NEW ORLEANS – Donning a backwards hat, headset and eyeglasses, Cowboys defensive coordinator Dan Quinn looked perfectly at ease filling in for head coach Mike McCarthy (COVID-19 protocols) Thursday night on the Superdome visiting sideline.
Turns out, he was nervous about one thing.
"I just wanted to make sure I delivered for him and for the guys," Quinn said after the Cowboys' gritty 27-17 victory over the New Orleans Saints. "I didn't want to have to go back and say, 'Here's your car keys, man. Sorry I screwed it up."
That didn't happen. Shorthanded on the staff, but boosted by returning veterans Amari Cooper and DeMarcus Lawrence, the Cowboys (8-4) pulled away from a depleted Saints team (5-7) thanks to some timely big plays on offense -- namely Tony Pollard's 58-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter -- and four interceptions by the defense, the most since 2010 for a Cowboys team.
"So many people stepped up," quarterback Dak Prescott said. "Credit to Dan Quinn, the coordinators, all the leaders on this team of doing what was necessary to be ready for this game and through the ups and downs of this game."
Working the sideline against the Saints was actually nothing new to Quinn.
As head coach of the Falcons from 2015 through the middle of the 2020 season, he coached in the Superdome once a year for five years. It made him the logical stand-in for McCarthy, who was still able to handle team meetings virtually this week all the way up to Thursday.
Aside from the obvious game-management responsibilities, the other significant change for Quinn was moving to the sideline from the upstairs coaching booth, where he has called the defensive plays at home and away games all season.
"It was just a matter of when we got in the game, how would I communicate with (offensive coordinator) Kellen (Moore). And he did an excellent job of, 'If we get to this point we'd make it,' or, 'We're going to punt here.' And so I just tried to be clear with the communication with everybody, with special teams, with offense. And then defensively that part was natural. So I think I added an extra layer of communication. I just tried to be very clear with everybody about how it was going to go down in-game."
With COVID protocols also ruling out five non-coordinator assistants this week, Quinn and the active staff had to shuffle roles. Tight ends coach Lunda Wells worked with the offensive line in place of Joe Philbin and Jeff Blasko, who were on the COVID list. Former Gants head coach Ben McAdoo, hired as a consultant in the offseason, temporarily served as a coaching assistant in the booth. The strength and conditioning staff was in protocol the last few days, too, until assistant Cedric Smith returned Thursday.
It was a full team effort to get through a challenging week -- the tail end of a three-games-in-12-days stretch.
"I think it's really an example of leadership from Mike and to say what happens when the leader is not here," Quinn said. "Everybody had to chip it in and say, 'No job is not your job right now. By any means necessary, we've got to get this job done.'"
Prescott said he texted with McCarthy immediately after the game and relayed his message to the team.
"Obviously just saying he's proud and make sure I let the guys know that," Prescott said. "I just told him we missed him, we got it done."
The Cowboys will now enjoy a mini-bye of sorts before playing at Washington on Dec. 12. It's a perfect time for the roster, and for McCarthy and the staff, to rest up and get back to full strength.
"It was good being in the moment," Quinn said, "but I'm happy to give the keys back to Mike."