‘If the time comes, I’ll be ready’: Cowboys DC Dan Quinn opens up on coaching aspirations

Jori Epstein

OXNARD, Calif. — Dan Quinn has the notebook.

He calls it his CliffsNotes-version notebook, condensed from more than half a dozen spirals into one handwritten vision of how he will run an NFL team if, for the second time, he gets that chance.

Scheme changes? As his 2021 AP NFL Assistant Coach of the Year campaign showed, the Cowboys defensive coordinator has evolved since his Seattle and Atlanta stints. He’s responded to spread offenses and the quick passing game with more man coverage and disguises, calculating which players need not fit into one box (much less the box) when their versatility can instead confound opponents. 

Philosophy changes? Quinn believes he’s clarified his expectations for coaches and players alike, telling them unfailingly what his standard is without losing the relational authenticity that leaves Cowboys safety Jayron Kearse describing his coordinator as “as real as it gets when it comes to coaches in this business,” Kearse told USA TODAY Sports. “I’ve never had one like him.”

Quinn still remembers the intense disappointment when the Falcons fired him five games into the 2020 season, how overwhelmingly he felt he let so many people down. He lost his joy for a time, he says, and put himself through an honest-feedback wringer to ensure that his next chance to lead would not be “a rinse and repeat.”

So Quinn is willing to admit: He thinks about his next chance to become a head coach. He maps out plans — there’s that notebook again — for offensive, defensive and cultural principles that will guide his next stop. He doesn’t want an opportunity that doesn’t feel right — “you have your spidey senses for a reason,” he says — but embraces a chance to find the owner and general manager with whom he shares a vision.

“There will be a time when I’m definitely interested again,” Quinn told USA TODAY Sports. “It’s not something that I’m chasing, because I had done that before, and I felt like I missed some moments where I was chasing (rather than) being right where my feet are and enjoying it. So I try more often to be present for the people and where I’m at.”

And yet, should the moment arrive?

“Not only would I find the right fit but I’d also be able to hit the ground running with a fast start,” Quinn said. “That (note)book’s already away. If I ever need, I can pull it out and…know I did the work already.”

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Dallas Cowboys defensive coordinator Dan Quinn looks on during pre-game warm-ups before a game against Washington.

A ‘mastermind on defense’

Cowboys head coach Mike McCarthy hired Quinn in January 2021 to revive a floundering defense. The 2020 Cowboys allowed a franchise-worst 473 points in addition to 158.8 rushing yards per game, second worst in club history. Players had struggled to establish chemistry on and off the field. Then Quinn showed up.

Results were rapid: Dallas jumped from 28th in points allowed (29.6 per game) to seventh (21.1 per game), from 31st in run defense to 16th. Even the weaknesses team members acknowledged, like big plays allowed, were mitigated by a league-leading 34 takeaways.

“He just has exotic calls that put people in position to make a lot of plays,” said cornerback Trevon Diggs, whose 11 interceptions were the NFL’s best mark since 1981. “That’s just him being a mastermind on defense and doing that.

“It’s special to have him.”

MORE:How Cowboys CB Trevon Diggs became NFL's interception king

Quinn relished the chance to find what he described as his players’ “superpowers,” intent not only on eliminating errors but also on ensuring he and his staff discerned what each defender was excellent at and how to exploit that in game situations.

He devised a tight end-focused role for Kearse, capitalizing on the veteran’s size/speed combination to transition between safety and linebacker roles, with nickel responsibilities on third down. Quinn witnessed how Kearse’s instincts, intelligence and drive enabled him to consistently incorporate new responsibilities, so he assigned Kearse to learn all safety and linebacker concepts. Kearse played more than 88% of the team's defensive snaps.

Rookie Micah Parsons, too, became a Quinn project. The coordinator ascertained from Parsons’ productive Penn State career that he could blitz and cover, and that his speed and size would translate to an every-down role. But once Parsons demonstrated quickness as well, Quinn began testing his pass-rush potential in training camp. Suddenly, Parsons was not only dropping back in coverage and busting pockets up the middle—he was also rushing effectively from the end, a contribution that became urgent when a foot fracture and COVID-19 bout stripped Dallas of both defensive end starters in Week 2.

Parsons notched 13 sacks, forced three fumbles and collected 80 tackles (20 for loss) en route to becoming the unanimous choice for defensive rookie of the year.

Quinn, who ranks empowering others to find success among his top goals, began to realize at training camp: He was increasingly able to access joy. 

“One of my goals for ’21 was really recapturing my joy,” he said. “I think joy is a state of mind and how you are, very content and energized for how you’re living your life during that time. For me it wasn’t just like I was happy all the time, I don’t want to get that confused. (But) you’re really in a good place with where you are, able to be the best version of you.

“I was very content and enjoying the work I was doing. I thought I had purpose.”

‘Say the word and I’m gone’

Against that backdrop, head coaching interview requests came. Quinn had a Super Bowl berth under his belt during his head coach tenure, and two Super Bowl appearances (including one win) beforehand as Seattle's defensive coordinator. Now, with the Cowboys, he had earned assistant of the year recognition.

The Broncos, Bears, Dolphins, Giants and Vikings interviewed Quinn for their head coaching vacancies. The Jaguars also requested an interview, though Quinn declined.

He committed to a Dallas return before exploring all interested vacancies (the Broncos and Bears had, before he announced his decision, hired other coaches).

“I wasn’t quite ready to take the next spot,” Quinn told USA TODAY Sports. “From the defensive side, I said, ‘[Expletive], I don’t want to see anybody else coaching this defense in 2022.’…I felt like there was a lot here that I wanted to accomplish with this group, and I would’ve missed it.

“I didn’t want to miss it.”

Quinn also “really enjoyed” his year with McCarthy, he said.

Like McCarthy, Quinn dismisses the suggestion they experienced tension when speculation surfaced that Quinn might replace McCarthy in 2022. (Cowboys owner Jerry Jones admits to intentionally fueling that narrative in what he says amounted to a pitch to keep Quinn in Dallas.)

Instead, when that speculation mounted amid Quinn's interview circuit, Quinn went directly to McCarthy.

“I was like, ‘Hey man, let’s talk about it and see what you think,’” Quinn said he told McCarthy. “‘If it’s easier for me to go, just say the word and I’m gone.’”

Quinn says McCarthy paused.

“Then he kind of laughed and said, ‘You know, if this was 10 years ago, I’d say yeah, it would help for you to go. But I don’t want to say that right now.’

“'Because I think winning is better with you here.’”

Six months later, Quinn is back on the Oxnard, California, training camp fields, demonstrating defensive line get-offs with his hand in the dirt and pacing sidelines with walkie-talkie in hand during Cowboys 11-on-11 drills.

He’s relishing the chance to manifest his vision for new players while challenging returning players to reduce their mental errors and missed assignments.

“You have a better understanding” of the system in Year 2, he reminds them, “so why would I go on the same scale I used last year?”

He expects more of himself, too.

“I’d say I’m a much better coach now than I was at the start of my time in Atlanta,” Quinn said. “I think you have to go through the lessons and experience to get there.”

He’ll channel those lessons into maximizing the Cowboys defense in 2022, aware the group threatens to be special. Then: He’ll see what opportunities arise next season. If his vision aligns with a club offering, he’ll pull out his notebook.

“When you’re in a really good place, right where your feet are and having fun, you don’t have to force it,” Quinn said. “(But) over the last couple years, I’ve had the chance to really map out how I’d like it to look one day and say, ‘This is what great would like,’ and I’d like to have success for a long time over the next 20-30 years.

“So if the time comes, I’ll be ready.”

Follow USA TODAY Sports’ Jori Epstein on Twitter @JoriEpstein.