With the Cowboys making moves to the coaching staff, here's some thoughts about where things stand with the Cowboys and some of the new coaches on defense.
Dan Quinn brought in to re-establish the defensive culture.
The Cowboys' defensive failures were due to a schematic mismatch and an environment that seemingly lacked accountability and championship-level standards. Although the system fit is important, the re-establishment of the tough, hardworking and competitive culture that previously existed with Rod Marinelli and Kris Richard at the helm. Quinn is cut from a similar cloth with a detailed-oriented approach that focuses on effort and execution over complexity and trickery. He believes in creating a brotherhood within the unit that enables players to hold each other accountable for their performance and production. With Quinn urging the Cowboys to play for each other while performing up to the championship standard that he preaches and promotes every day in the meeting room and on the practice field, he should be able to get the defense to play with the requisite energy and effort to compete at an elite level.
The new scheme is a better fit for the Cowboys' star players.
Quinn has experience coaching a 4-3 or 3-4 defense but his hybrid 4-3 should be an ideal fit for the Cowboys' top defenders. Demarcus Lawrence, Jaylon Smith, Leighton Vander Esch, and Randy Gregory should benefit from the scheme change with each defender positioned in a marquee spot within the front seven. Lawrence is the Cowboys' top defender/pass rusher and he should be able to attack the pocket off the edge from a three-point stance. Gregory is the explosive athlete ideally suited to play the "LEO" role on the open side. The 6-foot-5, 255-pounder is a freak athlete with the speed, quickness, and burst to harass quarterbacks as a weak-side pass rusher. Smith and Vander Esch should re-emerge as difference makers in a system that enables them to run and chase as sideline-to-sideline defenders. The duo thrived in a similar scheme in 2018 with Marinelli and Richard putting each defender in prime positions to make plays.
The Cowboys' defensive revival hinges on the performance of their stars. Quinn's scheme should resuscitate a unit that underachieved in 2020.
The development of the young players becomes the No.1 priority.
The Cowboys' likely commitment to Dak Prescott could restrict the team's ability to acquire talent on the defensive side of the ball. That could result in the defense playing more a bunch of young defenders picked up in the draft or signed as UDFAs (undrafted* free agents). Quinn has cut his teeth as a defensive coordinator with the Seattle Seahawks in a program that prioritized the development of young players. He carried that approach with him to Atlanta where he created a "Plan D" program that featured a comprehensive developmental plan for the Falcons' young players.
As part of the plan, coaches would spend time with the younger player after practice to give them extra reps to refine their skills and prepare them for bigger roles down the road. In addition, Quinn and his coaches would devote meeting time to the younger players to help them master the nuances of the scheme.
The extra time and individual attention dedicated to the developmental process reaped rewards in Quinn's previous stops and it would certainly help the Cowboys' defense prepare a host of young defenders for key roles.
Don't underestimate the importance of the Joe Whitt, Jr. hire.
For all of Quinn's brilliance as a defensive play-caller, he needs an A-plus secondary coach on the staff to help him put a championship product on the field. Whitt is the perfect man for the job as a detailed teacher and an exceptional communicator. He will help the Cowboys' young defenders, particularly Trevon Diggs, Reggie Robinson, and Donovan Wilson, master the techniques and skills to become playmakers in a new scheme. Whitt's detailed teaching helped Charles Woodson regain his All-Pro form with the Green Bay Packers, and it was instrumental in the development of Tramon Williams, Sam Shields, and Casey Hayward as high-end defenders.
Considering his ties to Mike McCarthy and Quinn (and Al Harris), the decision to add Whitt brings more synergy to the coaching staff and gives the Cowboys a proven player developer in the secondary.
Help wanted: Free safety.
If the Cowboys are planning to succeed with Quinn's scheme, the front office needs to find a five-star free safety to make it work. The free safety position is critical in a single-high safety scheme and the player occupying the role must be a centerfielder-type with an exceptional set of skills. From instincts and awareness to numbers to numbers range to ball skills and hands, the free safety in this defense must be more than the ornament on the top of the Christmas tree. He must be able to discourage quarterbacks from attacking down the field with his range and playmaking ability. In addition, the Cowboys' prospective free safety should be a dependable tackler with the capacity to get big-bodied runners or shifty pass catchers to the ground in the open field. After ignoring the position for years, the Cowboys will need to make free safety a marquee position on the defensive priority list.