Dallas Cowboys: Dan Quinn hiring raises defensive floor but lowers ceiling

Dan Quinn will improve the Dallas Cowboys defense but he also limits it…

For far too long the Dallas Cowboys defense had been too dang predictable. Under Rod Marinelli and Kris Richard, opponents knew exactly what the Dallas defense would be doing each week and exactly what they must do to beat them. Poor quarterbacks were regularly having career days against Dallas and didn’t hesitate to point out afterwards how hilariously transparent and dissectible Dallas was in their scheme.

So in 2020, the Dallas Cowboys abandoned that predictability, cutting ties with the Pete Carroll coaching tree and the single high Cover 3 they’d become famous for. They traded that predictability for a more nuanced approach under Mike Nolan. Running multiple fronts and employing multiple coverages, the Dallas Cowboys hoped they wouldn’t be as transparent and vulnerable as they were under the Marinelli/Richard régimes…Instead, they gave up a franchise record 473 points last season.

The Dallas Cowboys players never got comfortable with what was being asked of them by Mike Nolan. While the cancelled preseason, reduced training camp, and virtual offseason carry much of the blame, players messed up even the most basic of assignments. This simply isn’t a very talented unit.

But historically bad is historically bad and Nolan’s dismissal was inevitable. His replacement wasn’t quite so obvious.

After kicking the tires on a few uninspiring McCarthy guys, the Dallas Cowboys went back to a familiar well: the Seattle coaching tree. On Monday, they announced Dan Quinn, the former Legion of Boom (LoB) Super Bowl winning Defensive Coordinator, would be replacing Nolan and his failed scheme in Dallas.

Tis better to be good at something simple, than incompetent at something more nuanced, I suppose.

This plunges the Dallas Cowboys back into the scheme they know quite well. It immediately elevates the historically bad defense into something a little more digestible – just “regular bad.” There’s a few reasons everyone outside of Seattle has struggled in finding success with the single high Cover 3: It requires elite players, it’s transparent, and it’s vulnerable.

If you don’t have future Hall of Famers manning the positions (primarily at CB and safety), you’re easy pickins in coverage.

The seam routes and the flats are your primary areas of weaknesses. Coverage relies on smart linebackers who can get to their marks quickly. Cornerbacks who can play on an island and protect a deep 1/3 of the field. And a center-fielding safety with tremendous range who can play out of his mind. Yeah, no biggie.

Good News

The difference between Dan Quinn and Kris Richard, is Dan Quinn isn’t as singular in his approach. Quinn will actually mix up coverages and mix up fronts. Contrary to popular opinion, Quinn will roll with a 3-4 look from time to time. He’ll do it against multiple personnel groups and in multiple situations. He’ll also mix up the coverages a bit. Where Richard leaned heavily on Cover 3 and despised disguising his intentions pre-snap, Quinn will do both.

The biggest boost to the Dallas Cowboys defense will be that they get to go back to a true 1-gap mentality. Quinn still asks for his 1-tech and LDE to 2-gap from time to time, but generally speaking he’s much more aggressive up front and has a bit of a “rushman” mentality like Rod Marinelli used to tout.

Bad News

Quinn’s addition immediately raises the floor of the defense but it also stunts the potential limits of the ceiling. As stated before, Dallas isn’t just lacking in defensive talent, but the single high cover 3 has largely been exposed in the NFL. The blueprint is out and teams know how to beat it.

Play-action abuses linebackers and forces the free safety to compensate for their mistakes. This exposes the seam more and opens the defense up to a big play. Flooding one side of the field can also pull the midlevel coverage group (linebackers, nickel CB and SS) to the edges of their zone, making the team susceptible in the flat. Which is only catastrophic if someone like Saquon Barkley is in your division…err…

For a full breakdown of how vulnerable the single high cover 3 is, check out: Inside the Pylon.

All defenses have vulnerabilities so Quinn’s Cover 3 isn’t unique in this regard. It’s just a familiar coverage that asks a lot of it’s players. Every NFL offense knows how to beat it if they see it coming, so it’ll be imperative for Quinn to mix things up and disguise his intentions along the way.

Unless the Dallas Cowboys add about four Pro Bowler this offseason, they will be severely limited to how high they can rise under Quinn. We’ve seen he can win with a talented unit and we’ve also seen him lead the worst defense in the NFL when he doesn’t have much talent. He’s a product of his personnel and not a whole lot more.

As such, it would be shocking if the Dallas Cowboys defense rose to even average ranks next season. But the familiar scheme will immediately raise their floor and that may be good enough given the expectations of this 40-burger offense.

While Quinn isn’t the 1-trick pony Richard was when calling coverage schemes, it’s safe to assume he’s going to lean on that Seattle single high with the Dallas Cowboys. At the end of the day, all the Dallas Cowboys need from him is to be better than Nolan’s boys were last year.