Mike Nolan attempted to diversify a scheme the Cowboys’ front office felt had gone stale, but it was either too much to ask given the lack of an offseason program because of the coronavirus pandemic, an inability to match what was being asked compared to the players’ skillsets, or both.
Quinn’s impact has already been felt. The Cowboys’ first six draft picks — and eight of 11 total selections — were on defense, highlighted by Penn State linebacker and first-round pick Micah Parsons, who was the top defender on the team’s board.
The traits Quinn wants in players — tall rangy cornerbacks, defensive linemen with long arms and an ability to play multiple spots — was on display with the selections of cornerbacks Nahshon Wright in the third round and Israel Mukuamu in the sixth, as well as defensive linemen Osa Odighizuwa and Chauncey Golston in the third round.
Stephen A. Smith is unsure about Dan Quinn as the defensive coordinator for the Cowboys as he was the coach for the Falcons’ botched onside kick recovery earlier in the season.
Quinn wants speed, too. Parsons and second-rounder Kelvin Joseph clocked in the range of 4.3 seconds in the 40-yard dash. Fourth-round pick Jabril Cox was considered one of the best cover linebackers in the draft.
“Football is a game of angles and leverage,” Cowboys vice president of player personnel Will McClay said. “If I have more length, then I can play lower and stronger and longer, and I have an advantage.”
As much as Quinn has affected the Cowboys’ personnel choices, those who have been around him say his biggest strength is how he deals with players.
At the news conference announcing his $160 million contract, quarterback Dak Prescott had not known Quinn long, but he’s already impressed.
“A guy that just jumps off to you with his demeanor and everything that he carries,” Prescott said.
Not long after Quinn was hired, Prescott’s former teammate, Keith Smith, who played fullback in Atlanta, called the quarterback to say, “Hey, you’re going to love this guy.”
Defensive tackle Jack Crawford spent three seasons with the Cowboys, and he played three seasons in Atlanta under Quinn. He also heard from former teammates asking about Quinn after Dallas hired his former coach.
“[Quinn] helped me kind of see things from a different perspective,” Crawford said. “He educated me on the game, too, teaching me more of the scheme and how it all worked together. But it wasn’t just me. It was everybody, from the practice squad to Grady Jarrett. He spent time with everybody. I think as a player, you appreciate that.
“He doesn’t pick favorites. He’s not one to play into the politics of football. He doesn’t allow certain players to not put in the work. He’s very group orientated. A lot of coaches will say that, but at the end of the day, everybody is scared for their job. With Dan Quinn, I never got the impression of him worrying about losing his job before helping everybody on the team. He has a level of authenticity you just can’t fake.”
Jim Nagy, the Senior Bowl executive director and an ESPN analyst, was a Seahawks scout when Quinn was working under coach Pete Carroll. Nagy remembers texting Quinn the day before a scouting trip at Florida, where Quinn had been the Gators’ coordinator from 2011 to 2012. Nagy asked Quinn which players to keep an eye on, and recalls getting a 30-minute phone call during a game week telling him what he needed to know.
“In my 20 years in the league, he’s one of my favorite guys I’ve been around,” Nagy said. “So much juice to his personality. It’s genuine. It’s not fake. A lot of guys when you’re around it, it’s manufactured. That’s not how Dan is. You feel it when you’re around him. He’s a great guy to have in your building because he just gets the best out of people.”
The Cowboys need Quinn to get the best out of a defense that allowed a team-record 473 points in 2020 and suffered from a lack of confidence.
In 2014, the season before Quinn’s arrival as coach, the Falcons had allowed the most yards per game (398.3) and were 28th in points per game (26.5). In 2015, Atlanta allowed 347.6 yards and 21.6 points per game, putting it in the middle of the league pack.
If Quinn can produce a similar turnaround, Dallas should be a playoff team in 2021.
“To be on the offensive side and know your counterparts, your defense is going to get that belief instilled in them, as a guy that lives his life on faith and belief, nothing means more than that as a player … to know that a coach believes in you, and he’s put you out there to go get the job done,” Prescott said. “I’m excited to see his leadership and what he does with this defense.”
Ultimately, Quinn understands the NFL is results oriented. The results he produced in Seattle got him head coaching job.
The lack of results in Atlanta after the Super Bowl loss, including 7-9 finishes in 2018 and 2019 and the 0-5 start to 2020 in which the Falcons became the first team to lose two games while holding 15-point fourth-quarter leads (one of which came against the Cowboys), led him to a 92-day “after-action.”
So what are the Cowboys getting?
“I guess I have to prove it,” Quinn said.
“And what I would say is what you can count on from me is somebody that’s real specific in how we’re going to go about it and get after it. And I’m very much looking forward to proving that. The very best competitive moments in my life have come from prove-it moments.”